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Earl Austin has spent much of his 20-year retirement on the green. Not the putting green, mind you. The sitting green.
On a sunny day in July, Austin, an 85-year-old retired photographer, sits on the front porch of his two-story detached home in the Lamond Riggs neighborhood of Northeast D.C. and reads the paper. His feet, clad in corduroy slippers, rest on a thin layer of green synthetic carpet that mimics a lawn. It looks like a slice of AstroTurf that escaped from a dome. It covers every inch of the front porch.
Austin says he bought the house on Sheridan Street NE in 1958 for about $25,000. At the time, he recalls, there was only one other black family on the block. D.C.’s famous postwar white flight soon moved many of Austin’s neighbors to the suburbs, and black families became the norm in Lamond Riggs.
The demographic upheaval on Sheridan Street was followed by an aesthetic one: In the mid-’70s, the turf hit.
“Back then, everyone had canvas awnings and concrete porches,” recalls Austin. “Then people started putting up colorful plastic awnings and putting down carpet. It was seen as modernization.”
With the help of his friend, Austin upgraded: He added the green turf.
“It looked so good, my neighbors saw it and had to do the same thing,” recalls Austin.
And so turf spread. From porch to porch, the turf leapt through the black middle-class enclaves of the District, as one family after another caught the fever. Why not?
For next-to-nothing-a-square-yard, they could boldly go where no American homeowners had gone before. Not their parents, not their grandparentshell, not even the Rockefellers or the Vanderbilts had extended well-manicured lawns to their porches.
Decades later, Austin is still enjoying the same awning and turf. What was once modern now looks antique. “I guess it’s a matter of preference,” says Austin. “I happen to like the carpet. It makes for a pleasant place to sit and read the paper.”
In neighborhoods throughout the District, porch turf survives under the watch of people like Austin. Some of the turf, decades old, is fraying, particularly at the steps. But, for the most part, the outdoor carpeting looks vibrant. It’s the people on the inside who look a little tattered.
“What are you saying?” says a wizened fellow on Ingraham Street NE when I ask him about the green carpeting on his front stoop. “It’s just a porch. Excuse me. We’re getting ready to go to the doctor’s.”
Down the block, a woman says she can’t come outside to talk because she isn’t properly dressed. “I’m in my bed gown,” she hollers through the mail slot. “I’m not feeling well.”
I ring the door bell at a home nearby, lured in by the red furniture and matching red turf. The rouge decor has seen better days. A man in a T-shirt advertising his church opens the door a crack. “What do you want?” he asks.
“My wife chose it before she passed away,” he mumbles. “Red was her favorite color.” He closes the door, leaving me standing on the frayed red porch.
Over the ages, housing fads have come and gone in the District. But for several decades now, porch turf has refused to relax its death grip on the stoops of our city. Thanks to its über-strength adhesive, the turf has remained on the scene long after less tenacious trendssay, outdoorsy wallpaperhave faded into history or disappeared into back issues of Architectural Digest.
But its ubiquity in certain D.C. neighborhoods belies its vulnerability. In the District, porch turf has evolved a symbiotic relationship with the elderly. It’s where former D.C. government workers go to retire.
How long until porch turf itself goes from underfoot to 6 feet under?
About five years ago, David Stivaletta, a 42-year-old accountant, moved to D.C. from Baltimore and purchased a row house on the 1400 block of Q Street NW, in the Greater Fourteenth Street and Logan Circle Historic District. When he bought the house, the front stoop featured a red-and-white-striped awningand a patch of green porch turf. The turf covered not only the stoop and the front steps, but also the path all the way to the front gate.
“It was hideous,” says Stivaletta.
Stivaletta spent the next year refurbishing his new home. As part of the makeover, he pulled up every inch of the porch turf.
“I had to replace the entire sidewalk,” recalls Stivaletta. “Underneath the carpet there was a layer of black tar. Underneath the tar, my sidewalk was cracked. So I busted it up and put a new one down.”
A new walkway, yes. A new patch of porch turf, no.
