October 16, 2011
The house has many stories.
And original furnishing, stretching over a century, to go with them.
It’s no wonder the Portsmouth Historical Association is looking forward to restoring and ultimately reopening as a museum the Hill House, a four-story, early classical revival home on North Street in Olde Towne.
Loaded with massive gilt-covered mirrors, gold Romanesque busts, four-poster lace-canopied beds, gas lanterns, room-sized oriental rugs and china cupboard – the place is a museum waiting to be rediscovered.
The house, with its English basement entrance, was built by John Thompson, an entrepreneur, slave owner, brick-maker and builder shortly after he purchased the property in 1807. He didn’t live there, but a succession of flat-out fascinating people did.
For starters, there was the first occupant, John Adams Chandler, whose portrait hangs in the house’s music room. After serving in the War of 1812 and surviving an Indian attack out west, he returned to Portsmouth where he studied law, became commonwealth’s attorney and served a term in the Virginia House of Delegates.
Following Nat Turner’s rebellion, which spread fears of more slave uprisings, Chandler argued for gradual abolition. As he told the House of Delegates on Jan. 17, 1832, he believed “the people of Norfolk County would rejoice, could they, even in the vista of time, see some scheme for the gradual removal of this curse from our land.”
Chandler was a close friend of John Thompson, who adopted the orphaned child of his next-door neighbor. The child, John Thompson Hill, married Chandler’s daughter.
Have we got all this straight so far? It becomes more complicated as the families interweave.
The Hills had two sons, John T. Hill Jr. and Chandler W. Hill. They must have been quite close because when one of them lost an arm during the Civil War, his older brother gave up his place in college – his mother could afford just one tuition then – so he could get an education. Not only that, the brothers married the nearby Collins sisters and all four moved into the North Street house and occupied adjoining bedrooms.
The side-by-side bedrooms on the third floor of the house, with identical four-poster beds, attest to this brotherly closeness.
The Collins sisters were daughters of Dr. William Collins who, while attending victims of the yellow fever epidemic in 1855, contracted the disease and died. His widow came to live in the house and cared for her grandchildren.
In the china cupboard in the living room is a delicate cup and saucer that is said to have been used by Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison, when Dr. Collins and his wife took tea in Washington with the first lady.
The Hills lost much of their fortune during the Civil War and lived quite frugally for a time, selling off some of the furniture, including a square grand piano – the items eventually migrated back – to make ends meet. Meanwhile, along came the six children, five girls and a boy, of John and Elizabeth Hill. None of the six ever married, and one story explains at least part of it.
It seems the father had told the girls that when they married they would not inherit any of his remaining wealth because they’d be taken care of by husbands. The five daughters were having none of that and refused to marry, outliving their brother.
I sort of doubt that story because it was the brother, William Collins Hill, who revived the family fortune as a cotton broker and mill owner, allowing the sisters to live in the style to which they’d become accustomed. In 1918 he bought a large tract of land on the Lynnhaven River named “Old Glebe” and built a house there, naming the place Sea Breeze Farm.
And they all left Hill House for good, including much of its furnishings. In 1956, the two surviving Hill sisters, Elizabeth and Evelyn, gave the house and its contents to the Portsmouth Historical Association.
I hadn’t been in the house until recently when some of the association’s members invited me in for a tour. It’s quite impressive. You can almost see the transition from gas lamp to electric, from detached to attached kitchen, from privy to bathroom, from piano to victrola. And feel, as you descend the long stairway from fourth to first floor, the sweep of hands down the long polished banister.
The museum closed when the economy took a sharp downturn, but the association is determined to restore and reopen it. It may take a while, but in the meantime the house will be open during this year’s Olde Towne Candlelight Tour of Homes on Dec. 9-10.
Illustration: Portrait of John Adams Chandler, the first occupant of the house, who argued for the abolition of “this curse from our land” – slavery. Courtesy of Hill House.