If your taste in houses and furnishings runs toward early Federal period American, do yourself a favor and visit Ayr Mount, a wonderful house in Hillsborough now open to the public for guided tours. Even if this period is not your favorite, you are bound to find something to inspire you in its elegant proportions and beautiful craftsmanship, as well as the uncluttered simplicity of its décor. And if there's truly nothing for you in such a place, stroll through the grounds on a pleasant path leading down to the Eno River, and let your imagination roam even further back in history.
I've been in quite a few period houses, but none has pleased me so much as Ayr Mount, which is graced with a simple, almost austere beauty unburdened by grandeur. It feels like a home, rather than a showplace. This may be because descendants of the builder, William Kirkland, lived here for generations, until 1971. The house is now owned by preservationist Richard Jenrette's Classical American Homes Preservation Trust and operated by Preservation/North Carolina. Jenrette bought Ayr Mount in 1985 from the nephew of the widow of the last direct Kirkland descendant.
The structure had not been altered in any serious way since its building in 1814-1816, and since it had stayed in the family, many of its original furnishings had remained in the house. Jenrette restored the place with the meticulous care for which he is widely known in preservation circles. He managed to find more of the original furnishings that had left the house over time and return them to the rooms where William and Margaret Kirkland had placed them. Jenrette then augmented the furnishings from his collection of Duncan Phyfe pieces made between 1810-1815. The restoration is so complete that--even more than is the case in any house museum--you feel you have stepped out of time. Another effect of such good furniture so harmoniously arranged in such handsome rooms is to make one realize both the shortcomings and the potential of one's own home.
Ayr Mount is about as country as you can get in the middle of town. Arriving there, you are struck by the open fields, the large trees, the vistas uncompromised by urban intrusion. The estate comprises, now, about 265 acres, about half of what William Kirkland had, spreading behind the house down to and across the river. Situated on a ridge overlooking the Eno Valley, with Occoneechee Mountain in the distance, the house is set well back from St. Mary's Road, guarded from and invisible to today's traffic.
But at the time it was built, its arrow-straight brick walk led directly to gates opening onto the old Halifax Road, a major trading route following the even older Indian Trading Path. This made sense, for Kirkland's wealth had come through trade. He was a thrifty, hard-working Lowland Scot from Ayrshire who came to America in the 1780s to make his fortune. He did so through hard work, first as a clerk, then as a store owner in Hillsborough and later as owner of a tannery and a cotton gin. When he came to build a home for his family, he also wanted it to signify his worldly success and to reflect his values.
Thus Ayr Mount, the house, which Kirkland named for his hometown, stands tall and erect, a little stiff although not at all prim. It is beautifully proportioned, with lofty ceilings. Built of brick, it has a tall central block flanked by lower wings. Large double-hung windows fill the house with light and, with their creamy shutters, provide a regular rhythmic contrast to the red brick. Other than a row of dentil trim under the steeply pitched roof and on the pediment of the small porch, the house has no exterior ornamentation. It faces the old road squarely, and only the rough orbs of boxwood shrubs enclosing the walk mitigate its seriousness.
Yet within the house, all is welcome. The front door is wide, the ceilings soar to 13 feet. The transverse entry hall is graciously large. It is not a mere passage, but a delightful room in itself, with width enough for chairs and sofas and little tables below the deep window embrasures. It is even wide enough for dancing, as I know from happy experience. As is the case throughout the house, the lower four feet of the wall are covered with unusual paneled wainscoting, topped with an emphatic chair rail. The floor here is covered with a painted floor cloth, a popular option in the 19th century. This one simulates patterned marble. It's a wonderful room for summer, with its cool northern exposure, and in the winter it would have buffered the main living rooms from drafts.
From the hall, you can ascend the stairs (also nice and wide) to the second-floor bedrooms and attics above, enter either of the wings or go directly into either of the two main central rooms. The larger of these is the dining room, and at 24 by 28 feet, it is big enough to have seated the Kirklands and their 14 children. Their original dining table is in place, and in addition to a fine sideboard, there is a big built-in mahogany-and-glass china cupboard. On a paneled wall over the carved mantel hangs the portrait of William Kirkland by Jacob Marling. It has never been removed from this place of honor in the house's 185-year history.
The other rooms and their furnishings are equally if not more charming. My favorite is the West Parlor, or music room. Like the East Parlor, it has windows on three sides, so the light is great in both, but on the west side it is warmer. This room contains the Kirklands' lovely fortepiano and a fantastic gentleman's secretary/bookcase. The bookcase doors are divided into diamond-shaped panes, with painted glass panels above, and the two center doors are inset with mirrors trimmed in gilt. This is in addition to the little drawers and cunning arched cubbies hiding behind the drop front and the swooping top trim capped by finials in the shape of lidded urns. It's an amazing piece of furniture and probably the fanciest thing in the house. I can just picture William Kirkland sitting here at his accounts, with a daughter or two playing and singing at the fortepiano, adding up the beautiful numbers that allowed him to live in such style and comfort--though without sloth or Scottish-soul-destroying luxury.
Kirkland and many of his descendants still inhabit Ayr Mount, lying as they do in their fenced burial plot just west of the house. Their peace is overseen by glossy magnolias, perfumed by the sharp scent of boxwood wafting across the lawn and guarded by a cadre of keen-eyed mockingbirds. But it is Richard Jenrette who has preserved their peace, their works, their history. Sitting by the foundation rubble of a long-vanished cabin east of the house, you can gaze across the open rolling ground to the solid serenity that is Ayr Mount and appreciate even more the gracious gift of its preservation.
Ayr Mount is located at 376 St. Mary's Road, Hillsborough. Tours of the house are available Wednesday-Saturday at 10 a.m. and Thursday-Sunday at 2 p.m. ($6) through Dec. 21. Groups should make special arrangements. Call 732-6886. The Poet's Walk through the grounds is open daily 9-5 and is free.