Design by Judy King
Architectural Design by Glen Fries
Photography by Tom Grimes
Text by Leslie Garisto Pfaff
For Princeton residents Joyce and Marc Johnson, moving from a large house on an expansive property to a townhouse in bustling Palmer Square was like returning to city life. And though the townhouse was newly constructed, it needed changing. It struck the former Manhattanites as more suburban cookie-cutter than cutting-edge urban.
“We wanted something that felt like a loft or a brownstone,” Joyce says. So after consulting with their designer, Judy King, and their architect, Glen Fries, they made a somewhat daring decision: tear out all the interior walls on the main floor and gut-renovate the entire space. “They wanted to buy something that was convenient in town so they could walk to everything,” says King, “but they also wanted something really unique.”
The townhouse would serve as a fulltime home for the couple and their four sons while they built a house in Jackson, Wyoming. After that, it would be a pied-a-terre of sorts: a place to stay when visiting family in the area or returning for lacrosse season. It would need to be suitably elegant for entertaining and yet comfortable enough to accommodate four active boys.
“When we sold our big house,” Joyce says, “we realized that we’d only really lived in two rooms, the family room and the kitchen. So when we renovated the townhouse, we made that happen again.” They took down the walls that had sectioned the first floor into three small rooms and created a large open space comprising kitchen, living and dining areas. To get the urban feel they were looking for, they had Fries install steel beams across the ceiling and replace the original wood stair rail with a sleekly modern iron version. In addition, King covered the walls with brick and, in the living area, with dark reclaimed wood.
The textural wall surfaces did more than just add a funky urban vibe; they also allowed King to add playful touches, such as a “hidden” powder room whose reclaimed-wood door melts into the background and an elevator cloaked in brick. “Judy did a really great job creating surprises and unexpected elements,” says Joyce.
The space is enlivened further by the Johnsons’ large art collection. They decided to take two paintings with them to Jackson but asked King to incorporate the rest of their 50-odd pieces into the design of the townhouse. To that end, she built a partial wall between the entryway and the living area and a series of niches, all designed to display art. A whimsical rendering of an elephant by Roy Lichtenstein, tucked into a niche near the entryway, is emblematic of the spirit of the collection and its placement throughout the house.
While the main floor is essentially wide open, King delineated each of the three spaces through the placement of two large, custom sisal rugs, one in the dining area and the other in the living area, in an off-white that pops against the dark wood floors. The furniture is elegant enough for formal entertaining but sufficiently comfortable for everyday living. Because the boys would likely be doing some of their homework at the dining table, for instance, King created a custom upholstered banquette and placed it against the wall, facing, on most days, the length of the table. (To accommodate a crowd, the table can be turned 180 degrees and opened up to seat as many as 16 diners.) The squared-off sectional sofa and occasional chair in the living area have a contemporary linear look, but their comfortable upholstery invites lounging.
Even the kitchen, perhaps the sparest of the main-floor areas, features stools designed for a modern aesthetic but generously upholstered for comfort. The original kitchen was gutted, and only the appliances were retained. Stainless-steel floating shelves give the space an urban-loft ambiance, along with sleek, flat cabinets painted gray to match the large island.
The Johnsons couldn’t be happier with the cosmopolitan feel of the townhouse, but what they really love is the impression it makes on firsttime visitors. “It’s a surprise when you walk in,” says Joyce, “because it’s so different from the other townhouses. People are shocked about the big, open space and the high ceilings with the steel beams.” For her part, King was delighted to be able to deliver the unique space the couple had asked her for. “It was really nice to be challenged,” she says.