Layers of History

Let’s face it, no one owns a true period home. We know that because of the deft alterations people make to hide water pipes and wiring behind builtin cabinets. Or the clapboarded ells they build to house the kitchen and bathroom that even self-proclaimed purists can’t live without.

Likewise, homeowners rarely adopt a decorating style that’s frozen in time. If they possess a keen eye, a lifelong interest, and the necessary means, they might own an enviable collection of Chinese export porcelain or Chippendale side tables. But they’re still likely to add something modern, like a tall-post (but standard queen-size) bed or an upholstered (read comfortable) chair.

Our ancestors did the same. They brought family heirlooms or favorite objects with them when they settled in America, bought other furnishings as the need arose, and upgraded with better cabinets or ceramics when they could afford it. Little Sara’s needlepoint sampler or Papa’s portrait painted by the itinerant artist are the precursors of the clay bowl Johnny made in kindergarten or the graduation photo of Susie that sits on our shelf or hangs on our wall—even in a period house.

The Charleston home of Gene and Betsy Johnson in this issue shows how the layering of old and new and the juxtaposition of the sophisticated and the unexpected bring continuity and charm to a home’s décor.

Recognizing that their circa 1806 house contained neoclassical ornamentation that rivaled the finest museum houses in the city, the Johnsons invested in a first-class restoration and filled the house with turn-ofthe- 19th-Century English antiques—wealthy planters often had their furnishings imported from England— that suited the date and style of the house.

But Betsy readily admitted that for some choices, color or comfort won out over conformity to period style, as with the wall paint or the den curtains or the bedroom’s cushy chairs. “It’s boring if it’s all the same,” she said. “You need something funky like a deer head over a mantel.” In a separate conversation, Gene echoed the same philosophy. “We have a lot of family pieces and we’ve collected a lot. It’s a real hodgepodge, but I think that speaks in favor of it. You get a kind of layered effect.” (The layers, he added ruefully, didn’t extend to the La-Z-Boy chairs he wanted in the kitchen.)

After years of touring museum houses and shopping for antiques and traveling abroad, the Johnsons have absorbed a lot of decorating ideas. “All experiences contribute to the look of a house,” Betsy said. “If you’ve seen it in houses that have stood the test of time, you know it works.”

Jeanmarie Andrews

Executive Editor

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