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Style Home: Open Space, Open House

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The waterfront patio reflects the Johnsons’ love for the outdoors.
Photographs by John Lewis

Lisa and Poncho Johnson had already made plans to build their dream home in rural Sussex County when the tired brick house on an overgrown lot down the street in Milford went on the block.

“There were so many trees and bushes, a lot of people didn’t know there was a house there,” Lisa says. “But my doctor had lived there when I was little, and I remembered it fondly.”

What the house lacked in curb appeal was made up for by its location, fronting idyllic Haven Lake, the second-largest lake in Delaware.

“So there we are, with plans for one house, bidding on another one,” she says.

After several rounds of negotiations, the Johnsons won a dark, dated and cramped fixer upper. They shelved plans for their new rural home—with only a month to firm up blueprints for an ambitious renovation of the lake house in order to meet their builder’s timetable.

“I couldn’t have designed this in such a short time,” Lisa says. “I have a strong faith and I believe God designed this house, every bit of it.”

The plan was divine, to be sure, encompassing everything on the family’s multi-generational wish list. That included an elegant private apartment for Lisa’s mother, Anne Spicer, a garage workshop for Poncho, a pleasant yet hardworking kitchen for Lisa, and indoor and outdoor play space for the couple’s 5-year-old son, Colby.

They achieved that goal by opening up the core of the house to create an expansive gathering space with multiple conversation areas, a place for formal dining and a large kitchen that is twice the size of the original. Bedrooms and baths, Poncho’s study, a large sun room and the apartment radiate from the gathering space.

Built in the 1950s, the house included such Cold War amenities as a bomb shelter. The Johnsons’ priority was living space, so they enlarged the house, adding 2,000 square feet for a total of 5,100 square feet. “We knew we would need more room, and we were glad that we could keep it all on one level,” Lisa says.

Lisa had worked as an interior designer for years. Though she no longer takes on clients, she enjoys decorating her own home in a welcoming style that blends cozy upholstered pieces with family heirlooms. She comes from a family of standardbred breeders, so equine art is a recurring theme throughout her home.

“I don’t analyze,” she says. “I go with what feels good.”

Lisa grew up with antiques, so she’s passionate about colonial design. She draws inspiration from Williamsburg, Virginia, where she bought the lantern-style lights for her kitchen, as well as fixtures throughout the house. Classic Windsor chairs surround the breakfast bar.

The Johnsons repurposed a contemporary brick fireplace in the main seating area, giving it an Early American flavor by building in storage for wood. “It looks as if it has always been that way,” Poncho says.

A walnut wash stand was crafted from a tree on the family property and was passed on by Lisa’s grandmother, who thoughtfully documented the piece’s origin.

“She left a sheet of paper in the drawer, telling who cut down the tree and that he made three of them,” Lisa recalls.

A long, cane-seated bench in the foyer has been handed down through multiple generations. The tall case clock is an antique but a relatively recent addition. It was acquired by Lisa’s parents on a trip to Georgia. “The story is that they bought it with the proceeds from selling a car,” she says.

In designing the public spaces, the driving factor is maintaining a sense of openness. The circular layout of the rooms is ideal for entertaining, a priority for the Johnsons, who are accomplished and gracious hosts.

“It makes for a great flow because there’s always somewhere to go,” Lisa says. “You don’t come up against a wall and get stuck.”

She chose finishes—primarily wood and brick—that would give the house an immediate sense of age. The floors are poplar, finished with a cherry stain and inset with walnut plugs. “I wanted it to look old, very colonial,” she says.

But the floor plan is contemporary, in keeping with an active family in the 21st century. Various seating areas are defined by carpets. Tall pieces are placed against walls rather than in the center of the space in order to create an uninterrupted sight line.

“You need to have some leggy pieces in the mix to keep things light,” Lisa says.

She chose brick flooring warmed by radiant heating for an expansive sun room that runs the width of the back of the house. In a home with an active boy, the brick is practical as well as good looking.

“If there are any messes, we just hose it down,” Lisa says.

The hefty mantel on the sunroom fireplace was crafted from a walnut tree felled by her late father. The paneled walls exude the posh feel of a hunt club. Lisa says the luxe look was achieved with humble materials: planks of pine dressed up with slat trim commonly found in barns.

“It’s the cheapest pine you can buy, with all the knots in it,” she says. “I think it gives the wood more character.”

Colby’s bedroom is a fanciful play land. Inspired by a display in a hobby store, his parents had a track and LGB model train installed on the ceiling. Colby can lie in bed and watch the train chug overhead.

The master suite is soothing in pale greens and creams that harmonize with the outdoors. Tiles inset with a leaf motif accent the tumbled marble surrounding the tub. Lisa dressed the bed in linens with a magnolia print she discovered at Williamsburg.

“When I decorate, I like things to match the outdoors,” she says.

Open-air living is an integral part of life at the Johnson house. But before the family could enjoy their view of the lake, there was plenty of heavy-duty work to be done.

The lot was so overgrown, the brush that was cleared away filled 40 Dumpsters. Trees that obstructed the view of the lake were cut into logs, then carted off in two tractor trailers.

Two towering tulip poplars form a grand entrance to the staircase, which leads to a broad waterfront patio illuminated by lights reminiscent of a ship’s portholes. During large gatherings, a tiki bar is a source for refreshments while musicians play in a nearby grove of trees.

“We enjoy the setting,” Poncho says. “We watch the sunset every night.”

The parcel behind the house also is designated for outdoor play—for grown-ups and children. There’s a playground for Colby and his friends and a large adjacent patio that can be quickly set up for a big barbecue.

“That’s what we enjoy most about this house,” Lisa says. “We’re always ready for a party.”

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GET THE LOOK

Draw inspiration from public places that embody the style you love. For Lisa Johnson, who is passionate about Early American design, Colonial Williamsburg became a destination, as well as a source for period-style lighting.

When choosing furnishings for an open floor plan, steer clear of tall pieces that will block the line of vision. Define various spaces with area rugs.

Keep things in the family by making heirlooms a part of everyday life. The Johnsons have pieces crafted from wood milled from trees on the family farm.

Designate outdoor rooms. The family property includes a play area for young Colby and his friends, a gathering space for al fresco dining and conversation, and a large, waterfront patio with a tiki bar.

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