Talk about serendipity. Who knew that an accident on a racquetball court would lead to one of the city’s most prestigious private art collections—not to mention a grand Midtown penthouse for showcasing it?
To this day, Ben and Ann Johnson laugh about how she—small town Georgia girl-turned-Atlanta arts mover and shaker—and later he—longtime managing partner of Alston & Bird law firm—stumbled into the world of photography. They marvel at how four years ago their passion for artists from Harry Callahan to Weegee dovetailed with their love of modern architecture so much it prompted them to trade their traditional-style home in Ansley Park for a 14th-floor condo in nearby Colony Square.
But, as the lawyer in this dynamic duo reminds, we digress. It all started, Ben says, back in the ’70s when Ann slipped and fell while playing racquetball. No longer able to play, she, out of boredom, pulled out an old camera and began taking pictures. Ann’s new hobby mushroomed into photography classes, exhibitions and auctions, capturing Ben’s attention along the way, as they mingled with the likes of photographers John McWilliams, Elizabeth Turk and Linda Peters.
“I developed friendships with the artists; I got to know them all so well,” Ann recalls. “It was a great opportunity to not only know their work but also learn the cultural process from their point of view.”
The Johnsons began collecting with such fervor that by the ’90s their traditionally furnished home on The Prado was out of space—”and out of control,” Ann says. “We started rotating the collection and constantly rearranging.” At the same time, their passion for modern architecture kept them mesmerized by Midtown’s rapidly rising skyline, an interest that also began in the early ’70s when Colony Square, the South’s first mixed-used development, was built.
“All of this stuff—the art, the architecture—had been percolating inside of us for years,” Ben says, “and finally we realized it was time for a change.” Their three grown children didn’t exactly like the idea of selling the family home. “I asked them: ‘Just how long am I supposed to maintain this monument to your childhood?’ ” Ben recalls with deadpan humor.
They then called on longtime friend and interior designer Rita Carson Guest, who had worked on his law firm’s offices—and later its art collections—since the ’70s to carve out a new home high in the sky. The three recall gutting a penthouse that had been awash in pink shag carpet, heavily draperied windows and fake flowers everywhere. “We took out everything you could take out and still have the building standing,” Ann says.
Guest’s vision for the space matched her clients’ to a T. “I really believed in the back of my mind that I should design a museum to complement their art—yet one that would be totally livable.”
Her design consisted of creating a three-level penthouse, with glass-wall views on the north and east of the treetops of Ansley Park and Stone Mountain beyond, and from a southwest terrace of the downtown and Midtown skylines. From the main level living area, a short flight of stairs, covered in the unit’s original white marble, rises to an upper level where Guest took in more than half of the large terrace to create a family room and office; another set of stairs descends to a lower private level, where several small rooms were eliminated to create a spacious master suite and guest room.
One challenge was integrating some of the Johnsons’ traditional furnishings and antiques into an ultra-contemporary space. The couple gave some to their children and donated others to charity. But some pieces, like a pair of Biedermeier chairs, an antique desk and Ben’s favorite lounge chair, found a place in their new home, which, when juxtaposed with classic modern pieces by Eames, Frank Gehry and Philippe Starck, form perfect mates.
Ann describes their art in terms of three collections: his, hers and theirs. He’s drawn to the history of photographers such as Gretchen Hupfel and Walker Evans, while she’s more interested in the artistic process, such as what would prompt photographers like Weegee to create distorted portraits of presidential candidates. (The entire set of 40 images, which she purchased at auction, hangs on the walls of the upstairs bath.)
Together the two are fans of artists such as Amy Landesberg, whose brilliant red and orange contemporary glass sculpture lends a dramatic focal point to the terrace. Behind it, Midtown’s constantly changing skyline looms tall.
“When you make a big transition like this to become part of a vertical community, you feel like you’re making a big change,” Ann says, looking back, “when really, it’s all about simplifying your life and living with only the things that are really important.”
Rita Carson Guest, Carson Guest, (404) 873-3663, carsonguest.com