Old homes always have stories to tell, but few can claim as illustrious a history as this circa 1934 Austin manse. In 1960 it was purchased by Ruben H. Johnson, a local banker and philanthropist, whom Walter Cronkite—a longtime friend who kept an office in the property’s guesthouse—described as “a splendid, old-country gentleman of the old school.” Other guests who dined and amused themselves in these rooms include five presidents, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and Van Cliburn, who tickled the ivories of the home’s grand piano.
Johnson was a complex character, “a man who spent time in the federal penitentiary and was also knighted by the Pope!” marvels the current owner, an oil and gas executive who shares the home with his wife and three young children. Cronkite’s gushing description, in fact, was his plea to Bill Clinton to grant Johnson a presidential pardon for bank fraud. (Clinton was eventually won over, with the help of former first lady Lady Bird Johnson.)
When designer Fern Santini and architect Paul Lamb arrived on the scene in 2007, shortly after the current owners had purchased the home and just before Johnson’s death, they found “a typical ’30s house,” says Santini. “It was a rabbit’s warren of rooms, with halls that didn’t make sense.” Lamb saw his job as “opening it up and upping the volume of its inate classicism,” and then working with Santini on finishes and materials that would “give it a sassy, jazzy, 1920s Hollywood feel.”
Before that could happen, though, general contractor Joe Pinnelli found he had his hands full, structurally speaking. Pinnelli describes himself and his crew as “scientists of the envelope,” the envelope being “everything from the roof deck to the earth in the crawl space.” The issues started right at ground level, with a basement that flooded every time it rained. Pinnelli solved that problem by digging a moat around the house and going below the foundation to install a moisture barrier and drains.
Another challenge was the main staircase, a basic two-flight, shag carpet-clad switchback that lacked the requisite sense of glamour. The homeowners wanted something sweeping and circular, so Pinnelli commissioned a Wisconsin firm to figure out the tricky engineering. “Creating a freestanding circular staircase takes Olympic gold medal-level artisans,” quips Pinnelli, who says the resulting stair was shipped in one piece and brought in, corkscrew-like, through the front door. Then Santini and Lamb gave it silver-screen flair with Lucite balusters and polished-nickel caps.
Throughout, says Lamb, are Santini’s “Cole Porter touches”—a glittery mosaic ceiling in the kitchen, plaster relief “drapery” in the marble master bath fashioned a` la Tony Duquette, a Tord Boontje crystal-encrusted branch chandelier (“I held Fern off on that one for a year before I finally broke,” says the owner) and a silver-leaf ceiling in the dining room. The furnishings are a mix of new, custom and antique. Some of the latter were bought for the house—the living room’s Syrie Maugham mirrored breakfront, the kitchen’s 18th-century tole lanterns, the master suite’s ’60s lamps—while others, such as the famed aforementiond grand piano, were part of the purchase.
Throughout the project, the owners remained committed to doing things right. “With a restoration, you never know what you’re going to find,” says Santini, noting that this home revealed chapter upon chapter of horror stories. “That usually means that you have to compromise on finishes because you spent all your money on things you couldn’t see. But these clients didn’t do that.”
“It was a lot more expensive and took much longer than I’d ever imagined,” concedes the husband. “But, having grown up with a decorator in the house [his mother], I trusted Fern. And it came out great.” And of course, this generation of homeowners has added its own fascinating tales to a home already rich with storytelling.
—Jorge S. Arango