From the October/November 2018 Issue  

A Place of Harmony

Writer Janet Purcell  |  Photographer Peter Rymwid  |  Architect DAS Architects  |  Builder Pasquito Builders, Clemens Construction  |  Location Hopewell Township, NJ

EXTERIOR | Shed dormers suggest the house is Neocolonial, the wrap porch speaks of Transitional Colonial Plantation and the intentionally unbalanced roof gives it a New England Saltbox pitch. The Johnsons refer to it simply as their farmhouse in Hopewell, NJ.

Famed sculptor Seward Johnson and his wife, Cecelia, fashion a rustic retreat in Hopewell Township, NJ

“When we saw the property and the old house for the first time, there were children playing here. I thought of a Norman Rockwell painting and we just knew.”

Cecelia Joyce Johnson is sipping tea at a round table on one end of the front porch of the farmhouse she and her husband, sculptor and painter Seward Johnson, call their Hopewell Township, New Jersey, home. She looks across the broad lawn to a pond beyond the rock-walled entry road, her gaze sweeping back as she remembers a rope swing in a certain tree that was near the porch that first day. She points to the same tree and a rope swing that is there today for their grandchildren to enjoy.

Retractable Isinglass remote-controlled shades surround the Johnsons’ favorite gathering place: the wrap-around porch of the main house. Infrared heating, lighting and fans embedded in the ceiling provide climate comfort while a handpainted “rug” on the gray-painted mahogany tongue-and-groove floor completes an outdoor sitting-room effect. Plants, baskets of fresh flowers and paintings add grace notes.

That’s the kind of home the Johnsons envisioned, designed and are enjoying.

“I think of it as a haven, a refuge, a safe place for every animal, domestic and wildlife,” she says. “We think of ourselves as here in nature and want our relationship to be integrated so it’s a refuge for animals as well as for us.”

The land was all new forest rebirthing from farmland when the Johnsons discovered it in the early 1990s. Property manager Jeff Shehab tells of two workers mining the fields for two years for stones they brought forward to build the curving walls that picturesquely border the drive into the property.

The original plan was to use the existing farmhouse, once owned by Jud Timm, a local resident and former standout college football player and coach in the 1920s-1940s. When it became apparent too much had to be done to make it viable, the Timm house was taken down and a new farmhouse that looks as if it’s been there for 200 years was built on the site.

“The Johnsons wanted the feel of an ordinary farmer’s home,” Shehab says. “They know what unbelievably good architecture is and how to get it done. They wanted it to be rough hewn. Textural and rich. High end but not classy. They said they weren’t trying to bring Princeton’s high-end to Hopewell. They wanted to assimilate into the quaint town they’d come to love.”

  • Designed to emulate an English country house kitchen, the central focus is a 7-foot-long copper pot rack that hangs over the center island. Glazed ceramic tiles in varying pastel tones under a bright yellow hood reflect on the hanging copper pots and the 60-inch Wolf stainless steel range. The floor, painted and handwritten in a parquet design, cabinetry shoe rails and cottage corners all say English country kitchen.


  • A combination of open and glass-door cabinetry allows for display of pretty dishes while closed cabinetry hides the everyday makings of a kitchen.


They chose Susan Davidson and David Schultz of DAS Architects in Philadelphia and general contractor Frank Pasquito, whose son stepped in when his father died. The project was ultimately taken over by Clemens Construction based in Philadelphia.

After viewing the first set of plans and finding them more ostentatious than they wanted, they had the builders excavate the basement deeper and broader to have more space underground and fewer rooms above. That took 2,000 feet downstairs, thus reducing the footprint and roofline. That lowest level serves as a media room, a card room, lounge area and bar as well as a great play area for the grandchildren.

“The Johnsons played building blocks with the plans for weeks, always trying to get it down to that farmer’s-house feel,” Shehab says.

POWDER ROOM | Reclaimed post-and-beam timbers, along with plaster walls and a ceiling faux painted to look like weathered wood, frame a quirky rendering of the contemplative scenes that can be viewed from the home’s front porch. A custom vanity offers storage under the vessel sink.

The house has two bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs as well as a room where Seward Johnson paints and develops many of his ideas for Grounds for Sculpture, the 42-acre sculpture park he founded in nearby Hamilton Township, and where Cecelia Johnson pursues her own professional interests. She is an author who has also written and produced cabaret shows at the Café Carlyle in New York City.

  • LIVING ROOM | An Orkney Island cane chair joins a round table always laden with stacks of books to be read and discussed with family and friends. Skip-trowel plaster, old bricks and randomly positioned reclaimed oak timbers give a rough-hewn feel, and more books cram the shelves of cabinetry made from oak-timber veneers.


  • Another view of the living room in the main house.


  • LIVING ROOM | The 34-by-23-foot living room includes a piano parlor overlooked by a reclaimed pine-railed staircase. An American handmade wool rug anchors the listening area under an electrified wood candelabra that Seward Johnson designed. Centered over the settee is one of several acrylic paintings he did of his son, John. A Chickering Baby Grand piano stands ready to play at the side.


