How the co-owners of the General Muir renovated their stunning Virginia-Highland home

On the 100-year anniversary of the house, the Johnsons overhauled it into a complete family home

Jennifer Johnson and Ben Johnson's Virginia-Highland house
The former dining room is now a cozy, blue-saturated den, thanks to grass cloth–covered walls, indigo leather Jimmy Cooper chairs from Industry West, and provocative art from local artist Tela Hubbard.

Photograph by Jeff Herr

It took 18 years for Jennifer Johnson and her husband, Ben, to determine exactly how they should update their historic Virginia-Highland house. They both started their careers as attorneys, and, according to Jennifer, the decision to open restaurants (which include the General Muir, West Egg Cafe, the Canteen, Fred’s Meat & Bread, and Yalla) was just as carefully considered. “We really do prefer to think things through before leaping into all our life decisions,” she says. “For the house, we talked and sketched and planned for so long before the renovation to make sure we got it right—just like with the restaurants.”

Jennifer Johnson and Ben Johnson's Virginia-Highland house
Musts for the new kitchen: a massive island, “serious” appliances, a chevron-patterned wood floor like they’d seen in Paris, and open shelves—theirs made from wood found in the attic. The oversized griddle is for Jennifer’s signature pancakes. Perimeter cabinets are topped with black granite countertops (honed to look like soapstone), while the large-scale island has a thick slab of marble sourced from Tate, Georgia.

Photograph by Jeff Herr

Jennifer Johnson and Ben Johnson's Virginia-Highland house
The Johnsons’ charming house, just blocks from Virginia-Highland’s restaurants and stores, was built in the American four-square style at the turn of the century.

Photograph by Jeff Herr

Jennifer Johnson and Ben Johnson's Virginia-Highland house
Landscape designer Ginger Ross defined a low-maintenance yard, and the couple was even able to squeeze in a free-standing building to house Jennifer’s home office.

Photograph by Jeff Herr

Flashback to 1997, when the newlywed couple discovered this two-story, circa-1916 house for sale. It was charming but a bit rundown: Asbestos siding covered the original exterior, and the interior was divided into a duplex. The couple bought it and installed a better kitchen and central air conditioning, but then life got busy with two children (Marcus, 14, and Max, 8). “A lot of the impetus for a renovation was about the kids,” says Ben. “We needed a place for all their stuff.” The main living room was full of toys, and the couple found it easy to avoid entertaining because there was just too much clean-up.

Jennifer Johnson and Ben Johnson's Virginia-Highland house
Vintage chairs and a favorite rug found at Scott Antique Markets anchor the front living room, now an inviting conversation spot since family clutter was moved upstairs.

Photograph by Jeff Herr

Jennifer Johnson and Ben Johnson's Virginia-Highland house
A corner of the upstairs hallway now has built-ins to serve as an informal office. Jennifer and Ben liked the look of two-toned walls, sometimes seen in schools and industrial spaces.

Photograph by Jeff Herr

Jennifer Johnson and Ben Johnson's Virginia-Highland house
The addition on the back of the Johnsons’ house included an upstairs master bedroom, bath, and small porch. A West Elm platform bed and brass and black sconces contribute to the loft-like decor.

Photograph by Jeff Herr

In 2015—just in time for the 100-year anniversary of the house, notes Jennifer—the Johnsons pulled in architect Mark Arnold, a like-minded neighbor who specializes in historic houses. Jennifer and Ben identified several key areas to change, starting with the single bathroom. “For all these years, we shared one bathroom for four people,” says Jennifer. To gain a master bathroom, Mark designed a bump-out addition that added a master suite on the second floor and a spacious dining area and mudroom on the main level. Arnold and contractors Phoenix Renovations also created a playroom in the former attic.

Jennifer Johnson and Ben Johnson's Virginia-Highland house
An addition to the house gave the family a large breakfast room, with space for a custom table made of white oak that can seat 10. The sculptural light fixture is by Apparatus Studio and can be found locally at R Hughes.

Photograph by Jeff Herr

Jennifer Johnson and Ben Johnson's Virginia-Highland house
As a quirky feature, Ben requested the master shower open out onto an upstairs porch for the feeling of an outdoor shower.

Photograph by Jeff Herr

Jennifer Johnson and Ben Johnson's Virginia-Highland house
“Our needs were simple, because when you go from one sink and one toilet for a whole family, you’re just happy to have more space,” says Jennifer. Geometric floor tiles are from Traditions in Tile.

Photograph by Jeff Herr

But perhaps no change was more significant than the kitchen, the heart and soul of any house—but even more so for this food-centric family. They never hired an interior designer (“We had enough confidence after all the restaurant designs to do this ourselves,” says Ben). The original Shaker-style bottom cabinets were repurposed with a coat of Sherwin-Williams “Iron Ore,” and a cobalt-blue island is topped with Georgia marble, the locally sourced, honed version seen at West Egg as well as other restaurants. “It’s working-class marble,” says Jennifer, “which is one reason we like it.” Ceiling-high subway tile and open shelves are other looks borrowed from restaurant decor, along with practical space planning that included two dishwashers, a separate beverage station, and a beloved combi-oven (steamer and oven combined).

Jennifer Johnson and Ben Johnson's Virginia-Highland house
Relaxed furnishings from Urban Outfitters and a photograph by Perry Julien of a Flaming Lips concert give Marcus’s room a cool persona. Ben and Jennifer took him to see the band at Chastain—his first concert—when he was five.

Photograph by Jeff Herr

Jennifer Johnson and Ben Johnson's Virginia-Highland house
Attic space now houses a guest bedroom tucked between the gables. Jennifer designed platform beds throughout the house with built-in bookcases. Her love of books is evident; West Egg Cafe was named for Jay Gatsby’s hometown in The Great Gatsby.

Photograph by Jeff Herr

Family life thrives in the new space; the large, custom dining table often becomes a makeshift homework destination, and the oversized island is the spot for morning cereal while the kids watch ESPN’s SportsCenter. “We’re definitely ‘home’ people,” says Jennifer, “and it was about time that we made this the home our kids can enjoy.”

Resources
Architect Mark Arnold, markarnoldarchitect.com
Contractor Phoenix Renovations, phoenixrenovations.net
Living Room Artwork above fireplace: Molly Rose Freeman, mollyrosefreeman.com. Artwork on right: Anna Hepler, annahepler.com. Rug: Scott Antique Market, scottantiquemarket.com. Den Sofa: West Elm, westelm.com. Chairs: Industry West, industrywest.com. Acrylic tables: CB2, cb2.com. Light fixtures: Apparatus Studio. Wallpaper: Phillip Jeffries, phillipjeffries.com.
Powder room Wallpaper: Abigail Edwards, abigailedwards.com. Sconces: Visual Comfort, visualcomfort.com.
Kitchen Perimeter cabinet color: Sherwin-Williams “Iron Ore,” sherwinwilliams.com. Stools: Rejuvenation, rejuvenation.com.
Dining room Table: Lostine, lostine.com. Light fixture: Apparatus Studio, apparatusstudio.com.
Teen bedroom Chair and ottoman: Urban Outfitters, urbanoutfitters.com. Wood cinderblocks: We Are Always Moving Industries, waamindustries.com.
Master bedroom Bed: West Elm. Bedside light fixtures: One Forty Three, onefortythree.com. Master bath Light fixture: Jones County Road, jonescountyroad.com. Floor tile: Traditions in Tile, traditionsintile.com. Wall tile: Builder Depot, builderdepot.com.

This article appears in our Fall 2018 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.

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