On July 3, 1863, in the blistering heat of late afternoon, General James Lawson Kemper stood high in his stirrups, urging thousands of gray-clad soldiers across the deadly open space between two contending armies, just south of Gettysburg. With thousands of Virginians and North Carolinians, Kemper and fellow officers continued their desperate thrust toward Federal lines. That assault failed, and the ensuing repulse of 13,000 Confederates marked a turning point in the American Civil War. General Kemper fell wounded from his horse and was carried from the field with what appeared to be a mortal wound. Yet he not only survived this injury--he became the last governor of Virginia’s reconstruction era, l binding up the wounds of war and enforcing the civil rights of newly freed slaves. After his departure from the Governor’s mansion, Kemper bought a farm in Orange County, and there built a large brick house overlooking the Rapidan River. Today, we know that place as “Walnut Hills.”
Since its construction in the 1870s, the house has been enlarged and remodeled at various times to create a commodious, comfortable dwelling--a Georgian Revival mansion, crowned by a “hipped” or pyramidal roof of slate, and adorned at the eaves with a classical, modillion cornice.
In front of the house is a grass oval by which the paved driveway arrives at a broad flight of front steps. Here, arriving visitors ascend to a broad bluestone terrace, wrapped in lush greenery and enclosed by wrought-iron railing with twisted balusters and brass finials.
The front of the house breaks forward in two polygonal bays of window, lighting the rooms that flank the entry. Between these bays, the classical front doorway incorporates a glazed transom and sidelights, all lighting the entry Hall behind.
This Hall is the crossroads of the house, with doorways leading off in every direction. Here too, a massive stair, dating General Kemper’s time, leads upstairs. The massive newel, the turned balusters, and the molded railing were all fashioned from walnut of the highest grade--at a time when material of such quality and of such dimension was still obtainable, possibly from the Walnut Hills property. The steps--treads, nosings, and risers—were all made of long-leaf yellow pine, entirely clear of knots and sapwood, all quarter-sawn, edge-grain material of the best quality. When Walnut Hills was new, this stair was the best piece of furniture in the house! A wooden cornice, a classical “pedestal cap” chair rail, and a high, robustly profiled baseboard gird the room, providing an added touch of elegance.
The public rooms at the left hand are positioned for receiving and friends and visitors. On the immediate left, double doors open into the Living Room. A chimney and fireplace divide the opposite wall symmetrically, providing heated and light in cooler weather. Two flanking doorways lead into a light-filled space beyond, with glass on every wall. Like a lantern, it lights up living room and, and like a greenhouse, it provides a place to enjoy tender plants throughout the year, bringing the “out-of-doors” inside.
Next door to the Living Room, a generously proportioned Dining Room is adorned with painted “Chinoserie” scenes, evoking the rococo decorative style of the mid-18th century. Opposite the Hall doorway, the fireplace is flanked by identical windows, and adorned with a mantelpiece.
A swinging door at the right hand leads to the adjoining kitchen. Today, this kitchen presents a retro appearance characteristic of the 1940s and 50s--laminate countertops with polished metal edging—and a touch of Art Deco styling in the chromed pulls. It’s a “look” that decorators and homeowners often seek to re-create—but here, the “look” is real. A Laundry room conveniently located next door. Across the hall, a half bath behind the stair provides for the convenience of family and guests.
At the front of the house, opposite the Living Room, a large Den features pine paneling, classical niches for shelving books, and a richly carved “overmantle” frame on the breast of the chimney. A generously proportioned fireplace, framed with robust classical moldings, completes the room, into which the bay window pours light throughout the day. Beyond this Den is a small Guest Bedroom, with its own fireplace--and its own bath--where the pedestal sink provides and authentic touch of tradition. Opening from the bedroom is a small porch—a shady nook in which to read, enjoy the outdoors--or a spot from which to depart, unseen, for excursions around the property.
Together, these rooms—den/bedroom/porch/bath--make a comfortable, utterly private guest suite, while the den doubles as an informal family room when there is no company.
Beside this suite, in the side hallway, a back stair provides private access to the upper floor. Here, four large bedrooms. Each of the front bedrooms has its own, associated bath and its own walk-in closet accessible from the hallway.
The two bedrooms in the rear share a bath at the head of the stair. However a large room at the rear corner of the house could become a very large and luxurious bath for the SW bedroom, allowing each room its own facilities.
Several of the upstairs rooms retain the broad pine flooring, all of the highest quality material, all blind-nailed to preserve the surpassing beauty of each board.
Each of the bedrooms has its own fireplace, each with classical enrichments—in the NE room the fireplace surround is further enriched with mirrored glass inserts, in the traditional Venetian style.