Henry Johnston is seated in the living room of his Eagle Point home at the southern tip of Bald Eagle Lane. The retired modernist architect is surrounded by collections of books, original paintings, handmade pottery and quilts, his wife Sally, Piper the songbird and Pierre the Himalayan ragdoll cat.
Johnstons style is tailored, not fussy. On a leisurely walk about his modest 2,500-square-foot home, he likens the positive/negative relationship found in painting to that which is heard in great music.
Bernstein always said: The silence is as important as the noise, and it is, Johnston says. Without the silence theres no rhythm and also no rest for your eye.
The Leonard Bernstein reference is Johnstons keynote aesthetic played out inside this unassuming, two-bedroom home that has been his hideaway for the last 25 years.
Sited on a high bluff, the house is buffered on the west by an envelope of old growth live oaks and Little Creeks oyster middens, and on the east by a walled lap pool amid a tropical landscape designed by Heather Burkett and planted by Tony Parker.
Due south, large plate glass windows frame views of a private dock on the Intracoastal Waterway in the foreground and on the horizon is the Figure Eight Island swing bridge that Johnston crossed thousands of times in his decades-long career of designing summer homes on one of North Carolinas most remote barrier island beaches.
On Figure Eight, I would rent a crane and take a tape measure and have it lift me to floor level and video a panorama at each level so I knew exactly what was blocked in terms of view, Johnston explains. I always placed glass not for how it looked but for what it did in terms of what it would do for the view.
Zigzagging from the Triad to the Triangle, to the Azalea Coast, to Raleigh and then back to the coast, Johnstons career was anchored in the late 1960s by an early start with Ballard, McKim and Sawyer in Wilmington. He made partner in 1968, around the same time he designed a summer home for Horace King on Harbor Islands Myrtle Court built by Fred Murray Sr.
Johnston had introduced fellow North Carolina State University School of Design classmate, Ligon Flynn, to his future wife Susan, and the couple were frequent visitors to Wrightsville Beach. Flynn eventually convinced Johnston to team up with him in Raleigh until they were enticed to the coast, becoming principal designers during the second phase of Figure Eight Islands development.
He became project manager and the president of the homeowners association. At the time there may have been 30 or so homes located on the south end of Figure Eight, Johnston recalls. On two of the islands fingers -- Backfin and Sandy points -- he increased the size of the building sites in the residential zones. Johnston also put roads at the north end, while Flynn initiated the design for what would become the communitys yacht club house. Johnston calculates he designed about 60 Figure Eight Island homes, collaborating on four or five of those with Flynn and, after 1976, approximately 28 with his son and Johnston Architecture partner, Ian Johnston.
Somebody has to take the lead, Johnston says, but you collaborate as you go and you ask each others opinion and bounce things off each other. For instance, when we were in practice, Ligon was working on a house for the Bryans in Fayetteville while I was working on houses on Figure Eight. Thats not to say that once we got to a scheme we didnt say, Hey, what do you think?
Those schemes were loose drawings used to articulate an idea. In school, a scheme was known as a parti, but Johnston says laughing, Ligon called them fuzzies.
Fuzzy, parti or scheme, Johnstons Figure Eight Island design principles are rooted in site specifics and scenic views.
I was always driven by the view, Johnston says. The most important things the client has are the building site and their program. Those two things drive the project. We work on sites that are view oriented. Were at the coast; were at the beach. Its much different than a house in town. A house in town is usually internally oriented: The centers of focus are the things in the house, the furniture, the artwork.
With a body of work that ranges from beach homes to mountain retreats, understanding and absorbing the site and views are what the house should be about, he says.
We dont place windows for how clever they look on the outside but rather in the room to take in most of the view. Thats the paramount thing, in all the houses, is the view, Johnston says. The other thing is light. Bedrooms dont have to have great views. Bedrooms are used at night when its dark, he says.
I always tried to orient the living spaces so they always had the southern light, so the house has a delight, its alive. If you have to have a choice, it is the kitchen, dining, living areas youre going to give prime positioning.
Materials that might be available at a point in time that enhance the design may have some impact on the appearance of the home outside and in some cases reflect the unpretentious sensibilities of the clients Johnston was drawn to design for.
I always wanted each house to be something that belonged to that client. When they drove up in front of it, it was theirs. It might be similar to another [house] in some ways but it had to be unique and for that client, Johnston says.
Case in point is the house designed for Tom and Margaret Stanbeck in 1978. The understated interior is finished with wrapped particleboard that hangs like blank canvas on the wall studs, an understated backdrop for the couples collection of colorful Central American molas and woodcarvings.
I think what made the Stanbeck House theirs was Tom and Margaret are completely unpretentious people and the house is unpretentious. You actually enter the house by walking under it to the oceanside its not formal, its casual. The finish is kind of laid back, all the beds were built in, like on a sailboat. Theres an ease about that house that was required, Johnston says. It was not a showplace for people to see, but a family place.