Stivaletta says that the thought of preserving the porch turf never crossed his mind. “I guess it would have been OK,” says Stivaletta, “if I had wanted to play putt-putt on it.” Stivaletta can’t say exactly why he finds porch turf unseemly. Ugly is ugly. Taste is difficult to explain.
In many neighborhoods in the District, anachronistic housing features are protected by law. Homeowners who dare to replace, say, old wooden window frames with more energy-efficient vinyl ones must do so under the cover of night. If they’re caught, they’re slapped with stop-work orders and admonishments from historic-preservation authorities. In the District, we treat Victorian decor like family heirlooms. Porch turf lacks such protection.
Porch turf’s poor standing in city regulations leaves its fate up to the prevailing culture, which arbitrates between the hip and the hideous. Most people follow trends; they don’t set them. And so far, a porch-turf renaissance has failed to materialize in the District.
If porch turf is to survive, then it must woo the finicky hearts of the newcomers who are pushing east into the hinterlands and snapping up housespeople like Stivaletta. For decades, porch turf has teamed up with awnings to welcome strangers with a carefully orchestrated one-two punch. But in order to stick around for another decade, porch turf needs to form new alliances. Learning to harmonize with, say, teak-and-steel lawn furniture couldn’t hurt.
To date, the czars of chic haven’t done much for porch turf. Retro styles dominate in basketball shoes and sunglasses. And even, occasionally, in housing decor. Ottoman revivals happen. But porch turf on the “in” list?
Restoration Hardware doesn’t offer boutique porch turf. Nobody does. Even the cheap stuffat $13 per square yardis getting harder to find in the District. Typically, it hides out in the back of flooring showrooms under the dowdy moniker “indoor-outdoor carpeting.”
“It’s not a major seller now,” says a man, who asks to be identified only as Afra, who works at the D.C. Carpet Outlet on 11th Street NW. “Once in a while, somebody buys it for their porches as a replacement. Sometimes churches buy it for the steps. It’s always small orders, never big.”
All across town, carpet dealers say the same thing. They still carry some of the porch turf. But only the old-timers are buying it. There are not a lot of new customers.
“I think what we’re seeing now is a vestigial presence,” says Michael Dolan, author of The American Porch: An Informal History of an Informal Place. “I’m not anticipating any really big surge in that particular use of that particular product. But who knows? J.Lo and Ben could take it up and it could be huge.”
Dolan compares porch turf to other housing trends that critics have long since cast aside into the cultural spittoon of bad taste. Permastone. Vinyl siding. Plastic furniture coverings. Nevertheless, he can appreciate the creative impulse behind these flash-in-the-pan fads. “It’s almost a form of folk artistry,” says Dolan. “People find a product that might not have been originally intended for that use and say, ‘Wow, wouldn’t that look great if we had it on the porch?’ It’s the customizing instinct of Homo sapiens.”
Dolan eschewed any discussion of porch turf in his book. But he says the slight was unintentional.
“I didn’t purposely exclude it,” says Dolan. “There’s all sorts of weird porchy sidebars you can get into. I was trying to write about a larger stream of history. It wasn’t enough on my radar screen at the time.”
The distribution of porch turf in the District would puzzle even the most attentive naturalist. Population density of the stuff varies according to no known climatological theorem. That said, porch turf inhabits distinct niches typified by clumping or aggregation along several well-corroborated corridors of the city known informally as the Turfbelt.
Sightseers who are interested in examining the District’s finest porch-turf specimens will have to venture beyond the well-trodden landmarks of the National Mall and should consider renting a car. Porch turf thrives in residential areas, which are often difficult to access by public transportation.
The tour de turf starts on the eastern fringes of Rock Creek Park, where several neighborhoods form an ecological mixing zone for porch turf. In the past, isolated specimens have been reported in neighborhoods such as Mount Pleasant, Adams Morgan, Logan Circle, and Columbia Heights. This is mostly old-growth turf. Few new specimens germinate in this area.
Farther east, you hit Georgia Avenue, which once served as fertile ground for porch turf’s ancestors. Although porch turf tends to avoid high-traffic areas, it has survived at several locations along Georgia Avenue, including a nice stretch in front of Sylvia’s Hair Designs.
