In an age of granite countertops, Tommy and Kemp Hill serve breakfast off heart pine wood

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The Hills' (rear right and middle) kitchen is often the scene for group meals. The couple did away with a chunky island to make room for a large dining table where friends and family could gather (and they do!). Photo: John Robinson The Hills' (rear right and middle) kitchen is often the scene for group meals. The couple did away with a chunky island to make room for a large dining table where friends and family could gather (and they do!). Photo: John Robinson

Living in a farmhouse that dates back to 1860 is not for everyone. “It can get pretty cold. Our home isn’t known for its insulation,” admitted Kemp Hill. But she, along with her husband Tommy and their four children, wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, weather permitting, there’s almost always a fire burning.

Located on an acre of land right in the heart of Charlottesville, the property’s rich history was hard to resist. “I admit it: I’m obsessed with old things,” Kemp said. “I think that I’m delusional in thinking that there’s some sort of essential truth and goodness in them because they’ve lasted. Obviously it’s not intrinsically true—a lot of bad things last!”

The center section of the home was originally built for Schuyler T. Rhodes in 1860. The Gordon family purchased the 70-acre farm in 1869, and the site became home to the Stonefield School from approximately 1915 to 1955. It was then divided up into apartments and housed mostly UVA students, until Tommy and Kemp bought it in 1989. “There was a country feel to it that didn’t involve actually having to live in the country, the best of both worlds,” said Kemp. Plus, she added, “I love participating in a greater story.”

From the beginning, the heart of the home was the kitchen, a space now marked by its warm and inviting aesthetic. Before, however, it had a “dark, antiseptic feel.” So the kitchen became one of the starting points for gradual improvement: “Everything happens in stages around here. Slow stages, I should add. We’ve moved rather gradually to get to where we are.”

Initially, Kemp’s main goal was to get rid of the clunky island located in the middle of the room in order to allow for some kind of dining table where the family of six (and possibly guests) could all sit and dine. For the Hills, mealtime is less about the consumption of food, and more about relating to one another, and oftentimes with friends from their ever-growing community. “We’ve found that when you have someone over for a meal, you’re able to go deeper, guards usually come down.”

Kemp remembers having a distinct vision that a long, narrow farm table would suit the space perfectly and was gung-ho about finding just the right one. “For months, I would try out different tables, and nothing was fitting my vision.” Her solution? Make one, which apparently is an achievable feat for this can-do couple. “It was a family affair. I can remember our oldest son Harrison was 8 at that time, and he was the only one strong enough to actually bang in the nails, but all four kids certainly tried!” The table was built out of lumber Tommy bought in Greene County. They nailed the untreated 8′-long green wooden planks directly next to each other, without spaces in between. Today the boards have shrunk so significantly, there are long gaps between each plank. “It’s kind of odd, and kind of ugly! But it’s here to stay.” After countless meals and a lot of wear and tear, the table has come to represent the kind of camaraderie and closeness this family is all about.

Other improvements to the kitchen that have since been made includes raising the beaded board ceiling and putting in two skylights to allow for more light. The décor is subtle, restrained, and charming. Everything they’ve appointed the room with has a timeless quality, and all the accessories—like a collection of M.A. Hadley pottery or a row of hanging copper pots—feel utterly appropriate. There’s nothing “showy” about this kitchen. “I wanted things that were reminiscent of real furniture. And we actually toyed with doing furniture, but couldn’t figure out how to make that functional.”

The couple hired local craftsman Fred Hean to install a heart pine wood countertop, cabinetry, and a plate rack using recovered pine. For the cabinets themselves, they chose a muted blue milkpaint, which they paired with black iron hardware fixtures from local metal-smith shop Stokes of England. An over-sized candelabra, also from Stokes of England, hangs above the 8′ banquet table and, when its beeswax candles are lit, adds the ideal amount of extra atmosphere during both the morning and nighttime hours. Also contributing to the charm of the space: the repurposed heart pine wood floors that Chris Kerr of Madison, Virginia installed, which are so weathered and worn in appearance, they could easily be mistaken for the original floors.

This kitchen has seen a lot of action during the breakfast hour over the years. “They almost always had people over Saturday morning for breakfast,” said the Hills’ youngest daughter, Virginia. “Sometimes I just wanted some orange juice or a bowl of cereal, but had to navigate a whole room of strangers.”

“Early on, we got into the habit of having people over for breakfast. It’s more casual, less pressure, and a great time for people who are coming in and out of Charlottesville to visit,” explained Kemp. (The Hills maintain a little guest cottage on their property that often has a friend—or a friend of a friend—occupying it, which is even more evidence of their intrinsic hospitality.)

More than cereal is usually on offer for breakfast; Tommy, the ultimate morning person, prefers to whip up a hot meal almost every a.m., which often includes his famous spoon bread pancakes. During the breakfast parties, picture a host of people piled around the table, sharing pancakes, coffee, eggs, oatmeal—a whole spread. And now that all the kids are grown, most days Kemp comes downstairs to a lit fire and brewed coffee. “I have to admit, sometimes it feels like being in a cozy inn,” she said.

  • Mary

    What a delightful article! Cate has captured the feel of this space and this generous family perfectly.

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