New decor at historic Johnston House

The Fred J. Johnston Museum at the corner of Main and Wall Streets in Uptown Kingston. (photo by Julie O’Connor)

Besides being noteworthy for its antique architecture, Kingston was also the home of one of the nation’s leading antique dealers, Fred Johnston. He advised Henry du Pont on his new Winterthur museum in the 1920s and counted among his high-profile clients Jackie Kennedy. Johnston also did his hometown a service by rescuing the Federal-style house that now bears his name and serves as the headquarters for Friends of Historic Kingston (FHK), which was slated to be torn down and replaced by a gas station.

Full of the antiques that he loved and collected, the Johnston House is particularly resplendent at Christmas, when the FHK decorates it for the holidays. This year, however, two rooms of the house, the parlor and the library, will get a fresh redesign by Brian McCarthy, a prominent New York City-based interior designer. “We’ve edited and simplified to bring the house a bit forward into the 21st century,” noted McCarthy. “We’ve commingled the traditional and period with the modern and contemporary arts to wake it up.” In showing how the two rooms could be made livable today, the results will be “interesting for everyone,” not just diehard antiquarians, said McCarthy.


McCarthy’s previous commissions include Winfield House, the US ambassador’s residence in London. Along with several projects in Manhattan and on Long Island, he is currently working on an oceanfront home in Prouts Neck, Maine and a ski chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland, which, upon completion, will have the world’s largest private Turkish spa.

According to McCarthy, the first step in the Johnston Museum project was editing out some of the furniture, so that “we can see the forest for the trees. I’ve probably taken away half the tables and chairs in the library.” He’s also newly displaying an item or two from the collection that he has discovered in storage, such as two quill boxes.

Step Two is bringing in and arranging the contemporary art. It consists of a large mixed-media piece by Judy Pfaff; Lilo Raymond’s exquisite black-and-white photographic studies of interiors; two sculptures by Nancy Graves; Christopher Kurtz’s surreal interpretation of a Windsor chair; and Deborah Ehrlich’s glassware.

McCarthy, who has a weekend house in Kerhonkson, honed his talents for harmonizing traditional and modern styles while working for Parish Hadley, the firm that did the White House for the Kennedys and whose clients included the Whitneys and Gettys. Despite the current fashion for mid-century modern and industrial design, McCarthy said that he continues to treasure “the absolutely unique pieces of furniture” from the more distant past.

He’s a particular fan of late-18th-century style, which played with light and space to maximize the sense of atmosphere and drama. “I tend to go back to those principles of design. They were so clever in that pre-electricity era with the way they played with light and mirrors.” He added that overall, “I have an extremely eclectic taste. I love the mixture and working with contemporary artists.”

Also contributing to the redesign of the house this holiday season are High Falls Mercantile and Spruce; Accord antiques dealer Ron Sharkey; design author Linda O’Keeffe; Grand and Water Antiques of Stonington, Connecticut; and Haynes Associates. Decorations will be created by the Stockade, Ulster and Hillside Garden Clubs; designers David Cavallaro, Dan Giessinger and Steven Keith; food stylist Roscoe Betsill; Brian Lynch of Botanical Design; and Victoria St. John Gilligan.

The redesigned rooms by Brian McCarthy at the Fred J. Johnston House can be viewed on December 7 from 5 to 8 p.m., December 8 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Fridays and Saturdays from December 14 through 22 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission costs $10, except for December 7 and 8, when it is free. Visits can also be arranged by appointment; contact The Johnston House, which is maintained by Friends of Historic Kingston, is located at Wall and Main Streets in Uptown Kingston.

Fred. J. Johnston House room redesign, Friday, Dec. 7, 5-8 p.m., free; Sat., Dec. 8, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., free; Fridays/Saturdays, Dec. 14-22, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., $10; Wall/Main Streets, Kingston;