Kathy and Frank Johnston: A Lifestyle by Design
When Kathy and Frank Johnston of Round Top decided to put down roots among the live oaks of Fayette County just over 22 years ago, their preferred lifestyle dictated their home’s design.
“By choosing Round Top we’d identified our preferred environment—it was the place where we wanted to be,” Kathy said. “Our lifestyle is what we chose—and continue to choose—to layer on that environment.”
Today, Kathy and husband Frank stay busy in what she terms “semi-retirement.” Kathy produces The Compound Antique Show for its owner and her client Mark Massey; Kathy and Massey also are partners in the Round Top Arts Festival (formerly WinterFest). Frank is the founding broker/owner of Heritage Texas Country Properties. Although he sold the company to long-time Brenham sales manager Cathy Cole two years ago, Frank continues serve as the company’s broker in addition to listing and selling properties.
The Johnstons surround themselves with friends and family, frequently entertaining in their home. The first floor of the 5,000+ square-foot house, built in a custom “Round Top style,” includes the kitchen, dining room, living room and gallery, which Kathy describes as the home’s heart.
“We live in every square inch of the bottom floor,” said Kathy, noting that they designed the house to be open and airy with separate yet connected spaces.
The layout allows people to mix, mingle and relax throughout. Originally, the house was about 3,700 square feet, but they added a second master suite so Kathy’s mother could live with them, which she did for a very short time until her death.
“Our home is a gathering place where we celebrate relationships,” said Kathy, who identifies cooking and setting beautiful tables as twin passions. “These days our favorite number to have is six to eight at the table because the intimacy allows everyone to really focus and enjoy each other.”
French doors and oversized windows with custom casements not only showcase Craftsman style but bring the outdoors inside seamlessly and deliberately. The four bedroom, 3.5 bath home is surrounded by sprawling porches and multi-layered decks, so the parties can spill over to the outside.
“We are porch people,” Kathy said. “This property afforded us stunning views from every side, so we built with that in mind. And now we live on these porches with our friends—and by ourselves at the beginning and end of each day.”
One of the things that attracted the Johnstons to the land, which is less than two miles from the center of Round Top but feels much farther away, was the heritage live oaks. As luck would have it, the only “bald spot” on the property was the ideal building site; the couple didn’t remove a single tree. The home’s foundation is pier-and-beam, which allowed its construction without damaging nearby tree roots. The outlying decks were designed around the trees.
“These trees are majestic—and they were here first,” Kathy said. “Their shapes and textures define the landscape.”
In addition to emphasizing the trees, the expansive network of porches and decks also allows the Johnstons to accommodate a crowd. The couple stays engaged in their adopted hometown and the surrounding area, so they often open their home and host fundraising events to support local causes and organizations. Recent examples include a brunch benefiting the Round Top Family Library and a South American-themed party benefiting the Fayetteville Chamber Music Festival. Both events were held on the home’s porches and decks.
“I love entertaining on a grander scale and helping worthy causes along the way,” Kathy said. “Events allow us to share our home in a different way.”
The Design Process
The Johnstons hired Chris Travis, a Round Top based designer who now lives and works in Colorado, to design their permanent country home. Early on Travis assigned the couple some extensive homework.
“First, we each had to complete a very long and very thorough questionnaire that made us think through our home project in great detail,” Kathy said. “Then, we each were tasked with creating a workbook that included our list of wants and needs in a home, photos from magazines of styles and colors we liked and examples of things that just moved our souls.”
She continued, “We had 30 days to complete the assignment, but we couldn’t discuss our workbooks or show them to one another.”
A month later the Johnstons met with Travis, gave him their books and waited as he flipped through the pages. The designer, who had come into the meeting expecting to act as a mediator, began to smile as he realized that his clients had remarkably similar tastes and goals for their home.
“Frank and I are both very independent, and I have to admit that we had trepidations entering into this process,” Kathy said. “I had heard that the stress of the design/build process could tear a couple apart. So, it was an emotional experience to realize how closely aligned we were about the things that mattered and moved us.”
The Johnstons both respected the area’s character and heritage.
“We wanted our home be a natural reflection of this place, not an ostentatious representation of somewhere else,” Kathy said. “It needed to look like it fit beneath the oak trees.”
They both appreciated the warmth of wood and the power of good design.
“Good design is good design,” Kathy said. “It stands the test of time, which is important when you’re building your forever home.”
They both understood the power of personalization and valued original art, classic furnishings including antiques and one-of-a-kind architectural elements.
“The most inviting homes are a reflection of the people who live in them,” Kathy said.
To that end, the bricked in gallery was conceived as a place to showcase their eclectic art collection.
“If you look up from the gallery, you’ll see windows that open out into the space from our guest bedrooms,” Kathy said. “No one but us would know this, but we designed them to reference our love of Italy.”
Like the Italian versions, these windows open up to their own points of view.
“I’ve had family members lean out over the gallery and call for morning coffee, just as the Italians traditionally call out to each other from their second stories to the village streets below,” she said.
The Johnstons also included plenty of custom woodwork but avoided rusticity because their more classically-styled furnishings didn’t lend themselves to that look. They identified places in their home to incorporate architectural elements such as the Italian antique peach toned leaded glass transom and sidelights that once flanked the front door of their Houston home. The transom enhances the entrance to the dining room, and the sidelights serve as doors on built in china cabinets.
Two years passed from the time the Johnstons bought the land and began making improvements until they moved in. When the process was complete, Kathy grieved.
“Building our home was joyful,” Kathy said. “I mourned when we were done—and began wondering what can
we do next?”
The first next thing was stonework and gardens designed by Jack Finke, the local artisan and stonemason responsible for numerous projects on the grounds of nearby Festival Hill.
“Jack was a master craftsman and creative beyond compare,” Kathy said. “Generally, I’d give him a broad outline of my vision for a project and then just give him free rein.”
She continued, “I never knew exactly what the end result would be, but I grew to trust that his vision, with a tiny tweak or two, would match mine. He never disappointed.”
Finke crafted the entrance gate to the property, the waterfall and patio area at the front of the house, a decorative stacked stone well near the garden room and the bridge spanning the wet weather creek.
“I didn’t want to look at a ditch, so I had him design a system that turns the often dry creek bed into a flowing creek with the flip of a switch,” Kathy said. “It’s one of my favorite landscaping feature.”
Keeping It Fresh
While the Johnstons have lived in their home for 14 years, it’s as fresh and on point today as it was the first time they welcomed guests.
“There’s very little I’d change about the footprint of the house,” Kathy said. “It lives well.”
The earthy color palette, which juxtaposes reds, navy, greens, creams against the warm wood, is another classic. Kathy keeps it current by updating textiles.
“I’ve always had an eye for color and texture,” Kathy said. “As time passed, I’ve reupholstered my furniture and purchased new rugs, both of which can totally change the feel of a room.”
Kathy also admits to being a serial furniture arranger.
“When my sister comes to visit, we have the best time moving things around,” Kathy said. “Frank doesn’t think it’s nearly as fun.”
Through the years Kathy has ascribed to the design theory of “more is more,” but recently has imposed a degree of restraint.
“For every new piece of décor that I acquire, I have to give up two. I’m winnowing everything except art,” Kathy said. “There is no such thing as too much art.”
To that end she rotates her collection, displaying different pieces, at different times, in varying places. It’s one more way she keeps the interior fresh and engaging.
“I’m visually oriented—and I love to feel embraced when I walk into someone’s home,” Kathy said. “I hope our home warmly embraces people as soon as they come inside.”
by Lorie A. Woodward
photos by Natalie Lacy Lange, Natalie Lacy Lange Photography