Life on the Porch


orches encourage literary imagery and nostalgia—the squeak of a screen door, the gentle sway of a swing, the comfort of old wicker, a shelter from raindrops. In To Kill a Mockingbird, the porch swing is the nighttime prop where Atticus shares his wisdom with Scout. Porches grace our Mt. Lebanon neighborhoods, and for these three families, their porches are perfect.

The McNeil family (from left), Savannah, 18, Jude, 5, mom Julie, dad Jeff with their dog Coconut, and Phoebe, 13, enjoy the evening on their front porch along Crystal Drive.

Lowcountry Elegance

Relocating to Pittsburgh from Atlanta in 2014, the McNeils first settled on Fruithurst Drive. In 2018 Julie, Jeffry and their children, Savannah, 18; Phoebe, 12; and Jude, 4, moved to a recently rebuilt house on Crystal Drive. The porch boldly faces the street. Reminiscent of South Carolina Lowcountry porches, the welcoming space is expansive and balanced. It is a porch with a presence, featuring six columns and gracefully arched French doors that provide easy flow between indoor and outdoor living. The McNeils painted the beadboard ceiling haint blue, a color created on the indigo plantations on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. According to folk tradition, the soothing tonalities keep away the haints, or restless spirits. Cushions on brown wicker chairs and couches complement the haint blue. The McNeils’ space demonstrates attention to detail with a few eye-catching ornaments, including unique large-scale wind chimes that fill the air with a mellow, deep resonance. During the holidays, the porch shines with an abundance of cheer. Lit garlands suggesting candy cane stripes encircle the columns, while lighted wreaths enhance the French doors. One neighbor describes the porch as the beacon of the street.

With three kids and Coconut, a gargantuan Alaskan Malamute, this space is action central. Phoebe appreciates the spaciousness that allows her to share time with her friend, Mia Coriolan, while physically distancing. Julie relishes this space. “When the children have gone to bed, Jeff and I enjoy adult beverages and streaming shows on the iPad.”

On their porch, this young family will build memories and nurture traditions.

Two of my favorite things are sitting on my front porch smoking a pipe of sweet hemp and playing my Hohner harmonica”

-Abe Lincoln-

A Summer Living Room

Outdoor living space was a priority when Jill Campbell went house hunting in 2008. While the house at the top of Hilf Street needed major interior attention, the residence featured two practical porches. Perched above the yard, the diminutive space off the kitchen catches the morning sun and serves as Campbell’s breakfast nook. Two sets of arched doors provide easy access from the living room onto the larger porch that faces tall mature trees across the way. The short street ends at a grassy area that defines the back of the Main Line development, affording lots of privacy. “This is my little haven and my summer living room,” Campbell says. The porch showcases vintage touches. A charming gate in the wooden railing welcomes visitors and the greenish-gray planked floor echoes porch traditions from decades past.

Comfortable 40-year-old wicker chairs grace the “living room,” and a simple floor lamp allows Jill to read into the darkening evening.

Campbell relishes entertaining, and her porch is a proper setting for gatherings. A table will accommodate four diners. For large parties, she places tables and chairs on the grass, but most of the time, the guests will just pick up their chairs, move to the porch and sit elbow-to-elbow.

Campbell forgoes awnings in favor of large, lush hanging baskets that provide privacy for both porches. Daisies and other perennials flourish by the side of the large porch. Every spring, a large, ancient, gnarly rhododendron thrives, setting out unique pale pink blooms.

I knew this porch because my cousins, George and Nancy Brown, lived in the Hilf Street house from 1957 to 1962. As a middle schooler, Nancy remembers working puzzles, playing with the Parker girls and reading, while her older brother recalls sleeping on the porch in the days before air-conditioning. The land at the end of the street was originally part of the Mt. Lebanon Cemetery. During the time when the Browns lived on Hilf, Congressman Jim Fulton resided in the Snyder-Bockstoce house, a Greek Revival structure built in 1835. The open land, casually called Fulton’s Farm, was a perfect area for Hilf Street kids to sled and ski. Across the way from the porch, three families maintained vegetable gardens. Nancy recalls that her mother, Laura, set up card tables on the kitchen porch to ripen tomatoes gleaned from the garden. When conjuring memories with cousin George he recalled a large rhododendron at the edge of the porch. I assured him it was still there.

The Hilf Street porches have welcomed generations. While the Browns remember sitting on the porch facing the open expanse of Fulton’s Farm; Campbell’s view of Main Line is buffered by trees and grass. This corner of Hilf remains a welcoming retreat.

Dana Estep (left) chats with neighbors Jayne and John Kreinbihl on Estep’s covered porch. The Estep children’s fondest memories are hanging out on the porch with their friends while in middle school and high school.

A Welcoming Place of Shelter

Dana and Cherri Estep moved into their Fruithurst Drive home in 1980. Their daughter, Brittany, was born in 1982 and son, Tim, in 1984. Spindly wrought iron railings wrapped around the porch and thin green outdoor carpet, popular in the 1970s, covered the concrete floor. Despite the dated details, the porch was the family’s favorite retreat.

In 1988, the Esteps redesigned the kitchen and added a master suite and family room. The renovation included a radical transformation of the porch. A sturdy wood railing with a functional gate surrounds the welcoming space that is enlivened by a large patterned rug and earth-toned furnishings. Lots can happen in an area that includes a chaise lounge, couch, eating table and rocking chairs. Striped awnings can be rolled up and down to provide privacy or shelter from summer showers.

Location and setting enhance the success of the Esteps’ porch culture. Tucked in the corner of Fruithurst and Old Farm Road, sheltered by trees, the porch beckons walkers, neighbors and friends to a welcoming place of shelter, tea, wine, laughter and stories. It’s easy to get there. Well-spaced brick steps lead the way. “No one comes to the front door. The porch is the place,” remarks Dana. On temperate Saturday evenings he’s known to open the french doors, turn on WYEP’s Big Town Blues or Rollin’ and Tumblin’ to enjoy the music and the pleasures of the porch.

As teenagers, Brittany, Tim and their friends relished time in this Fruithurst retreat. After graduating from high school, Tim joined AmeriCorps on the west coast. When he returned home after 10 months, his friend, Mike Delaney, recalls, “It was just assumed that the first gathering place would be the porch.”

As a middle schooler, Jessica Bleil remembers drinking peach tea and sharing secrets and laughter with “Mrs. E.” Cherri Estep’s work as an RN with Western Psych’s adolescent program gave her insight into the teenage years. Her infectious laugh and charismatic personality made her the perfect listener and confidant for her favorite porch people. After a battle with cancer, Cherri died in August of 2019. After the memorial service, family and friends gathered in the most fitting secular sanctuary—the Estep’s porch, for “CherriFest.” In reminiscing about growing up with a porch that is the heart of the home, Tim Estep captures the perfect sentiment. “Thinking about the porch stirred up memories reminding me to slow down and find my own porch wherever I may be.”

Photos by John Schisler