When Robert Voss and Ben Frey decided to open John Brown General and Butchery, a food shop and butchery, in an historic building in the Shawan Valley, their original plan was to do a bit of renovating to get the building in working order, then to launch the shop and continue the restoration project while open. They loved the history of the building and its role in the community and were excited to get up and running as quickly as possible.
But as so often happens with historic buildings, things didn’t go exactly to plan.
Once the project got started, “It was a bit of a nightmare,” says Voss. “Every kind of plumbing, every kind of electric since 1938, wires running everywhere.”
Fortunately, the pair had involved David Sutphen, owner of the restoration company Southfen Restoration Home Builder and the architectural design firm David Sutphen Design. Voss met Sutphen years ago when he renovated Voss’s childhood home, an his- toric farmhouse.
Based on his experience, Voss knew that Sutphen had the technical chops to restore the building. But Voss also recognized that Sutphen had another less tangible quality that made him a good fit for the project: he simply loves older spaces.
“He’s in it for the warmth and the detail,” says Voss.
With Sutphen’s guidance, along with interior plans from Towson’s ADW Architects, the dilapidated building underwent a significant overhaul, transforming into a shop and second-floor apartment that blend historic charm with modern fixtures and systems.
BLENDING NEW & OLD
Sutphen developed a love for historic buildings at a young age. He got interested in woodworking in high school and during his late teens and twenties, was exposed to historic homes in Baltimore and on the Eastern Shore.
Since then, he’s been involved in the design and restoration of many historic buildings, mostly in the Baltimore area.
“He ‘gets it’ when taking a building of some years and treating it with the integrity it deserves,” says Robert Voss’s mother, Barbara Voss, who worked with Sutphen on the restoration of her home. “He’s very knowledgeable about the historic structure of homes and what are the right materials to use.”
Part of what appeals to Sutphen about older homes is the need for critical thinking and problem-solving; restoring an historic home is more than just assembling parts. It requires understanding the building’s quirks and anticipating potential problems, while having the vision necessary to preserve the character and spirit of a space when incorporating modern conveniences.
To do this, Sutphen says, he imagines himself in the role of the building’s original craftsman.
“When I look at a project through the eyes of an 18th or 19th-century builder, it simplifies things,” he says. “You don’t over- think the answer. You learn there is more than one right way to accomplish a task.”
“The hardest thing to do is set realistic expectations,” says Sutphen, noting that his years of experience have given him confidence not only in terms of design and building but also in honestly advising clients regarding what to expect.
This was put to the test when Sutphen and his team restored a 200+-year old log cabin in northern Baltimore County.
Thanks to changing circumstances, the design had to continually evolve, says homeowner Tom Traill. “Part of the old log house proved not to be restorable. There were defects in the log walls that became apparent only after the cladding was removed,” he says.
CAPTURE OPPORTUNITIES, MINIMIZE WASTE
Historic projects might not always go according to plan, but they may also come with happy surprises.
The restoration of Tom Traill’s log cabin, for example, led to the discovery of beautiful stonework that was previously hidden. It’s important, Traill says, to “recognize what’s worth saving, even in a very unprepossessing old structure.”
For Sutphen, this is a calling. “I look at an older home being torn down and my first thought is, ‘What a waste,’” he says.
Another Sutphen project, Tom Spencer’s now 160-year old fieldstone farmhouse, located in northern Baltimore County, was initially slated for demolition. Hoping to help the building avoid that fate, Spencer hired Sutphen to completely restore and update the interior and add a small addition and garage, all while preserving the historic nature of the home.
“As preservationists, this is gratifying,” says Spencer, noting that, “it’s a privilege to live in a house like this.”
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