A Tuscan Life

Von and Houston Kimbrough bring a European touch to Guilford County

By Ross Howell Jr.     Photographs by Amy Freeman

Three days of rain — and still it falls. Tufts of cloud shroud the ridge lines. Leaves glisten against black tree trunks. Two whitetail does amble across the road in front of my car, one heavy with fawn. Just ahead, water boils in a concrete spillway beneath the grassy slope of an earthen dam.

I make my turn, passing between two stone
gate guards. In the distance are woods and a
bridge, brown water overflowing the banks of the stream. Leaves and sticks clot
the swirling water.

After I cross the bridge, a meadow opens onto rolling paddocks with white board fencing. To the right is a barn, to the left an equestrian building. Two young colts — one bay, one chestnut — flick their ears and raise their tails as the car approaches. They gallop to the fence, racing alongside as the car passes, then circle back to their mothers.

The road winds up a gently sloping hill, its pastures magnificently green from all the rain. The sky is gray with mist. The rain has stopped for the moment.

I pass a cottage on the left. I notice a wheelbarrow and big clay pots. The cottage is low-shouldered and très calme, as the French say. In fact, it looks like it would be in a painting of the South of France.

But for me, as I park the car on the high knoll and step out onto a drive of pea gravel by a murmuring fountain and a flower garden overlooking rolling pastures, I’m reminded keenly of a place where I had spent quite a few years — Albemarle County, Virginia.

As I make my way along the stone path to the house, the front door opens. My hosts, Von and Houston Kimbrough, are smiling, gesturing for me to come in out of the mist. A big, happy golden doodle darts through the door. He runs up to me and nuzzles my hand.

“Reny!” the man in the door calls. With my new canine acquaintance, I make my way up the walk and step inside. I shake hands with the Kimbroughs.

The doodle sniffs my pants leg.

“Probably smells my dog,” I say.

“Reny, that’s enough!” Von says. She smiles at me. “Short for ‘Renoir.’”

“Your place reminds me so much of the countryside near Charlottesville,” I say.

“We thought the same thing when we first saw it!” they exclaim in unison.

The couple met in Bermuda during spring break of their senior year of college. Houston was a student of chemistry at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Von was studying English with a minor in art at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland.

“It was the same week Martin Luther King was assassinated,” Houston says. “Can you believe it?”

“We were married a year later,” Von says.

As we talk, I learn that Houston was in medical school at the University of Virginia when I was there as an undergrad, and Von was teaching high school English.

“Putting the doctor through med school,” she says.

Houston finished his studies and residency in Charlottesville and practiced medicine in Nashville, Tennessee, for a while. Then the Kimbroughs returned to Charlottesville. They loved the central Virginia countryside and thought they might remain.

Instead, Houston joined a urology practice in Greensboro.

Nineteen years ago, the Kimbroughs decided they wanted to move out into the country. They began looking all over Guilford County.

“We’d searched high and low,” says Von. “Then one day we drove down what was then a dirt road from Cedar Hollow Road and passed a horse barn. We saw the white fences and the horses — there were fewer back then — and it reminded us of Albemarle County.”

“The horizon that opened up to us was so lovely and slowed our heart rate a bit,” Von continues. “Houston and I decided right then that we wanted to build here.” The land had been a dairy farm owned by the Cummings family. The Kimbroughs purchased 23 acres of open fields and woodlands. More land from the old farm was available.

After they had selected their parcel, Houston and Von immediately asked friends to join them. “Several were interested, but only two couples, our best friends, actually, bought and built houses here. It was wonderful fun while it lasted, having our friends so nearby,” Von says. “Would you like a cup of coffee?”

She brings me a mug and we sit at a dining table. The living area is open and spacious. The ceilings are vaulted. There are chairs, a big sofa, and a baby grand piano. The color of the walls is warm. It feels good to be in from the rain. Facing me is a marble fireplace, flanked by large wooden doors. Behind the panes of glass in the doors is tightly woven, weathered chicken wire.

“Very French, aren’t they?” Von says. “They’re doors from an old penthouse in New York City. I saw them at a Greensboro antique store and had to have them, so I bought them and put them in storage. I designed this side of the room around them.” She pauses. “Here, let me show you something.”

She goes to a cabinet and returns carrying a manila folder. She opens it and shows me a page cut out of a magazine. “Recognize it?” she asks.

I study the page for a moment, then realize it’s the design of the home I’ve just entered.

“When I saw this house in the magazine I knew it was the one I wanted to build,” Von says. “See? We only made slight changes to the façade. It reminded me so much of the country houses we’d seen traveling in France and Italy.

“I did the exterior and interior drawings myself,” she says. “Then I took them to a builder, so he could do architectural drawings we could build from.”

The south wall of the great room overlooks the garden I walked by entering the house. It is nearly all windows. About two-thirds of the way up, just below the highest window, stretches the inscription “The skies proclaim the work of his hand.” Von tells me it’s Psalm 19:1.

“The sky is so important to Houston and me,” she says. “Houston’s faith is deep, and he loves taking pictures of sunrises and sunsets. He has so many now I tell him he just can’t take any more.” She smiles. “But it’s wonderful, with all these windows, to be able to sit here and have such a glorious view of the sky.”

Over our heads is a magnificent antique metal chandelier.

