Renovation project brings couple together

A funny thing happened when Gail Cunningham hired local home restoration company SouthFen to renovate and restore her 18th-century home in Butler: She fell in love with the builder.

The relationship between Cunningham, now the vice president of medical affairs at University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, and SouthFen owner David Sutphen didn't blossom until after the renovation was complete. But as the two worked together to update and polish Cunningham's home, not only did they bring the house to life, they also got to know one another.


Sutphen laughs at how easy it was for the two of them to spend time together, even in the car."I remember a day when we went out to Libertytown to look at flooring," he recalls. "I asked if she wanted to ride together. I've spent hours with clients in progress meetings, but to be driving together?"

The renovation began in the spring of 1996, just after Cunningham purchased the home. The couple married just about two years later, in July 1998, making the newly restored house their home.


Dubbed Spancilhill by Cunningham, who visited the Irish town of the same name and attended its famous horse show during the early days of the renovation, the home is located on about 4 acres in Baltimore County's horse country. The property includes three buildings: a main house, a barn and an outbuilding that now houses an exercise room and an upstairs apartment for guests, including Cunningham's 29-year-old daughter, Kate Hanson, who lives in Australia. The home was originally a tenant house for a large farm; its original deed, calling it the Caples Habitation, is dated 1785.

Spancilhill had been renovated at least once before Cunningham purchasing it, Sutphen says. When he and his team started their project, they discovered that Caples Habitation was a log cabin — and the original logs were covered by plaster.

Generations ago, "when people did renovations, they didn't want log cabins," he says. Sutphen and his team saved as many of the original logs as they could; now they peek out in spots like the entryway and stairs.

That initial renovation made the house more livable and modern, moving the kitchen from a low-ceiling space to a large central room and adding a set of back stairs to connect the bedrooms with the kitchen and family space.

Over the past several years, Sutphen and Cunningham have continued to renovate. Two years ago, they added a master bath, and this past year, the couple added on to the two-story house's main level, converting a small TV room into a large timber-frame family room.

Spancilhill is decorated with a combination of antiques Sutphen and Cunningham have acquired during their years together — the couple enjoys "poking around" in shops on the Eastern Shore, where they have a second home.

"We look for broadly early-American pieces," says Sutphen. "More country versions, folk work. Not city pieces," he says, explaining that rustic elements complement the country setting.

But Spancilhill is not a museum showcasing early American life. The older furniture is mixed with newer pieces, including some of Sutphen's own design and construction, like a dining room table made with a slab of rich reddish-brown tiger maple — wood that Sutphen salvaged from Paul Reed Smith Guitars in Stevensville.

Upstairs, Sutphen repurposed a set of distressed pale blue shutters (rumored to be from a house where Al Capone lived when he was a patient in Baltimore), building a headboard for a guest bedroom. In the master bedroom, both the headboard and built-in bookshelves were also built by Sutphen, but with their white wood and clean lines, they have a more modern, less vintage feel.

Next to the master bedroom, the newly renovated master bath, an efficient space measuring only about 9 feet by 8 feet, is the most modern room in the house, with a dark gray concrete tub and sink and metal fixtures.

"I still like traditional architecture and homes," says Sutphen. "But this is more where I'm headed. I like the use of nonconventional material."

But even in the bath, old and new collide. In the shower, the logs from the original cabin peek out from behind glass; the house's history is never completely obscured.


Throughout Spancilhill, artwork covers the walls, including old family photos and some of Sutphen's paintings. His subjects include animals (Cunningham and Sutphen live with several dogs in the house, plus chickens, pygmy goats and three donkeys in their barn) and local landscapes that capture the light and feel of the Maryland countryside and Chesapeake Bay.

Taking care of the animals is a favorite pastime of Cunningham, who works long days at the hospital. "They're her sanity," says Sutphen, explaining that when she comes home, Spanchilhill, with its rolling hills and charming rooms, is a relaxing retreat.

Sutphen's stamp is on the building and in the art, but Cunningham has placed her mark on the home, as well, especially in the master bedroom and the guest apartment, where she chose a bright but calming palette of bright white and springy greens.

"The colors are all Gail," says Sutphen, though it's clear the two work well together. His architectural design, which captures natural southern light whenever possible, adds zing to her colors.

In the new family room, Sutphen again mixed old and new, salvaging brick from Clipper Mill to build an eye-level fireplace, complete with a bench in front. The fireplace is one of several located throughout the house, including in the master bedroom and kitchen, creating cozy, timeless spots for Cunningham and Sutphen to enjoy fires alone or with family.

The new room will comfortably seat about 20 for meals. At least that many will enjoy the space this Thanksgiving when the couple play host to family and friends, celebrating the place where their own family began: at home at Spancilhill.

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