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Front porches and walkable streets combine to replicate a social pattern that was nearly lost in modernization.

Pushing the porch back to the forefront

By JACK WEATHERLY

Big front porches – with room for friends and family to sit, rock and visit for a while – are back in style.

In the days before air-conditioning, such porches were especially prized in the South during the long hot summers, allowing people passing by on foot to say hello and possibly be invited up for lemonade or iced tea.

But air-conditioning arrived in the 1950s on a large scale and, of course, it is ubiquitous in the South and much of the country.

Spacious front porches simply were seen as no longer necessary. Socializing migrated to the back, with big decks, fire pits and grilling capacity.

But a reduction of communal contact was the tradeoff.

Now front porches are a selling point for (air-conditioned) upscale retro houses in “walkable” neighborhoods such as Plein Air in Taylor, a few miles outside Oxford.

Plein Air, which means fresh air in French, also refers to landscape painting dating to the Impressionists. The name in this case reflects the fact that artists started moving to the little town in the 1970s and that the development has embraced that movement.

In 2007, Campbell McCool established Plein Air, which now has 70 residences, with a goal of 200, he said in an interview. The nationwide housing collapse that started in 2008 stalled the project for a while.

The seventh and latest phase calls for 19 free-standing homes. McCool said that ready-to-build residential lots start at $78,000 and houses range from 800 square feet to 4,000 square feet and from $250,000 to $450,000.

McCool is reaching out with ads in New Orleans, Memphis and Jackson, including full-page, color ads in The Clarion-Ledger.

Asked if competition in Oxford was prompting the outreach, he said it was not.

Last June, McCool was quoted in The Oxford Eagle as saying: “You look at the development going on in Oxford and none of them have front porches. I don’t get it. I would never live in a house without a front porch.”

That was before The Lamar, a 48-acre neo-Southern project in Oxford with, yes, front porches and other retro calling cards, was announced last October.

McCool says his aggressive ad campaign has nothing to do with The Lamar. He doesn’t view it as competition, adding that the developers of The Lamar are “wonderful people.”

And he said that the annual Front Porch Conference at Plein Air, organized by McCool, which will be held this year from Sept. 26-27, has nothing to do with marketing.

When it was suggested by a reporter that nothing negative would be said at the conference about front-porch culture and that it could boost sales, McCool said that he is “confident that we have never sold a house due to this conference.”

The Plein Air commercial district is expected to occupy seven acres, about the size of the Oxford square, McCool said. Already, that district includes a chapel, which held 34 weddings last year, a 12,000-square-foot events venue called The Mill, Grit restaurant, Lost Dog coffee shop, Oxford Psychological, and three artist’s studios.

On the drawing board is a boutique grocery, a small office building and a “wellness center” for fitness. Ultimately, the district could encompass 60 to 65 buildings, and “I hope to live to see it,” McCool, who is 55, said with a chuckle.

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About Jack Weatherly