“Mary Wells found that for me,” Von says. Wells is a well-known Greensboro antiques dealer. She opened Rhyne’s Corner Cupboard with her husband in 1973, and after their divorce, she started Mary’s Corner, which closed its doors this May.

For many years, travel has been a constant with the Kimbroughs,
especially travel to the continent. Memories of those travels are evident all through the house.

Von shows me a mirror around a corner. “One of our daughters made it,” she says. “She made the frame from funeral Mass cards I’d found in a prayer missal at a market in Europe. And see? She antiqued the mirror.” Nearby are photos of the Kimbroughs, and photos with more and more children and grandchildren, in Salzburg, Austria; in Florence, Italy; in Paris.

“Von had traveled to Europe during college,” Houston says, “but I’d never been until 1989. We sort of did this Rick Steves thing. We packed light, avoided the tourist hotels, and spent as much time as we could with the locals. Then we started taking our kids, and they caught the travel bug, too. We try to do a big trip every other year.”

Houston discovered that he especially enjoys doing the research for the trips, finding out-of-the way sites to visit, reconnoitering small hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, and neighborhood restaurants.

“And I like reading about all the history,” he says. “I’m really excited about our next trip — we’re spending two weeks in Tuscany with the kids and our eight grandkids.”

Von begins to give me a tour of the house. There are paintings everywhere. Most of them are oils she painted herself. She’s an accomplished artist, producing both landscapes and portraits.

She ticks them off so quickly it’s hard to get the notes — “That’s Civita, in Italy, one of the first paintings I did. Oh, here, Roussillon. You saw it when you were in Provence, didn’t you say? Cinque Terre, Italy. Their boats! The colors are so beautiful. We started going there in the ’80s. Now the towns are overrun with tourists.” And there are English landscapes. And works by North Carolina impressionist painter Connie Winters, who, like the Kimbroughs, enjoys traveling in Provence and Tuscany. And paintings by Barbara Flowers — another impressionist — who has spent most of her life in a small village near the Rhine Valley in Germany. There are small sculpted cherubs. Delicately carved crosses. And more.

Each piece is exquisite, and there are so many I’m feeling overwhelmed, which I share with Von.

“Oh, I understand,” she laughs. “Once I had an interior designer working with me on the house, and she said, ‘Read my lips, Von. No more stuff!’”

She shows me the master bedroom — like the other rooms, with big windows filled with light, even on this cloudy day.

“Now to the studio,” she says. She leads me upstairs to a room overlooking the woods, with windows north and south. Canvases fill the room, some hanging, some propped against the walls. I’d noticed a chicken statue or figurine or two downstairs, and I comment on the big painting of a rooster tucked against a wall in the corner of the studio.

“Oh, you see chicken paintings everywhere in France,” Von says. “I like doing them. And I like boats. There are so many pretty boats in Europe.” She pauses for a moment, looking at a painting on an easel.

“And barns,” she continues. “I love barns. I’ve photographed them all over Virginia and Pennsylvania. I’ve made Houston stop so many times on the Interstate to take a picture he asked me to promise not to take any more. I guess with barns I’m the way he is with his sunsets! But nobody these days seems to want to buy a painting of a barn.”

I look out the back window. There’s a pea gravel terrace with a table and chairs, bordered by Southern wood ferns. Directly below the window is a garden fenced against deer. There are roses in the garden close to the house, then tomato plants, then vegetables. The bank falls away steeply into woods. I can see ferns here and there beneath the trees, and I catch a glimpse of a pasture just beyond the wood’s edge.

“When I’m painting, I love looking out into the trees,” Von says. We come back downstairs. Just inside the front door is the library.

“Houston’s room,” Von says. The dark wooden shelves are filled with books. Here and there are Navajo bowls, African art and items from the Caribbean.

“I did some public health work on a Navajo reservation one summer,” Houston says. “I brought some things back. Here, this bowl by Frog Woman. She’s pretty well-known. See how she signs?” He turns the bowl to show the fat spotted frog that’s the artist’s signature. I point to another item on a shelf.

“That?” he says. “I did some mission work in Haiti. And that? From Uganda.”

We chat a little more, and I thank the Kimbroughs for their hospitality. I tell them how the land, the house, their artifacts, the paintings, and photographs have brought back so many happy memories of my own travels.

Houston opens the door and walks me to my car. I turn and wave good-bye to Von. The mist has thickened. Houston points to a swimming pool I hadn’t noticed walking in. There’s a stone patio with beautiful plantings.

“The grandkids love the pool,” he says. He tells me he’s the gardener, and apologizes for the length of the grass, which has been growing like crazy with all the rain. He explains his tractor’s at the repair shop. Something broke in the steering mechanism. He tells me it’s supposed to be repaired by tomorrow.

“I have a finish mower,” Houston says. “These fields will be as smooth as a golf course.” He points to the cottage I passed driving in.

“People usually think that’s Von’s studio,” he says. “But see the doors in the back? It’s where I keep the tractor and equipment.”

He muses for a moment.

“Von thinks maybe we should give up this place,” Houston says softly. “She’s worried all the work’s become too much for me. But I enjoy being outside. I think I’m good for another few years. I’d go crazy in a townhouse, you know?”

I take a deep breath, and look around. Yes, I certainly do know. 

Ross Howell Jr. grew up on a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains and
completed his undergraduate studies in English and American Literature
at the University of Virginia. 

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