The Johnson home: A family retreat full of laughter and memories

The Johnson home: A family retreat full of laughter and memories

■ BY MARY BESS

The search for a vacation retreat wasn’t easy for Craig and Kathy Johnson of Houston. It would have to accommodate seven children and three grandchildren who gather every year on the birthday of matriarch Kathy. An island seemed like the kind of place where they would find the laid-back pace they were seeking. It took a few years. The last house they looked at on Boca Grande wasn’t even on the market but might be for sale to the right buyer. Kathy fell in love with it! The house had a distinguished pedigree, designed by the celebrated architect F. Burrall Hoffman and built in the golden era of Florida Mediterranean Revival architecture. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Hoffman was a member of what is now a nearly extinct species, the gentleman architect. He was born into a socially prominent New York family whose ancestors immigrated from Sweden in the 1600s. He graduated from Harvard in1903 and went on to get his architecture degree in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. When he returned to New York he joined the eminent firm of  Carrère and Hastings as a draftsman, eventually opening his own firm. One of his first commissions was Villa Vizcaya, a palatial residence on Biscayne Bay designed for John Deering, heir to the International Harvester fortune. Now a museum maintained by the city of Miami, it was the most prominent project of his 60-year career. He and his wife Dolly, an interior designer, divided their time between Paris, New York and Florida. He usually limited himself to one project a year, often designed for a family member or friend.

Most of Hoffman’s work is located in New York and Florida. Boca Grande is fortunate to have five of his designs: four residences and Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church. Hoffman designed the Johnson House (née Halstead Lindsley House) in 1928. Situated on the Gulf at the end of a quiet side street, the front entrance is unassuming, withholding the charms that lie on the other side of the plain front door. The wide foyer features a wall-size mirror original to the house. A glance to the left reveals the living room with a soaring cathedral ceiling of pecky cypress bathed in morning sunlight. On the far side of the room, a large arched window with a southern exposure retracts into the wall to fill the room with the sound of chirping birds nestled in the branches of trees swaying in the tropical breeze. French doors open to a screened porch with a sweeping view of the Gulf.

Houses of the period tended to have small rooms. The Johnsons  removed some walls in the kitchen and dining room area to create a large, light-filled open space for the expanded kitchen and adjacent dining room/sitting room.  The three bedrooms on the second floor are configured as they were when the house was built. Most of the pecky cypress used throughout the house was preserved, although sometimes moved to another location. Pat Ball of Ball Construction, which specializes in historical renovations, will be on hand to explain how his firm handled the renovation of this special house, striving  to maintain its integrity and simultaneously provide the owners with the ease and convenience of a modern house.

You are probably asking, “But what about the children and grandchildren?”  Fortunately, the Johnsons were able to expand a one-room carriage house, which now serves as a breakfast room and lounge, into a 4,900-square foot guest house with six suites, each with its own sitting room and bath. Throughout the home and guest house, Kathy and her daughter Heather, who are partners in an interior design firm, have used fabrics with bold patterns and vivid colors appropriate to the tropical setting.

The Johnsons embraced their role as stewards of this national treasure joyfullly. And it shows!