Interior designer Henry Johnson had heard stories about the grand days at Baltimore’s Windy Gates, a beautifully landscaped estate that stretched the length of Lake Avenue, from Falls Road to Roland Avenue. Railroad and investment executive Joseph W. Jenkins had moved his family onto the property in the late 1880s, believing the shingle-style house and surrounding acreage would be a fine place to raise his 10 children. It was also a fine place to be a guest, according to older friends and relatives of Johnson, who recalled classical concerts in the music room, lavish parties in the dining room and strolls through formal terraced gardens designed by the famed Olmsted Bros. Boston firm. “It was the scene of beautiful entertainment and a lavish lifestyle of a bygone era,” says Johnson, a principal in Johnson/Berman Architecture and Interior Design. “The spirit of the place is of a large but cozy cottage a la Newport, in an Arts and Crafts style. There’s almost a feeling of perpetual summer.”
In the early 1980s, the house was sold, divided into four condominiums and renamed Devon Hill. Two decades later, when Johnson was hired to totally redo a ground-floor unit overlooking the Olmsted gardens, his philosophy was to find the original architectural bones of the building, and “do no harm.”
“We wanted to return it to what it used to be,” he says, “to respect its rich past and character without being a slave to history.”
The owners, a superstar venture capitalist who grew up in Baltimore, and his wife, a native New Yorker, were relocating from New York City. They wanted to create a sense of openness in the interiors and take advantage of the garden views.
Johnson’s plan required totally gutting and reorienting all the spaces. The most important element of the new design is a long living room with glass walls looking directly onto the formal gardens. Off the foyer, at the northern end of that living room, double doors lead to the master bedroom. In the center, stairs descend to a terrace level with a guest suite including a library, exercise area and a wine cellar. And at the southern end, an intimate reading and television area opens to a dining niche and kitchen with wonderful views onto the original Windy Gates terrace and gazebo and a lush thicket of woods and ponds.
Among the Windy Gates “bones” preserved are two fireplaces, elaborate crown and wall moldings, and leaded windows with stained glass accents. Johnson enhanced the condominium’s air of refined luxury through his selections of paint, wallpaper, fabrics and furnishings. His eclectic interiors mix old-style European symmetry with modern conveniences and American practicality in ways that suit the clients’ lifestyle.
“We didn’t want anything too feminine— no chintz— nor did we want our home to resemble a men’s club,” says the wife. The “just right” result is a timeless space in neutral tones of cream, taupe and brown, with deep cranberry accents. Furnishings combine contemporary and traditional elements— sometimes in designs that use old wood in a modern way. “These clients appreciate quality of any vintage,” says Johnson. “They like good old things, and good new things.”
The showcase living room is located on the footprint of the original summer porch, which had been enclosed during the transformation to condominiums. The porch’s quarry tile is still in place beneath newly laid oak flooring. To preserve the heritage and the dimensions of the defunct sunporch, Johnson placed narrow bookshelves at two points along the window wall to “give the suggestion of porch columns.”
The room’s dimensions may be rooted in the past, but the custom motorized shades hidden above the windows fast forward it to the present. Rolled up or down at the press of a remote control button, the scrim shades are made from an insulating material developed for NASA’s space shuttle. They block both the intense solar heat of summer and the chilliest temperatures of winter. Wool sheer draperies soften the light when the scrim shades are up.
In the center of the living room, with a view straight down the center of the three garden terraces, a large coffee table anchors a conversation grouping of cashmere-covered sofas and scroll armchairs.
“That table is the campfire,” says Johnson of the oversized mahogany table, “the conversation center. This room is all about comfort. It’s dignified enough for tuxedos but casual enough for shorts and tennis togs. It can accommodate anywhere from six to 60 people and it overlooks a space designed by one of the great landscapers in American history.”
Subtle details underscore the room’s elegance: Baseboards are faux marbled, floor planks are cut from old quarter-sawn oak and waxed to a soft sheen and French wallpaper features soft gold stripes on a cream background.
A television cabinet painted with harbor scenes in the chinoiserie style separates the reading and television area from the conversation grouping. On one side of the cabinet, Johnson and decorative painter Betsy Greene indulged in a bit of whimsy to honor the owners: for the wife from New York, a small Statue of Liberty; and for the husband, an avid competitive sailor, a little dinghy bearing the name of his 36-foot racing boat, Bingo. Two upholstered armchairs and an ottoman in Italian cut-velvet invite lounging.
The dining niche provides a transition from living room to kitchen. A round pedestal table, custom designed by Johnson and made with 150-year-old pine beams salvaged from a 1995 fire at the Maryland Club, rests on a wool rug bound with Italian glove leather from Prada. Johnson’s talent for mixing old and new show in the contemporary Spanish lighting fixture suspended over the table; the fixture and its cylindrical shade were made by a firm in Barcelona. Warmth and texture emanate from the Paloma Picasso wallpaper— a batik-like print in tones of sage, brick and tan. Dominating one wall, a vintage French advertising poster shows a bewigged gentleman dancing with an animated champagne bottle, adding both visual drama and a sense of fun to the space. The room’s original leaded glass windows provide views of the landscaped back yard with its terracing, gazebo and grassy dell.
The kitchen is an inviting space in pale greens with green-flecked granite countertops and a backsplash of aged porcelain tiles. An eat-in island features legs adapted from a decorative 18th century column Johnson found in Paris in the ’60s. Artisans at Ilex Woodworking produced the matching legs as well as a carved frieze beneath the granite countertop.
Careful planning produced two gorgeous views from the kitchen— one out the original back windows to the terrace, and the other straight through the dining area and living room to the formal gardens. “We avoided any built-ins or large furnishings that would compromise that wonderful vista,” says Johnson.
At one point in the planning, the space now occupied by the kitchen was dedicated as the master bedroom. But the spaces were flipped along the way, so that the bedroom now faces the front drive, instead. Behind insulated draperies, Johnson created a serene, luxurious retreat furnished in soft warm tones of pistachio green and buttery yellow. “This room had really good bones,” says Johnson. “We just restored them and added a beautiful color palette that suited the clients.”
The room was originally a wide hallway that led to the Windy Gates music room. Johnson hired the plaster artisans of Hayles & Howe to restore the ornate ceiling and wall moldings to their original splendor. Although the original doorway to the music room was enclosed years ago, its elaborately carved over-door panel remains, visible above the bed headboard and a pair of 16th century botanical prints from Italy.
Draperies were sewn in Italian cotton and lined with English felt for warmth and to screen out noise. The same cotton was hand-sewn and quilted into bed coverings, but only after Johnson washed it seven times to soften it up.
It’s that kind of attention to detail that keeps Johnson’s clients happy and comfortable in their surroundings.
“These clients like classical style architecture and their belongings fit the rooms beautifully,” says the designer. “I consider the interiors to be like envelopes to hold the owners’ activities and belongings. My job is to create good flow and a soothing environment where they can live their lives.”
Kay MacIntosh is a former editor of Style.