Sunday in the South: The Hill House Edition

Hill_House_front3 On my way to church this morning, I passed a familiar site: a Spanish Colonial mansion perched atop a hill along South Duke Street in Durham, North Carolina. The white-stuccoed beauty is referred to locally as Hill House. Mistakenly, I thought it was so named because it sits on a hill. Actually, the house is named after its original owner, John Sprunt Hill.

On my way home, I stopped at Hill House to get a closer look. Despite a hospitable sign on the side door that read “Come on in!” the mansion, (which is a venue for meetings and events), was not really open to visitors at that Sunday hour, so my exploration was purely external.

Hill House was built in 1912 by Boston architects, Kendall & Taylor. The two had just completed work on the nearby Watts Hospital, an effort that was funded by ‘tobacco tycoon’ George Watts, Hill’s father-in-law. Hill House was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1978.


Baroque accents adorn the Hill House, a Spanish revival style mansion in Durham, NC.


The side view of historic Hill House is as attractive (if not more so) than the front. (Durham, NC)

Owner John Sprunt Hill attended the University of North Carolina (UNC). He was a teacher in the state before going on to attend law school, first at UNC then transferring to New York City’s Columbia Law School. Hill lived in New York for several years, during which time he served in the U.S. Army (Spanish-American War), opened a law practice, and married Watt’s daughter, Annie Louise. After the birth of their first child, Hill and his wife returned to Durham in 1903, where Hill and his father-in law, Watts, forged a powerful business partnership (mostly banking, insurance, and real estate) that generally withstood the Great Depression.

As a lawyer, banker and philanthropist, Hill’s contributions to Durham, Chapel Hill, and North Carolina at large are significant and many. He helped to establish farmer-based state credit unions and served on the state highway commission. He contributed to the City of Durham’s purchase of Durham Athletic Park, which was home to the Durham Bulls from 1926 to 1994. Additionally, Hill donated generously to UNC’s campus expansion and contributed funds to the North Carolina Collection of the Wilson Library at UNC. Hill also built the Carolina Inn in 1924, later donating the property to UNC in 1935. He was a state Senator from 1933-1938.

Hill died in 1961, at which time Hill House became part of the Annie Watts Hill Foundation, which was established in memory of Hill’s wife who died in 1940. The Foundation exists to support female civic organizations, and Hill House serves as a meeting place to cultivate female volunteerism and leadership in the community.

Today, the weather was perfect for a stroll around the property. Despite being in downtown Durham, with commercial buildings in plain view, there was a quiet peacefulness–and a sense of timelessness– about the place. Despite its representation of wealth and prestige and worldly accomplishment, I caught a few simple, natural pleasures through the lens of my camera.


A mockingbird perches on the roof of Hill House. (Durham, NC)


Along the red-tiled roofline of Hill House, a song sparrow sits on a grassy rain gutter. (Durham, NC)


No elaborate gardens surround Hill House today, but I did spot a stray angel’s trumpet thriving at the rear of the historic mansion. (Durham, NC)


A sun-dappled pergola rests on a knoll at Hill House. Can you spot the squirrel? (Durham, NC)

Adjacent to Hill House is Orchard Park, a City of Durham public recreation spot. The grounds of Orchard Park once sustained life at Hill House. Among other things, it’s where the horses were stabled, and where fruit and vegetables were grown.


The grounds known today as Orchard Park played a key role in day-to-day life at Hill House during its heyday. Today, Orchard Park is a community garden and playground.


In Orchard Park today, remnants of Hill House’s greenhouse remain, with park benches added for reflection and relaxation. (Durham, NC)


The foundation of the greenhouse, once used to grow the flowers and plants for Hill House, still remains in Orchard Park and serves as a labyrinth. (Durham, NC)

As I was driving away, I found myself humming a tune by Shenandoah that I hadn’t thought of in years.

Just another Sunday in the south.

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