The Stanbecks, who summered at their beach home for 35 consecutive years before recently selling it, became Johnstons lifelong friends, and Tom Stanbeck is a sailing buddy.
Youre out on the water and the boat is in balance with nature and the wind and its cutting through the water; and, I mean, its like music, its wonderful, he explains.
Johnston started sailing at age 14 as a Sea Explorer on High Rock Lake in Greensboro, his hometown. His first exposure to architecture began when he was in the fifth grade.
I went to this little school. It was where the UNCG practice teachers taught, about 25 kids in the class, kindergarten through twelfth grade. This practice teacher held up a picture of Fallingwater. It about knocked me over, Johnston says about the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright dwelling built over a waterfall. I finally saw Fallingwater for the first time this fall, he laughs.
Because Johnston lost his father at age 8, he was more self-reliant than others his age. Through a boyhood friendship, he became acquainted with one of North Carolinas foremost modern architects of the era, Edward Lowenstein, becoming a frequent overnight guest of the family.
He was an MIT graduate and his house was just a wonderful house with cantilevered glass walls, Johnston says. Describing the familys resort home in Blowing Rock, with wood frame garage doors tucked into the mountainside, You could flip the door up, it went up on the ceiling; the walls were screened. It was fantastic, Johnston says.
At the time, Johnston was taking a course in drafting. Eventually he became an office boy for Lowenstein, running prints, cleaning up. In high school he read philosophy, dated college girls, and painted like a mad man, he says, laughing. I was doing paintings six feet tall. I called them tone poems. I named them after the music. I did all-white paintings, mostly with a palette knife. I had an art teacher, a professor at the college. He said, What are you going to do, Henry? I was thinking of physics.
But the instructor suggested architecture: They use both sides of their brain, Johnston recalls him saying. I think that was it.
It took Johnston six years to complete NCSUs rigorous five-year architectural design program -- carrying 20 credit hours a semester while juggling a 30-hour-per-week job as a cameraman for UNC TV, for which he also built and lit sets.
I was always doing what I wanted to do, he says. I was into everything, interested in everything. Just like in my practice. I had the first computer drawing system in the state. I had stayed up all night reworking stuff by hand, so frustrated with doing things in a wasteful manner, always wanted to figure out how to go from A to Z in a straight line.
Its like drawing a Christmas tree. You bounce around at the bottom until you get to the top. The less bouncing you can do the more quality the work will be.
Qualifying the work and trying new things were the hallmarks of Johnstons career.
Reversing the conventional beach cottage floorplan was among the innovations that led Johnston to win an American Institute of Architects North Carolina chapter award for the Flynt House on Figure Eight Island.
It was the second tree house tucked into the live oak canopy on the backside of the islands north end.
I first did a scheme for them and I cant tell you the subtleties of why I changed my mind, but I had the scheme and I went to Greensboro with it, never been in their house before. We spent at least a half a day or more together talking about the scheme and they were happy with it; and, I remember suddenly, after I met, and looked around, and talked with them some more, I said: This is wrong for you, were going to start over. They didnt object to what I had, but I completely threw it away and redid it, and that was the one I won an award for in 1974, Johnston says.
Thirty years later, when he stepped aside to allow his son, Ian Johnston, to carry the firms residential design practice, he remained engaged in the remediation of water intrusion in condominiums, a sidebar for which he had become well known nationally.
In 2004 Johnston Architecture would take on its grandest challenge, siting and designing an 8,000-square-foot mountain house. Biggest project we ever did, Johnston says. Ian and I went out to Montana to learn about log crafting. With 130 plus drawings, the project took two and one-half years to complete.
We were very conscious of expansion/contraction problems with the logs, waterproofing. You carry that to the next project, he says. You learn. Its all about learning.
One of the things that Johnston says he has enjoyed the most is working with the same clients more than once. For 25 years he designed more than 50 K&W Cafeterias from Florida to West Virginia, constantly refining the kitchen. And one of the last projects he designed for Figure Eight Island homeowners was the privately owned golf club, Eagle Point, in Porters Neck.
That was fulfilling a dream we all had -- to have a golf course for Figure Eight, Johnston says. Tom Fazio, another North Carolinian, designed the exclusive course. Ian and I designed everything thats above the ground. I rented the lift again and we drove it around over there, he says.
Inspired by indigenous vernacular forms, the Johnstons blended the best elements from coastal lifesaving stations and inland train stations, bracketed overhangs and tapered shingled columns, for the clubhouse.
One of the nicest things in practicing over the years, I still get cards from people, Johnson says. I was lucky to have wonderful clients.
Among the many others, Johnston designed a Figure Eight Island beach home for Our State Magazine publisher, Bernie Mann, and later in Greensboro, completely renovated Manns permanent home.
I get a card with a note at Christmas, Johnston says. Were still enjoying your houses. Its very nice.
Ducking the question of why he chose retirement now, he says it was finally time to stop and smell the roses.
I want to be on top of my game and work 40 to 60 hours a week and be right in the middle of it, he says. I dont want to work halfway.