Continue north on Georgia and veer right onto New Hampshire Avenue. Soon you will arrive at the holy trinity of nonresidential porch turf in the District: the First Baptist Church, the First Baptist Church’s Senior Citizen Center, and Latney’s Funeral Home. All three venues host lively displays of green. This is the perfect spot to ponder the mysterious tendency of porch turf to crop up in areas associated with human mortality.
Head east on New Hampshire Avenue and you enter the cradle of porch-turf civilization. Turn into the surrounding neighborhoods of Parkview or Petworth and marvel at the rich flora. Here are the porch-turf prairies, flat as Nebraska, green as Missouri.
Once you’ve had your fill, continue driving north on New Hampshire, hang a right on Riggs Road, and then take another right on South Dakota Avenue. No tour of the District’s porch-turf communities is complete without a visit to Michigan Park and Woodridge, peaceful neighborhoods sandwiched between South Dakota Avenue and the Maryland border.
And there your tour ends.
Note that your itinerary leaves out vast swaths of the city, including every neighborhood west of Rock Creek Park. Despite the availability of suitable territory in neighborhoods such as Georgetown, Glover Park, and Cleveland Park, porch turf has yet to colonize these areas. Some attribute this phenomenon to the presence of Rock Creek Park, which historically has served as a biogeographic barrier between western regions of Washington and the rest of the city. To date, the deciduous forest biome of Rock Creek Park has proved impenetrable to porch turf, which relies upon a human host for cross-fertilization.
Porch turf has always lived in the shadowsof awnings, yes, but of something else, too. AstroTurf. Nothing over the past few decades has overshadowed porch turf as much as that major-league showboat.
At first glance, people tend to mistake porch turf for AstroTurf; they call porch turf by its brother’s name. The chief difference between the two is in the thickness of the material. Porch turf is thick enough to add a little give to the porch. AstroTurf is thick enough to cushion the fall of world-class athletes.
Still, people mistake the two all the time. It’s understandablethey come from the same family. Both were born from the desire in post-World War II America to create a brave new domestic world using synthetic fibers. Vinyl. Acrylic. Polyester.
“In 1950, only ten percent of all carpet and rug products were tufted, and ninety percent were woven,” reads the Web site for the Carpet and Rug Institute. “However, about 1950, it was if someone had opened a magic trunk. Out of that trunk came man-made fibers, new spinning techniques, new dye equipment, printing processes, tufting equipment, and backing for different end uses.”
Porch turf and AstroTurf sprang out of that same magic trunk. But AstroTurf went on to play on national television. Porch turf was lucky to get in the dugout.
In 1994, Sports Illustrated ranked the 40 people who had “most significantly altered or elevated the world of sports in the last four decades.” Dr. Harold Gores found his way into the top 20. His little-known claim to fame? Gores was the first person who sized up the new breed of synthetic carpets coming out of the factories of the south and sensed the potential for sports.
In the early ’60s, Gores headed a philanthropic think tank in New York called the Educational Facilities Laboratories. At the time, the Ford Foundation had challenged Gores to figure out how to alleviate the general lethargy of the country’s urban youth. Studies had suggested that kids growing up in the city were less physically fit than their counterparts in the suburbs.
Gores had an idea. If only there weren’t so much asphalt in the city, kids might exercise more. Gores envisioned the perfect playing surface: a grass-like carpet that could be rolled out on rooftops, in schoolyards, and on barren lots.
But despite Gores’ efforts, synthetic turf never sprouted in many of the country’s urban playgrounds. Turf is fine for such suburban staples such as putt-putt, but it’s lousy for basketball and double Dutch.
Then, in the mid-’60s, turf had an unexpected breakthrough. Judge Roy Hofheinz financed the construction of the Houston Astrodome, the world’s first indoor baseball stadium. Originally, the Astrodome had natural grass under a glass dome. But the glare from the stadium’s glass blinded the players. So engineers added some tint. As a result, the grass died.
Hofheinz needed a substitute. Eventually, he looked up Monsanto, which produced a synthetic carpet called Chemgrass. Under Hofheinz’s green thumb, Chemgrass became AstroTurf, and an American star was christened.
