Imagine a family went for an afternoon stroll and never returned home…

This is what it feels like in The Hill House Museum, a historic home in Portsmouth, Virginia furnished entirely with family belongings from the 19th and 20th centuries, collected through generations, and left in their original places.

Part of Portsmouth history

The Hill House was built circa 1825 by John Thompson (1768-1847), an entrepreneur, slave owner, builder, and brick-making business proprietor. Captain of the 7th Virginia Regiment during the war of 1812, he also served a number of terms in the Virginia House of Delegates. He and his wife Elizabeth Cutler were childless but adopted her orphaned infant nephew, John Thompson Hill. Captain Thompson bequeathed the house to his adopted son, and so began the long line of Hills to reside there. John Thompson Hill literally married the girl next door, Mary Elizabeth Chandler, in 1838. A newspaper editor, poet, and author, John died at just 29 years of age, leaving his widow with two young sons, John Thompson Hill, Jr. and Chandler Woodward Hill. The brothers eventually assumed ownership of the house and married two sisters, Elizabeth Bembury Collins and Frances Gregory Collins, the daughters of Frances Gregory Collins and Dr. William Collins. Dr. Collins was a noted physician, member of the Virginia House of Delegates, first auditor of the treasury during the Tyler and Polk presidential administrations, and first president of the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad. Dr. Collins died of yellow fever while treating patients during the plague of 1855, an epidemic that killed 3,200 of Portsmouth’s 10,000 residents.

Love and war

Both Hill sons fought for the South in the Civil War. John Thompson Hill, Jr. enlisted in the Confederate States Army in 1861, fought in the battles of Drewry’s Bluff, Malvern Hill, Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor, and was injured in the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, Virginia. He was later captured, and on June 4, 1865, took an oath of allegiance to the Union and was released. He and his wife Elizabeth had five daughters and one son, none of whom ever married. After the war, he served as treasurer of the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad, became president of a marine shipping company, and operated a successful cotton business.

Chandler Woodward Hill also enlisted in the Confederate States Army and fought in most of the same battles as his brother; a severe wound at the Battle of the Crater led to the amputation of his left arm at the elbow. After the surrender he was paroled at Appomattox and allowed to return home. Family lore holds that after the war his widowed mother could only afford to send one of her two sons to college and that Chandler, because he was an amputee, was chosen; he studied law at the University of Virginia. He later presided as a judge and founded the Portsmouth police department. He and his wife Frances had five sons and one daughter.  

Full house

Both brothers and their wives, the twelve children between them, and Dr. Collins’s widow Frances Gregory Collins all lived together for a period of time in Hill House (the home features two virtually identical master bedrooms—one for each Hill couple!). After a time, Chandler sold his interest in the house to his brother and moved his family to Norfolk, leaving John, Elizabeth, and their six children to reside there.

John Thompson Hill died in 1903, after being confined to his home by paralysis and illness for the better part of a decade. His children continued to live in Hill House, though his son William Collins Hill (1868-1934) went to work at age 15 with the Norfolk cotton firm Eure, Farrar & Price. He was employed there until the start of the Spanish-American war, in which he served as a First Lieutenant in Company “A”, Fourth Virginia Volunteer Infantry in the United States and Cuba. He was discharged from military service in 1899 and returned to the cotton business, eventually supporting all five of his sisters as an executive in a variety of cotton concerns in Virginia and North Carolina.

In 1918, William purchased Sea Breeze Farm in Virginia Beach, which became the family’s second home. Sea Breeze was the place he and his sisters kept their beloved dogs and exercised their passion for horticulture, planting trees and a variety of plants from all over the world. The siblings attended Trinity Episcopal Church in Portsmouth and were also a fun-loving bunch, enjoying frequent entertaining and the hosting of period costume parties. William died of a heart attack in 1934, but his sisters continued to live at Sea Breeze until their respective deaths decades later.

Sister act

His oldest sister, Mary Chandler Hill (1869-1947), had been an honor student in school but struggled with her health all her life, to the degree that she was unable to enjoy outdoor activities with the same gusto as her siblings. She eventually died at home after a long illness. The next-oldest, Elizabeth Gregory Hill (1871-1957), taught elocution at girls and boys schools in Norfolk, founded the Princess Anne Garden Club, and was Horticulture Editor for the New York Herald Tribune. Her sister Evelyn Collins Hill (1877-1965) was elected into membership with the Royal Horticultural Society of London and received many awards, including gold and silver medals at every International Flower Show sponsored by the New York Horticultural Society between 1936 and 1960, and an etched Steuben glass urn presented in 1944 for her service to the organization.

Both Elizabeth and Evelyn and their sister Blanche Baker Hill (1879-1949) received secretarial training and worked for the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad and Western Union, Elizabeth as a chief clerk. (In her 14 years there, Elizabeth reported having missed only two days of work.) Little is known about their sister Frances Calvert Hill (1873-1958).

A great gift to the community 

In 1956, the three surviving Hill sisters—Elizabeth, then 79; Evelyn, then 85; and Frances, then age 83—made a gift of Hill House and its contents to the Portsmouth Historical Association. 

They took care to ensure that their bestowal included every piece of furniture, china, crystal, pottery, carpet, and all the window dressings, paintings, ceramics, and household goods that had been collected over a period of 190 years by their extended family—the people who had lived in the house since its construction.

Preserving for the next generation

The Portsmouth Historical Association is currently undertaking several phases of preservative renovation at Hill House, and seeks donors to underwrite the restoration of its furniture, interior painting, art, documents, and other artifacts. The Association welcomes new members as well as volunteers to lead tours, organize events, and lend other help to ensure our community can enjoy the historic treasure of Hill House for generations to come.