Hearth Room with Heart

White Bear Township family uses memories to create a room with meaning.
Angie Johnson and her kids, Michael, 18, Matthew, 15, and Lauren, 13.

Settling into fall means starting to enjoy the warmth of home and hearth. One local homeowner recently remodeled her formal living room to center on a newly installed fireplace, which offers special comfort to her family in more ways than one.

Last year, Angie Johnson never expected a cancer diagnosis for her husband Tom, let alone for the cancer to be terminal. So when Tom asked to leave hospice to spend his final days at home, Angie comforted her children, Michael, 18, Matthew, 15, and Lauren, 13, with a promise.

“I said, ‘What if, after some time, we gut the room and start over,’ so every time you walk in there, you don’t [see the image] of Dad in that bed,” she says.

Tom Johnson, a humble, devoted family man and hockey dad, made local headlines after his eldest son Michael, then captain of the White Bear Lake Area High School hockey team, scored the first goal of the season—one day after his dad passed away. Tom’s dying request was that nothing would interfere with hockey.

Before losing a six-month battle with kidney cancer, Tom was hospitalized last fall at St. John’s Hospital in Maplewood. When he was able, he would spend his days visiting with family and friends around the hospital fireplace. “Tom and my mom would love to sit by the fireplace and read their books or chat,” Angie says. “And we would, too. If friends came to visit, we’d gather around there.” So when it came time to renew their space, adding a fireplace seemed a fitting renovation. “That was the place he felt comfortable.”

Enlisting the help of Christina Miller, owner of Christina Lynn Interiors, they transformed the 200-square-foot formal living room into a beautiful hearth room, which would honor Tom and bring solace to his family. The room was redesigned around a new gas fireplace, mantel and feature wall of white wood built-ins. They also replaced the flooring with new wool carpeting, installed custom drapes and added accessories. It was finished in May, just in time for Michael’s graduation party.

“It was important to me to create a very warm and comfortable room. We also had to make sure it flowed with the rest of the house,” says Miller, who brought on Ryan Schuette of Bald Eagle Construction as the contractor. Schuette also happens to be a hockey dad.

“Having a hockey dad involved with building the fireplace was another one of those wonderful coincidences,” says Angie.

Miller designed an intimate space with minimal furniture, placing two cream-colored armchairs and a tufted leather ottoman in front of the fireplace.

“We tried to honor her husband in how we accessorized the room with family portraits and memorabilia,” says Miller. “A lot of the artwork in the room [is of] places they’d been or artwork that her son had done. Some pieces just needed to be re-matted and reframed so they fit into the room better.”

Now Angie and her children use the room more than ever. “It’s a magical room. The kids just love it,” says Angie. “I’m so glad it’s a place they feel comfortable, and it’s a good place to remember [Tom].”

Honoring a Loved One
Christina Miller suggests a few simple ways to honor a loved one, including using their
favorite color in a space. You can have a tribute to their favorite places,
accessorize with a keepsake box that contains memorabilia or reupholster a
favorite piece of furniture. “There’s a definite balance in accessories and
photos, “ says Miller.  “As a designer, I
encourage honoring the good times and focusing on the memories rather than lots
of photos of the person.”