Greg Alexander

Pleasant Days at Spancil Hill

Baltimore Sun, September 2004

“Last night as I lay dreaming of pleasant days gone by My mind being bent on rambling to Ireland I did fly I stepped on board a vision and I followed with my will And I shortly came to anchor at the cross of Spancil Hill”
—“Spancil Hill” by Michael Considine

Yearning for his native Ireland and the love he left behind, poet Michael Considine dreams of returning to his homeland – only to wake up in the end and realize that he’s still in California – in the Irish poem, “Spancil Hill.” Shortly before his death, Considine wrote the poem in remembrance of Spancil Hill and his long-lost love, and his dream of returning to the small village is not realized in the poem. However, for one Butler, Md., couple, life in their renovated 18th-century home called “Spancil Hill” has been nothing but idyllic.

“I was on a plane to Ireland reading a magazine and came across this article on the small town of ‘Spancil Hill.’ The day I visited the village was the same day that my husband began renovation on our home, and on that day, he found a four-leaf clover in our yard. It just seemed appropriate to call our new home, ‘Spancil Hill,’ “ Gail Cunningham, M.D., fondly recalls. Cunningham – who renovated “Spancil Hill” along with her husband, builder David Sutphen – says that she had always wanted to live in the country.

“I looked and looked for the right piece of property for my family, as well as one that would have room for my horses and some farm animals that I wanted to add to the family,” she laughs. “The irony was that I once noticed that the adjacent larger house was for sale, but when I saw that house, it wasn’t right for me. Then, I glanced over and saw the smaller farmhouse, and I was in love. It just spoke to me.” Cunningham, an emergency room doctor at St. Joseph Medical Center, says she knew immediately that the farmhouse was meant to be her home.

“The house was in great shape, but I knew that I wanted to do some minor cosmetic changes and renovate the kitchen, which was very dated. I also planned on doing something more substantial – like an addition – down the road. However, David sold me on the ‘master plan’ concept. I loved the design and overall concept, even if I couldn’t afford it,” she laughs.

“The original plan was to renovate the kitchen and the upstairs bathroom, but when Gail mentioned that she wanted to build an addition in the future, I was able to convince her that it would be more beneficial to renovate the house all at once,” says Sutphen, who says that the kitchen’s original location in the northwest corner of the home was the focus of the changes. “The kitchen was in the worst possible place – a room with low ceilings, little natural light and inaccessible to an outside door, which is a pain when you’re carrying in groceries. I knew that I wanted to move the kitchen south to get the morning light and southern exposure in the afternoon.”

Moving the kitchen wasn’t the only surprise that Sutphen had for Cunningham regarding the home, which he says was once a caretaker’s house for a larger adjacent estate. “The first time I saw the house, I noticed that the exterior walls were very thick and that the corners were uneven. The more I looked at it, I figured out that the house was originally a log cabin that had been hidden with drywall over the years,” recalls Sutphen, who says that an attic roof rafter had “1968” written on it, which gave a clue as to when the rafter was installed.

“When David told me that the house was an old log cabin, I was thrilled,” says Cunningham. “After the settlement, I came back to the house with an axe and went through the drywall to see if he was right. Sure enough, it was a log home.” Cunningham says that she and a friend continued removing the drywall and old plaster to reveal the home’s gorgeous wooden beams. “My once livable house was suddenly all torn up, but it was so exciting, and I was learning so much, like how to repoint old brick, which I learned from our stone mason.”

“Once the drywall was removed, we had to clean up the logs, and then we removed the stone between the logs and replaced it with mortar, which stored the new electrical work,” adds Sutphen. Restoration grade oak floors – all from salvaged materials – were also added in the original portion of the home, which features a brick and stone fireplace at the rear.

The original part of the home now encompasses a warm living room and an office where the kitchen originally resided. Upstairs is a guest room and a large bedroom for the couple’s daughter. “Because of the large space upstairs and the planned addition, we were able to create a ‘suite’ style bedroom for our daughter,” says Sutphen.

