Architect Ernst Johnson's former home in no danger from wrecking ball

Contributing WriterFebruary 14, 2014 


    'Design and Influence: Ernst Johnson at the University of Kentucky'

    What: Lecture by Lexington architect Sarah House Tate on the influence of 20th-century architect Ernst Johnson

    When: 6:30 p.m. Feb. 17

    Where: Sts. Peter and Paul School, 423 W. Short St.

    Admission: Free

Tom and Lisa Fryman relocated from Manhattan to Lexington in 1987 and didn't know where they wanted to live. They moved into the high-rise downtown condos called The Woodlands, but Lisa Fryman would drive around different neighborhoods to see what else was out there.

When she went down Ashwood Drive, near Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, she passed a house that stood out: a one-story, four-bedroom, 31/2-bath home built of horizontal cut stone, with a low sloping roof, deep eaves and redwood trim around the windows and redwood garage doors.

"I said, 'Oh, my gosh, I love this house,'" Fryman recalled, laughing. "From then on, I called it 'my house.'"

It reminded her of a similar house in La Jolla, Calif., that she visited many times while growing up.

The house on Ashwood had been designed and built in 1949 by Lexington architect Ernst Johnson for his family.

Johnson was a well-known Modernist architect with close ties to Eero Saarinen, one of the most important American architects of the 20th century. The two had been classmates at Yale.

The Frymans and their three young daughters lived at The Woodlands for 10 years, until one morning in 1997 real estate agent Betty Jo Palmer called to tell Lisa, "Your house is for sale."

The couple bought the 3,000-square-foot house from Johnson's widow, Irma.

"After we moved in, I would walk around every day and say, 'I can't believe this is my house. It is so beautiful,'" Fryman said earlier this week.

That sentiment was hardly shared by some neighbors on Ashwood, a short, tucked-away street of traditional-style houses that connects Chinoe and Woodspoint roads.

"They hated it," said architect Sarah House Tate, founder of the Lexington firm Tate Hill Jacobs Architects.

Tate has great admiration for Johnson and interviewed Irma several times while she still lived in the house. On Monday, she will give a lecture, "Design and Influence: Ernst Johnson at the University of Kentucky."

Johnson was a professor of civil engineering at UK, hired by the university straight out of Yale. He essentially became the university's architect from the late 1930s through the '50s, designing 13 buildings on campus, all in a Modernist style.

"And he had his hand in a helluva lot more," said Lexington architect Byron Romanowitz, who was Johnson's partner in the firm Johnson Romanowitz Architects.

Johnson died in 1972, but he has been in the news recently after UK announced plans to raze several of his buildings, including Holmes Hall (built in 1956), the Wenner-Gren Aeronautical Laboratory (1941) and Jewell Hall (1938).

How typical, Romanowitz said.

"When architects on the contemporary edge design buildings, people don't like what they do," he said, chuckling. "They have to wait 50 years or until the architect dies for the public to suddenly find value in what they did."

A hallmark of Johnson's university buildings as well as his own house was his masonry skill.

"While working in a Modernist sensibility, he had a visceral sense of how to put brick and mortar together" in beautiful patterns, said Lexington architect Graham Pohl.

Tate added, "Not many architects are so gifted with brick as Ernst was."

The son of a first-generation Swedish bricklayer, Johnson paid his way through Yale as a union bricklayer.

Johnson combined his love of masonry together with Modernist architecture in building the house on Ashwood Drive for his family.

"Everything in that house is Modernist, starting with the open floor plan that is a signature contribution of Modernism," Tate said.

Modernism was the first architectural style not to reference the past.

"It stopped and studied the way people lived, and designed a building to fit the way it was going to be used," she said.

For instance, Johnson designed a nook in the hallway that has a built-in bench and a telephone shelf so people could sit and talk on the phone.

A cupboard in the dining room was built to hold exactly six TV trays, reminiscent of a time when people liked to eat dinner in the living room while watching television. Irma played bridge, so another closet is just big enough for a card table and four folding chairs.

Under several windows in the dining room and four bedrooms are louvered panels that can be opened for ventilation in warm weather.

On the garage floor is a clever little bump in the concrete — "so you can feel it with your car and you don't make the mistake of pulling in too far," Pohl said.

"Everywhere you look is this attention to detail," he added.

One end of the living room has a brick wall laid in an unusual stacked brick pattern. There's brick around the base of the living room fireplace, stepped out like an upside down wedding cake.

Johnson also loved wood and, with his Scandinavian heritage, birch in particular. Dining room walls are paneled in birch, bedrooms in ash. The living room is paneled in pecky cypress, a once very desirable wood with unusual narrow cavities caused by a fungus.

Beverly Fortune is a Lexington writer and a former Herald-Leader reporter. Contact her at or (859) 948-7846.

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