Home Sweet Oasis

John and Sheila Spence's park-like property is the perfect setting for welcoming friends

John and Sheila Spence bask in the beauty of their 1.7-acre property, which features gardens, fountains, fire pits and fruit trees..

Photos by Rob Witzel
Published: Tuesday, November 26, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 22, 2013 at 1:39 p.m.

When you travel for a living, as John and Sheila Spence do, you want home to be as welcoming and comfortable as possible. For them, “home sweet home” is less about square footage inside as it is ambience outside.

“When John is in town, he makes it a point to be back from the office to watch the sunset every evening in the yard with [our dog] Suri,” Sheila says.

“I try to spend a minimum of an hour or hour and a half in the yard watching the sunset,” John adds.

Who could blame him when the stunning view includes a 1,600 square-foot-deck, a fire pit, a custom-built arbor with muscadine grapes, a granddaddy oak, several water fountains, and a garden that includes peach, plum and fig trees, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, basil, mint, oregano, and rosemary, to name a few?

“We love the entire yard, and a big part of it is that about 30 percent of the yard is edible. We have tons of herbs … which is great because we both love to cook, and it is super to be able to walk out in the yard and pick all fresh ingredients to cook with,” adds Sheila.

The duo, who were married in 2004, are not only partners in cooking and marriage, but in business as well. John is a professional speaker, author and business consultant; Sheila is the director of operations for John Spence, LLC.

John, who is a fifth-generation Floridian from Miami, went to school at Santa Fe College and finished his degree in public relations at the University of Florida. Sheila comes to Gainesville by way of Ocala, where she previously founded and sold a successful consulting business.

Their nearly 3,000-square-foot custom home is influenced by the Craftsman style and was built by their friend Ed Mendel, owner of Edinborough Homes, with house designer John Drum. It is situated on just under two acres in the neighborhood of Steeplechase Farms, on the northwest side of town.

“We had been shopping for property for a couple of years,” John recalls. “We wanted a nice neighborhood with really big oak trees, and we pulled into this lot and I looked at Sheila and said 'Buy it today.'”

The Spences came to the property with a design in mind — the clean-lined Craftsman style — and managed to keep that in the final scheme.

“We did a lot of research before building the house; we had tons of pictures [from magazines] of what we wanted and Ed Mendel did a great job of translating our ideas into reality,” Sheila explains.

They met with Mendel to share their ideas and, together with designer Drum, they came up with an “homage to the Craftsman style” as John says, which was actually based on an 1,800-square-foot model home found in the Madeira subdivision on Williston Road.

“The Craftsman house style does a lot of things — it brings back a sense of nostalgia but it's also a classic,” Mendel says. “[Though] it was a plan I had done, they definitely had their ideas throughout the house.”

According to Mendel, one of the key details the Spences wanted was room in the kitchen to accommodate two dishwashers because of the lavish dinner parties they are known to throw.

“It was a fun project because of their involvement,” Mendel adds.

As for the neighborhood itself, the couple enjoys the peace and tranquility afforded by living outside of the hustle and bustle of downtown or the University area — without being too far in the country.

“[We love that] it has a variety of home styles, a strong but flexible HOA (homeowners' association), a great location, and it's a very small community — only 22 homes,” she adds.

A little privacy and seclusion is nice after a long day in the limelight. John, who was recently named one of Trust Across America's Top 100 Business Thought Leaders, usually spends his days in front of an audience or traveling from one locale to another.

For him, paradise is simple: It's about going home. John looks forward to unwinding in their 3 bedroom, 3 bath home, which features a bonus room upstairs (used occasionally for in-house massages, Sheila admits), wood floors throughout, and a large boat barn to house their entertaining supplies and their 25-foot EdgeWater fishing boat.

“We wanted something relaxing and calming, and an oasis for John. There's only two of us, so we didn't need to go over the top with a giant mansion. We wanted a place to entertain, which we love to do,” Sheila says.

“When it's just the two of us there's more than enough space; we wanted it to have a nice flow where you could walk out on the deck. [It's large enough] we can entertain 100 to 150 people,” John adds.

For some, the kitchen is the heart of the home. For the Spences, it's clearly the backyard and deck, with seating to accommodate more than a few friends.

“[Our favorite area is] absolutely the backyard and deck … people love the yard and we put tables and chairs all over, and have several fire pits. We also have surround-sound in the entire deck area, so it is superb for hosting large groups with ease,” Sheila says.

For the Spences, Thanksgiving and Christmas are great opportunities to invite friends over — whether for dinner or a cocktail party, or even an all-nighter.

“We love decorating the house — it's ton of fun. Keith Watson does all the decorations, and he does such a great job. We usually have five or six parties, and we'll build a big bonfire and have a nice dinner and hang out in the backyard,” she explains.

“Our big blowout is definitely Thanksgiving. Basically we make two turkeys … We have a picture of 11 or 12 of us asleep on the deck. It's a fun day of family, lots of food, and we'll build a fire,” John adds.

Doug Hopkins of Hopkins Nursery is the landscape designer who helped the Spences visualize and create their backyard party oasis. The first step was nearly leveling the property, which was sloped and, according to Sheila, looked like a cow pasture with a couple of trees on it.

“The deck and back stairs and pond area had to be built up with fill. We pushed the sightline from the front door through the house, and out the back door through the arbor to the terminal focal point of a fountain backed by a raised, planted berm. This takes us right back to the rear property line to achieve the greatest uncluttered visual space,” Doug explains of the design.

“Now it's thousands of plants and trees. It's an amazing metamorphosis,” she says.

What started off as a professional relationship has matured, like the landscape, into a lasting friendship.

“He has been with us before we broke ground and every inch of the yard is his doing,” Sheila says. “We pretty much keep him on retainer and he has full reign over our yard.”

“Doug has become part of the family. I call him and tell him how much the yard means to me, how relaxing it is and how much I appreciate him taking care of it,” John says.

The rare times they aren't enjoying their backyard landscape, the Spences share a passion for travel, art and cooking, which can be seen throughout their home. Their open-plan kitchen features a large island, granite countertops and stainless steel appliances by Kenmore — plus a large collection of cookbooks and smaller paintings from their various travels.

In fact, most of their artwork has a story behind it, such as the large 8-by-6-foot Ellie Blair painting in the formal dining room — a scene from Santa Fe College's campus. What is remarkable is that it was painted by the artist during a fundraiser concert at Santa Fe College, and was later auctioned off. (As Sheila recalls, “I knew we were walking out with that painting!”)

There's also a custom watercolor of John fly-fishing by artist, Chet Reneson, that Sheila had commissioned. That piece takes pride of place over their living room mantle, and showcases another hobby the two share.

“We fly-fish a lot,” Sheila explains.“John's job takes us to cool places … We were in New Zealand in March and [took] a helicopter fly-fishing trip. They pick you up and drop you off where no one else can go… it's unbelieveable.”

While many of their travel destinations might seem exotic, the Spences remain grounded by staying involved with a variety of local charities and community organizations, although due to John's hectic travel schedule, he has stepped down from many boards.

“Gainesville is small enough that we can get involved in the community and make an impact,” Sheila says.

That includes her involvement with Arc of Alachua County, of which she is a board member, and others, such as Junior League and Tyler's Hope. They both support the United Way and Junior Achievement.

“We really believe that if you want the community to be better, you need to participate — whether it's time, money or effort. We try to walk that walk,” she adds.

John travels about 200 days of the year, which means he's away from home more often than not; however, their job affords them the opportunity to live and work from anywhere in the world. But there's just something about their home in Gainesville.

“We get to travel and stay in amazing places, but we are excited to go home,” John says.

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