Blending the old with the new

Although Cunningham and Sutphen had decided that an addition to house the new kitchen and upstairs master bedroom was in order, the challenge was to make sure the addition didn’t look like, well, an addition. Working with a historic structure is never easy, and expanding one without diminishing the charm and details from the time period in which the home was built is a tall order. However, Cunningham says that she wouldn’t have it any other way. “It makes me sick when people buy an old home and then tear it down to build a big new home. I was determined to work with the original structure, and I wanted the addition to look very natural and blend with the original style of the home,” says Cunningham. “I am so proud that people can’t tell where the old part ends and the addition begins.” “We get a lot of compliments from friends who say that they can’t tell the old from the new,” adds Sutphen of the seamless transition from the original structure into the addition.

A grand kitchen – complete with stainless steel appliances – is the centerpiece of the addition. A dark wooden table and chairs provide a comfortable space for dining, while a new brick fireplace provides warmth. Built-in shelves provide storage space and the opportunity to display favorite dishes, while a new kitchen island – complete with stools tucked underneath – is the ideal place to prepare dinner. Sutphen chose poured concrete for the countertops. “It gives it a rustic feel, which we like. We like hard surfaces, and we wanted a kitchen that wouldn’t show the wear and tear of two large dogs and a cat,” he says. Next, Sutphen hired a coppersmith to craft the copper sink and a blacksmith in Pennsylvania to make the handmade hardware that graces the new tiger maple cabinets. These small touches help make the addition seem like an original part of the home, as does the exposed brick and copper pots and pans that hang overhead.

“I love this kitchen because it’s so easily accessible to the back door, which opens onto our private driveway. Now we can pull right to the back of the house and easily unload groceries,” says Sutphen. Adjacent to the new kitchen is a glassed-in porch with brick floors and a large sofa that offers breathtaking views of the countryside.

Upstairs, the couple focused on a new master bedroom and bath. A new rear staircase was added so that the couple to enter the back door and proceed upstairs. The master bedroom glows in the sunlight, especially with the brightly-colored yellow walls and gleaming white dressers. A new fireplace in the bedroom provides warmth and romance. The adjacent master bath recalls the historic part of the home with its antique-looking pedestal sink and claw foot tub. A long hallway leads to the original upstairs containing the other bedrooms.

A quiet sanctuary

“What I love about this house is its setting. We have about four acres of land, and our view will always be protected by its historic designation,” says Sutphen. “I love how the different valleys – Green Spring Valley and Worthington Valley – come together.” Endless views of farmland surround the couple’s home in Butler. Primarily settled in the mid-18th and early 19th centuries, the neighboring areas of Worthington Valley, Green Spring Valley and Glyndon were mostly summer resort areas that have developed into some of Maryland’s most picturesque thoroughbred horse farms.

A new patio allows the couple to enjoy outdoor grilling and dining surrounded by the picturesque landscaping designed by Mike Patterson of Broadview Manor. “We worked so well with Mike because he’s a firm believer in the ‘master plan’ concept, too. We inherited a sloping front, and it was Mike’s idea to add stone retaining walls to create a nice entrance to the home,” says Cunningham. “I like a clear entrance, and Mike designed this wonderful entrance where there’s ample parking out front, yet the parking does not interfere with the beauty of the entrance and the front gardens,” adds Sutphen. Thirty-year old mature trees and relocated boxwoods give the landscaping a lived-in look. “This renovation was only done seven years ago, but with the mature trees, it looks older, which was our goal,” says Sutphen.

“I had always wanted a big flower garden to come home to,” says Cunningham, who adds that she had to dig out all the Maryland clay and replace it with rich soil.

The final addition to the exterior was a post-and-beam barn. “I designed the barn and hired an Amish company to do the timber work,” says Sutphen, who also incorporated elements from the interior. The same coppersmith who did the kitchen sink crafted a copper lantern, and the same company who did the kitchen hardware worked on the barn. The new barn also allowed the couple to move Cunningham’s two horses onsite and add a few chickens and goats. “The chickens provide daily eggs, while the goats are more like pets,” Sutphen laughs. “However, the greatest part about the barn is that Gail can come home from a stressful day at the hospital and relax with her horses in her own quiet sanctuary.”

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