  • KITCHEN TABLE | Ladder-back cushioned chairs and a padded bench under a bay window surround a custom-built and -distressed maple kitchen table. Natural-tone linen drapes held back by forged-iron clasps soften the morning light and frame the view of a small breakfast patio outside. A replica of a rooster, whose counterparts are found throughout the home, stands in the gas-fired fireplace with stucco surround, adding homey ambience year-round.


  • SITTING ROOM | A built-in desk, three-quarter-high paneling and book shelves trimmed with a high chair rail enclose the family’s much-used sitting room. A swath of sheer upholstery fabric that picks up the sofa’s colors serves as an area rug.


  • DINING ROOM | Frederick Duckloe English Windsor-style chairs surround a restored American-style dining room table that can be expanded to seat 18 people. Linen drapes hang from forged-iron rods and puddle on the reclaimed pine floor while American folk-art paintings add to the easy comfort of a meal with the Johnsons.


  • Red chairs surround a game table on the basement level of the main house.


  • A pool table and bar make this part of the basement level a popular spot.


  • This cozy seating area, also on the basement level of the main house, is perfect for chatting or reading in front of the fireplace.


On the ground floor there is a great room that includes a piano parlor at one end and a formal dining area just off the kitchen. There is also a book-lined cozy sitting room and a whimsical half bathroom on that floor.

  • GUEST HOUSE | Bark-skinned local cedars form the porch fencing and balustrade leading up to a chinked square-edge log cabin, one of two guest houses on the property. A wrap-around covered porch sets the scene for a peaceful getaway. Inside is a living room, kitchen, two bedrooms, and two bathrooms.


  • A 12-by-24-foot deck on a guest house overlooks the tranquility of a pond created to enchant invited guests.


  • LIVING AREA | Fully decorated by Cecelia Joyce Johnson with easy chairs, and rag and hooked rugs on the floor, this guest house is homelike and welcoming. A forged-iron chandelier with 14 paper shades sheds gentle light onto the conversation area beside a Pennsylvania fieldstone fireplace with a stone mantel. Walls are character-grade pine, and there is no fine millwork to intrude on Mrs. Johnson’s rough-hewn aesthetic.


  • Another view of the high-ceilinged living room in the guest cottage.


  • KITCHEN | A French Le Cornue range joins a copper apron sink for country farmhouse appeal. Comfortable seating around a restored male-top kitchen table and an always-well-stocked pantry are all designed for guest comfort.


  • DINING ROOM | A reclaimed and repainted corner cupboard, a braided rug and a pierced-tin suspended light define a cozy corner for relaxed dining in this guest house.


  • A quilt adds an interesting mix of color to a downstairs bedroom in the guest cottage.


  • Beams support the high ceiling in this second-floor bedroom in the cottage.


The Johnsons love to entertain and to have guests stay with them. To do so, and to afford privacy for their visitors and for themselves, they built two guest cottages along paths that wind through the woods from the main house. One guest house sits on the edge of a pond where guests can relax privately and watch wildlife gather.

INDOOR POOL | Conversation groupings as well as napping places and reading spots border one length of the 38-by-21-foot indoor pool. Two walls of custom mahogany-framed glass panels that run on electric activators offer broad views of sheep pastureland.

There’s a warm and welcoming feeling as soon as you begin the drive up the stone-bordered road to the farmhouse. If it’s late afternoon you will probably see the Johnsons sipping late-day libations at their favorite table on the porch. In fact, “every tree, bush — everything — has been done with the view from that table in mind,” Shehab says. And when you accept their warm invitation to join them, you see why. The porch is comfortable in almost any weather, and the view is peaceful and replenishing.

BARN EXTERIOR | Built in the past 20 years using materials and methods of barns built 200 years before, the three-story, 64-by-47-foot spa barn overlooks pasture where herds of prized sheep graze.

“I think of our home here as music,” Cecelia Johnson says. “The way you feel when you hear a symphony and you sense that no note is out of place and there is harmony. People say they feel calm and a sense of peace here. It’s like a piece of music.”

  • The Johnsons and their guests can enjoy snacks and drinks at a poolside table.


  • Another seating area beside the pool.


  • SPA BARN YOGA ROOM | Heart pine floors signal the entrance to a full-circuit mirrored exercise room that runs the 41-by-12-foot length of the spa barn’s second floor. A yoga room complete with anti-gravitational chairs overlooking the farm is on the floor above.


  • STONE STEPS | One of the most prized areas of the farm is this stone stairway leading from the main house kitchen to the spa barn. The hand-forged railing — designed, created and installed by Francois Guillemin of Firedance Studio in Hopewell, NJ — follows the on-the-farm-harvested stone steps and walls that solidify the character of this home.


Janet Purcell, a frequent contributor to Design NJ, is a writer based in Hopewell. See what special gift Janet presented to the Johnsons after she wrote this story here.

Editor’s Note: Mr. Johnson died in March 2020 at age 89.