Even before the nickname catapulted into the lexicon, the faux-grass carpet had achieved an important distinction from all the other wannabes emerging from the smokestacks of places like Dalton, Ga., the “Carpet Capital of the World.” AstroTurf had a patent.
“I got a lot of publicity out of it,” recalls Roy Massengill, the retired lawyer who patented AstroTurf for Monsanto in 1967. “I was in the sports page just about every other day. For a young patent attorney, it was pretty exciting.”
In 1963, Massengill graduated from George Washington University’s law school and took a job with Monsanto. Massengill recalls that, shortly thereafter, he was wandering through one of the company’s laboratories in Decatur, Ala., when something caught his eye.
A patch of green, grass-like nylon sat on the desk of a company engineer. Massengill, hungry to prove himself, sidled up to the engineer and asked if the company had filed a patent application. The answer was no. “He didn’t think they had created anything that was patentable,” recalls Massengill. “He was like, ‘Geez, this is just another carpet.’”
Massengill thought otherwise. In December 1965, he filed a patent application, noting that “attempts to make artificial grasses have been made during the past several years. In most instances, the inventive concepts have been concerned primarily with providing a decorative artificial grass….” With that, Massengill hammered the wedge in between AstroTurf and the decorative turfs. He helped AstroTurf leave porch turf behind. In 1967, the U.S. Patent Office rewarded Massengill’s efforts with Patent No. 3332828.
It was Massengill’s first successful patentand the only one to receive any fame in his extensive career. “If I hadn’t been duly out of law school, it might never have happened,” says Massengill. “Luckily, I was feeling pretty gung-ho.”
These days, Massengill keeps a law office in Alexandria, Va., but spends much of his time on the golf courses in Williamsburg, Va. Massengill left Monsanto shortly after receiving the patent for AstroTurf and took a job with Allied Chemical. When he left, he took with him a few stray patches of AstroTurf as souvenirs. For years, he left them lying on his porch. “I used them as doormats,” says Massengill. “But then I moved a couple of times and left them behind. I wish I had them now.”
Massengill wasn’t the only person who rose to fame and fortune on AstroTurf, that magic carpet. Nor was he the only person to walk away from his corner of AstroTurf history with a few swaths of the turf in tow. Jerry Zeoli did the same thingonly he held onto his souvenirs.
The first extensive installation of synthetic turf (then called Chemgrass) took place before the Astrodome, in 1964, at the Moses Brown School in Providence, R.I., in the private school’s new field house. At the time, Zeoli was the school’s football coach and athletic director. “We were the only school or college in the area that had a facility like that,” recalls Zeoli. “I was surprised when I heard about the fake grass. I wasn’t sure about it. But I was happy to give it a try.”
Over the next few years, Monsanto used the field house as a showcase of sorts, trotting in potential clients to check out the turf in action. The students used the turf for all kinds of sports, including football and tennis. “It was harder back then,” recalls Zeoli.
Despite the occasional rug burn, Zeoli grew enamored of the turf, which lasted for almost 30 years. Then, in the early ’90s, the school decided to tear out the turf, much to Zeoli’s chagrin. “It made me sick,” says Zeoli. “The whole idea was wrong in my opinion. So I fought for [the turf].”
The anti-turf contingent triumphed. Synthetic carpets are miserable to play sports on. But they are perfect for something elsesitting.
Zeoli retired. On the way out, he grabbed some extra pieces of turf from the field house. He then fashioned several lamps for his family. The tops were made of football helmets. The bases were layered with AstroTurf.
Afterward, Zeoli had some turf left over. He did the logical thing: He put it on his porchjust like Massengill and thousands of District residents. “I got a rectangular piece that’s like 6 feet by 8 feet on my deck when you come into my house,” says Zeoli. “Like a doormat.”
Americans are obsessed with their lawns. People throughout the country lust for that uniform, closely shaved grass that looks like a carpetthey’ll go to mad lengths to have it. Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire, has argued that the lawn, like the interstate highway system, helps to unify the American landscape.
