Inside a 'House of Cards' home with a deep history

For Baltimore at Home

As a child, Jim Fielder knew Sophia's Dairy as the big house he couldn't enter.

"The farm I grew up on is three miles from here," says Fielder, a Harford County native who is now Maryland's secretary of higher education. "It was always a really neat property and I've known it all my life, but we were never allowed in the house because we were farmers."

That all changed when he and his wife, Pat, purchased the home in 2001. Since then, the Fielders have become the proud stewards of this piece of history — a place with deep roots in politics, from its ties to the American Revolution to its recent stint as a set for the Netflix show "House of Cards."

Located in Belcamp, the Georgian structure is a classic beauty of symmetry, rendered in Flemish bond brick punctuated by 52 soaring six-over-six windows, each placed strategically to capture breezes drifting over the gentle rise where the Dairy sits. An epic 16-by-45-foot entry hall sweeps from the front door straight through to the back yard. At its center is a rarity in architecture, a free-hanging, double switchback staircase, a photo of which is featured in the Baltimore Museum of Art's exhibit "Imagining Home." The capstone outside is engraved with the home's date of completion: 1768.

Today it sits on nine acres, three of which are designated open space, a refuge just steps from the bustle of U.S. 40 and a busy railroad corridor. Nearly 250 years ago, the view from this hill would have been very different.

When Sophia Hall married her cousin, Aquilla Hall, and moved into the home upon its completion, they managed a large and successful plantation. Historical records state roughly 39 slaves worked 7,700 acres to fill Aquilla's three schooners with tobacco for sale. Thousands of peach and apple trees bloomed in the couple's orchard, and the smokehouse could hold as much as 20,000 pounds of meat needed to sustain a wealthy family and its laborers.

Aquilla was also a politically active man. According to the Maryland Historical Trust, he signed the Bush Declaration (considered a test run for the Declaration of Independence) in 1775, and he provided supplies to George Washington's army during the Revolutionary War. The family of Robert Morris of Philadelphia, known as the financier of the Revolution, stayed at Sophia's Dairy, as did Martha Washington.

Sitting in Sophia's Dairy today, it is not hard to imagine such distinguished personages from history debating the politics of the day, as the home is little changed. That was part of the Dairy's allure for the Fielders, who met when they were 9 and are avid antique collectors.

"Our son, who grew up around antiques, said 'Dad, this is the ultimate antique,' " Jim Fielder says.

"The house is so beautifully made," adds Pat Fielder. "From an artistic and architectural perspective, it is a jewel that can't be replicated."

After the deaths of Aquilla and Sophia Hall, the Dairy went through successive owners until it was purchased in the 1930s by the Bata Shoe Co. The Czechoslovakian company, once a major employer in Belcamp, came to Maryland fleeing the Nazi takeover of the country, and the Dairy became the home of the CEO, Viktor Schmidt, and his wife. By the time the Fielders purchased it, Bata had been using the Dairy as an office.

Beneath the fluorescent lights, phone wires and carpeting of a 20th-century office, the home's original heart pine floors remained unscathed. Handcrafted dentil crown molding and wainscoting were intact, as were eight functioning fireplaces.

The Fielders restored the home, updating its electrical and plumbing systems and repairing and painting plaster walls. When they can, they like to do the work themselves. Pat explains they selected paint colors inspired by Colonial Williamsburg, such as Galt blue in the dining room and Raleigh peach in the living room, to evoke the Dairy's original era.

It's no small feat, restoring and maintaining an old home, but the Fielders like the physical exercise of keeping up the place, and they meet its challenges with plenty of humor.

"Most people our age are buying a condo now," says Pat with a laugh. "We're empty-nesters — we just have a bigger nest."

The home is a living canvas for the Fielders' antiques, some heirlooms and others that they've acquired through a lifetime of collecting. "I love how personal [antiques] are," Pat says. "They were made by craftsmen; they were not mass-produced. So like anything that was made by hand, they're usually one of a kind."

A corner cupboard dating to 1779 in the living room is a particular favorite piece as its carving matches the dentil molding in the room and it is close in period to the house.

The grandfather clock in the hall the Fielders found in pieces at auction. They were young — Jim Fielder was in school in Michigan at the time and sold his silver coin collection to pay it.

The preservation of the house was so pristine that when location scouts for "House of Cards" needed a bed and breakfast fit for a presidential stay, they chose Sophia's Dairy. The house played the role of Clear Lake Inn, and Jim Fielder even got a speaking part as the innkeeper. The Fielders still have the brass number "1" nailed to the bedroom door where Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) plotted by the fireplace.

For all its historical significance, this is still a modern home where the Fielders, whose one son is grown, live with their two Scottish terriers. The couple enjoy entertaining so much they recently converted the home's former kitchen into a "pub," complete with a bar handcrafted by Robert Rich of RJR Woodworks. The kitchen moved into a stone structure attached to the main house, creating an open living wing with a French country-style kitchen and den. The sitting area is dominated by an exquisite fireplace crafted by mason Pat Robinson using stone from the property and an overmantel carved by Rich from cherry trees felled at the Dairy.

Parties here can last late into the night and might end in a way Aquilla and Sophia Hall would recognize, with guests discussing the news of the day around a warm fire, perhaps sipping Jim Fielder's homemade sherry.

The Fielders describe themselves as keepers of a piece of history. In return, Sophia's Dairy is their sanctuary.

"This home has the most feminine feel of any I've ever been in, and it's so relaxing," says Jim Fielder. "It's so peaceful here. … As soon as I drive [in], I relax."

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