Jane Suggs has always been what she calls a mover. As in, “if it’s time to paint, it’s time to move,” she says. But in the early 1990s, two life-changing things happened. She married Tommy Suggs, and she built a house with him from the ground up.
Tommy is one of Columbia’s most loved long-term residents. The city embraced him as the University of South Carolina’s star quarterback in the late 1960s. Now he’s even better known as the long-time color commentator for Gamecock football, a leader in the community and co-founder and CEO of a successful insurance firm.
Tommy had already started working on the house when he and Jane decided to get married. Jane was a schoolteacher with a passion for interior design. She says she started making changes to the house while the couple was still on their honeymoon. Even then, she had as much design experience as some pros.
Before building this house with Tommy, Jane moved eight times and designed eight houses. Twenty-five years later, the former mover sees advantages to staying in one house for a good, long while.
She says they’ve made renovations that would only happen because of their years invested here. As children grow up, rooms are rethought. Ideas about living mature. And for project people — which is how Jane describes herself and Tommy — spending decades in a single house can lead to an ongoing state of steady improvement.
Her most recent project was a total renovation of the kitchen, on which she collaborated with Karen Menge, a partner at Pulliam Morris Interiors, and Phillip Kaufman of Artisan Company. The old kitchen featured a cooktop and double ovens. Jane and Karen changed the layout to make room for an enamel and brass Lacanche range. They enlarged the island and topped it with leathered Calacutta marble, a process that gives the marble a matte finish and subtle texture.
Around the perimeter, Jane decided on counters made of pewter, a process in which powdered metal is heated and molded into custom solid slabs. While pewter counters were popular in Paris bistros in the 1930s, they’re still a fairly new feature for Columbia kitchens. Jane worked with a company in Charlotte to produce hers.
“It took a little longer to fabricate and install them,” she says, compared to other options. But the wait was worth it. Jane says pewter is comparable to stainless steel for sanitation and practicality, but she likes the patina that develops with use. Pewter is not as hard as some countertops, so it scratches in some places, darkens in others. “It ages beautifully,” she says, running her hand over a stretch of counter that after only a few months is already a mottled gray.
Other changes in the kitchen grew from her experience living in the house. Jane picked out a dishwasher that could handle fine china and crystal and a high-end refrigerator with one side dedicated to wine and beverages. The backsplash above the substantial French range is covered with hand-painted terra cotta tiles. She and Karen decided to add natural wood beams to the ceiling and clad the walls with shiplap to further refresh the room.
For the custom-built cabinets, Jane relied on a favorite source — Phillip Kaufman with Kaufman Construction Company of Columbia. “He is just amazing,” she says. “I love his cabinet work.”
Phillip installed a banquette and large round table in the bay window, something Jane felt the space had been calling for. Fabric from the banquette pillows shows up again on bar stools along the island, where it’s been coated in vinyl to make it more durable. The result is a kitchen that’s beautiful, yet functional; it is fit for a photo shoot but also feels ready to use, a balance Jane strives for in every room.
“I like to have nice things, but it has to be comfortable. That’s a hard line to walk. But if it feels like a museum, no one’s going to enjoy it, ” she says.
So while there’s a delicate French table from the early 1700s in the master bedroom, there’s also a cushy L-shaped sofa in the den. “I’ve found that a crowd will sit together, close to each other on that, in a way they never would on a traditional sofa,” she says. She’s had as many as 11 relatives find seats at once, people of all ages sitting together and chatting. She says Tommy’s friends like to crowd onto the sofa to watch football games.
Guests often expect to find a different kind of museum at the Suggs’ home, one filled with University of South Carolina memorabilia. Some of Tommy’s football trophies can be spotted in the living room, but the majority of those items are in Tommy’s home office. “He uses that office all the time, so that’s a great place for him to enjoy them,” she says.
Still, there are subtle gamecock references throughout the house, for those who know where to look. On a bookcase shelf, for example, there’s a small gamecock figure carved in soapstone brought home from a trip to Vietnam. Jane’s favorite may be the unexpected birds she discovered in the dining room’s hand-painted wallpaper. At the time she selected the paper, she had no idea small ruby-colored roosters would be part of the scene. “When they put it up, we went, ‘Oh my gosh –– those are fighting gamecocks,’” she says.
Art and photos on the walls reflect the couple’s love of travel and family. Jane treasures a painting she and Tommy purchased on a trip to Prague. “Every time I look at this piece, I think of our trip — how I tried to communicate what I wanted with the frame, wondering if what I was saying was understood,” Jane says. “Art is a good souvenir to bring home when you travel, I think.”
A gallery of old family photos hangs in the back stairwell, easily visible from the den. “So many of them are gone now,” Jane says, “so it’s nice to have them where I can see them every day.”
Ease of entertaining is yet another consideration in the couple’s design choices. Both she and Tommy support charities and the University by frequently hosting large parties. After their children, Dan and Betsy, grew up and moved out, Jane found that old spaces could function in new ways — including those that make it simpler to accommodate a crowd.
A wooden deck on the back of the house was replaced with a terrace and fountain created by George Betsill to connect the house to the outdoors. Beyond that, the yard was landscaped with a rectangle lawn sized to perfectly fit a tent. Jane repurposed appliances from the old kitchen to create a second kitchen in the garage, which is especially useful, for catering and outdoor functions.
One of those outdoor functions is the family’s annual Thanksgiving dinner. It’s served under a tent, one that’s set up on the lawn just as garden designer Ruthie Lacey envisioned when she created that space for the Suggs.
Staying put has also meant an opportunity to dig into the details. Jane points to the doors as an example. The original front door, a typical one with sidelights, was replaced with a dramatic arching double door that lets in more light. Across the back of the house, to improve views of the terrace and beyond, the Suggs installed new windows and doors with larger panes. The original grass cloth on the walls was first painted, then later glazed to add depth. “These are the kinds of things you do when you’re in a home to stay,” Jane says.
There are some things, though, that Jane isn’t interested in altering. The floors throughout the house preserve a bit of South Carolina history. The planks were milled from trees knocked down by Hurricane Hugo and pulled out of the Francis Marion National Forest. “I love these pine floors,” she says.
And there’s the upstairs bathroom covered with a rainbow of crayon and markers, a crazy, freeform gallery of drawings and messages created by Dan, Betsy and their friends. “It’s the only room I can’t bear to touch,” says Jane.
For every renovation she has undertaken, Jane has always been a believer in choosing timeless colors and fabrics. But she says it’s gotten harder for people who want to design it themselves to go at it alone.
“So much is only available to the trade these days,” she says, “which means you need a designer to get what you want. I’ve also learned that mistakes are expensive. A good designer can save you from those.”
For those who want to play a large role in designing their homes, Jane says finding the right partner makes the difference. “Karen lets me work with her. For someone who loves design the way I do, that’s the key.”
Jane’s daughter appears to share her design genes. Betsy now lives in Santa Monica, California, where she works as an interior designer. “She’s really good at it. She gives me great advice,” Jane says. “She loves it like I do.”