In the District, a place where space is limited and lot sizes won’t accommodate full-scale lawns, porch turf serves a similar purpose. It’s part of the seam that stitches houses into neighborhoods, neighborhoods into communities.
It’s the sunny side of conformity.
On a bright summer day in late July, Philip Matthews looks down at the synthetic carpet that covers the front porch of his home near the Fort Totten Metro stop. He gives it a long, hard stare. The turf is clover-green and lacquered, with no divots.
“I’ll tell you when it got popular,” says Matthews. “It got popular when I got sick of painting my front porch.”
Every year or so for about a decade, Matthews used to gather up the brushes, the tarps, and the canisters, and stoop over and slather the porch in paint. Not green, mind you. Always gray. Just as the neighbors didthat is, those who didn’t have turf. That was 20 years ago.
Matthews’ house stands near the crest of a gently sloping hill that glides down to Fort Totten Park. It’s a middle-class neighborhood. And ever since white flight, the neighborhood has been predominantly African-American.
Matthews bought his house back in the mid-’70s, around the time when porch turf was first taking root. Where it came from and who brought it, Matthews wasn’t sure. But by the late ’70s, the turf had become firmly entrenched in the neighborhood aesthetic.
There were three styles of porches back then, the same ones that exist today: You could leave the concrete bare. You could paint the concrete gray or a subtle blue. Or you could put down the outdoor carpeting, the turf.
For years, Matthews stuck with the paint. But there were problems. It didn’t take to the concrete. It flaked and peeled and curled and came off under your feet. He had to be vigilant or his home’s front entrance would start to look shabby, instead of welcoming; neglected, instead of loved.
And so he converted: Matthews turned to the green side.
Matthews says that once you go turf, you never go back. “You can pull it up, easy,” says Matthews. “But underneath, you have a lot of adhesive and tufts of carpet. You’re not going to get that up without a lot of sanding.”
In two decades, Matthews has replaced the turf twice. To date, he remains loyal to green. He’s seen the other colored turf, such as the “smoke blue” that’s cropping up here and there throughout the Turfbelt. But Matthews likes the basics. “Green is the most simple,” says Matthews. “It matches the color of the grass. And it’s what most people in this neighborhood have on their porches. I don’t want to stick out too much. Most people around here want to fit in.”
Matthews glances over at his neighbor’s front porch and gestures at the steps, where the turf is starting to fray and peel and tear. That’s typical, says Matthews. The steps will tell you when the turf is ready to be changed. “In this neighborhood,” says Matthews, “that’s the common problem which unites us.”
But for how long?
A few years ago, Bryan Young, a computer operator in his late 20s, bought a house down the block from Matthews. Young’s house hosts a patch of bright blue porch turf. “I can’t take much credit for any of this,” says Young. “It came from the previous owner.”
Young says he doesn’t spend much time lollygagging on the turf. “I’m an inside-porch guy,” says Young. “Honestly, this porch and this awning and this carpet doesn’t mean a hill of beans to me. I bought this house because of the neighborhood.”
It’s quite, peaceful, and safe. The perfect neighborhood to raise children. Young says that, so far, it’s one of the few neighborhoods in the District where he hasn’t seen white people moving back in. But Young knows that, for better or worse, the change is coming. “I don’t mean to joke about it at all,” says Young. “But this is like a retirement community. All these people that live here are going to pass away.”
Census data confirm Young’s impression. In 2000, the median age within the District was 34.8, vs. 46.2 in the census tract that includes Young’s house, proving that in D.C., it’s the gray who go for the green. Likewise, in Austin’s section of Lamond Riggs, the median age clocks in at 47.5.
Another demographic upheaval is lurking on the horizon ahead. An aesthetic upheaval can’t be too far behind.
But for the time being, Young will do his part to keep the neighborhood looking the same. He will maintain the porch turf. So far, he’s made a few repairs, adding strips of black masking tape along the edges of the stairs. Someday soon, he says, he’ll replace it with another layer.
“Personally, I could take it or leave it,” says Young. “But I don’t want to rock the boat. I don’t want to mess up the landscape of the neighborhood.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.