Living in the country was not at the top of Kathy and Frank Johnston’s 1996 “to do” list.
“We didn’t set out to live in the country, but the Round Top Inn took us there,” Kathy said.
At the time, the Johnstons were a two-career couple living in Houston’s Memorial area. Frank was involved in his estate career. Kathy headed Johnston & Co., a respected mid-sized ad agency she founded in 1979 serving regional and national name clients in real estate development to business-to- business.
Each year, as a perk, she hosted a four-day corporate retreat for agency staff, taking them to destinations across the country. Often the team would take over a bed-and-breakfast or historic inn. The notion of buying and co-owning a B&B became a regular part of office chat. While group ownership never materialized, the seed germinated in Kathy’s mind.
One morning in early summer she walked into the kitchen where she found Frank with his coffee and the Real Estate section of the Houston Chronicle. Nothing was unusual about the scene except for the ad announcing the sale of the Round Top Inn, a historic B&B in the middle of the tiny town about an hour from Houston.
“We should go see it . . .one day after work,” Kathy said.
Frank didn’t disagree. Not long after, they found themselves traveling down Texas Highway 237.
Although the Johnstons had been in the vicinity of Round Top as attendees of concerts at Festival Hill, this was their first trip into the town proper. Kathy had come prepared with a picnic to enjoy on the Round Top Inn’s grounds with the sellers Sandy and Ted Reed.
“I was captivated by the whole place and the whole experience,” Kathy said. “I left convinced we could do this.”
“I had to drag him along to the obvious conclusion, and he groused the whole way,” Kathy said, laughing and adding that he now agrees that Round Top was their best mutual life’s decision.
Kathy soon discovered co-running the Round Top Inn wasn’t easy, especially on top of running an ad agency.
“I couldn’t just walk away from the agency, so I commuted—for 10 years,” she said.
She kept an apartment in Houston, living and working in the city Tuesday through Thursday. She called the country home Friday through Monday while working all of the time.
One rural business wasn’t enough for the natural entrepreneurs and multi-taskers. While operating the Inn, Frank formed his own real estate operation, eventually establishing Heritage Texas Country Properties. Kathy partnered with Sandy Reed, opening five separate businesses in Round Top including Lantana, a fine-dining restaurant.
“We opened the restaurant because we wanted to eat there, not because we wanted to work there,” Kathy said.
As it ended up, both couples worked the restaurant for a time. Frank and Sandy in the front of house while Kathy and Ted worked the kitchen and bar. While good, it wasn’t fun, she recalled.
Early on the Johnstons also purchased the “Sunflower Cottage,” located on White Street just up from the library. After selling the inn they lived in the cottage for four years while searching for either a permanent home or land on which to build. Land won out.
“The site we found was just too pretty,” Kathy said. “I wanted vistas, Frank wanted forest, and not too far out from town.”
Their 22-acre parcel delivered it all.
“We frequently walk our land together,” Kathy said.“Part of the conversation seems to always include how fortunate we are to be here. The land soothes our souls. We love the trees, the abundant wildflowers that each season brings, the verges that protect the deer and all the other wildlife that we play witness to. We feel blessed in so many ways.”