At home with the Johnsons
You won't get to see it until Sunday evening, but we finally got the grand tour of Eric and Elaine Johnson's new home — made over in July by ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
The Johnsons were the first Houston family selected by the show, who brought them from a 720-square-foot home with just two bedrooms and one bathroom (and no air conditioning) to serve the couple and their five daughters, to a 4,500-square-foot Spanish-style home complete with a school room and office space to run their business from. It's got plenty of beds and bathrooms, too.
The Johnsons say response from their neighbors in the Third Ward has been nothing but warm.
"We've had neighbors say, 'You guys got the blessing, but we got a piece of it,' " Elaine tells CultureMap in her new living room — a room roughly the same size as the demolished house that once stood there.
"It's been an extreme community makeover," her husband, Eric, adds. "People are inspired to do for their community when they see that good things really do happen to good people. They're like, 'Man, I feel like it happened to me.'"
The house the Extreme Makeover crew demolished had belonged to Elaine's grandmother since the 1940s. The family moved back onto the land from a townhouse near 290 in 2007 after Elaine's grandparents passed away. Elaine says she couldn't bear to see the property lost.
"My grandma used to sit and wait for us to visit on that front porch," Elaine says. "And that porch acted like it didn't want to come down," Eric says of the demolition. "It was the last part to fall."
The house had already been in bad shape, a situation worsened significantly by Hurricane Ike. Besides hurricane damage, the property had become a haven for insects and rodents; the family's dogs lost their hair. Today they're healthy and nestled amongst throw pillows when not not guarding the threshold from reporters.
To have a new house gifted to the family seems like an obvious blessing, but it was one that Eric nearly vetoed.
"It took me a little while, you know, as a man," he says.
Eric works as a technician at Texas Children's Hospital, but he also runs a non-profit organization with his wife to counsel families and youth — his real passion. The family had hoped to sustain themselves with grants as they continued to give back to their community.
"I wanted to pull myself up by my own bootstraps," Eric says. The family was nominated for the show independently by two different people, but it wasn't until a 22-degree night when the stove wasn't enough to heat the house that Eric decided they could follow through.
"My wife deserves better and my daughters deserve better," he says. "I had to do something."
The couple met in 1994 at Elaine's sister's wedding and were engaged a few months later. "Elaine found me in the muck and the mirey clay and she cleaned me up," Eric says, smiling.
Although it sounds like love at first sight, they didn't like each other at first meeting. "He was too short and too weird," Elaine says with her nose crinkled. "You know he wore JJ hats and wide-leg pants, with sandals?"
Eric, who now sports long dreadlocks, jumps in to defend himself: "They weren't like, flare — they were boot cut."
But the real deal-breaker for Elaine was Eric's love of exotic fruit. "I grew up in the Third Ward," Elaine says, "on the good side."
So when she met Eric a second time, a few weeks after her sister's wedding, she found his kiwi a little pretentious.
"We ate apples, oranges, bananas, watermelon. If you had a tangerine or a grapefruit, you were getting fancy."
When he next pulled out a starfruit, she had made up her mind.
Eventually his off-the-wall humor got the best of her as they carpooled around Houston mentoring to youth. The couple still interrupts each other, feigning offense and refuting each other's version of their courtship — flirtatious evidence of a relationship still strong 16 years and five children later. Eric jokes that they were on their fourth child before they had their first date, having met when they were each 21 through community activism that kept them busy, and then diving fast into engagement, marriage and parenthood.
"She was all eyes and teeth," he says. "He was lusting for me," Elaine counters.
Spending the evening with them, it makes sense that they devote themselves to counseling other couples, a passion the new house stokes. There's a separate entrance and waiting room for clients where their children can play while they talk to the Johnsons in their new office.
As we talk, two remaining laggards from the Extreme Makeover team the crew leaves behind still fiddle around with loose ends, cleaning up projects that might have been slapped together due to the break-neck build. I was beyond impressed by the attention to detail. A section of flooring was being redone where it didn't have time to set properly. An electrician made sure the wiring was programmed the way the family liked it.
And as we toured the house, Elaine said that not only had the show left her kitchen and closets stocked, they'd cleaned, pressed and repaired all her existing clothes and shoes. Knowing she liked to wear a flower tucked into her afro, the designers left her a drawer full of faux blooms in her new walk-in closet.
But it was the girls who cashed in. I was told from above to wait at the base of the spiral staircase as the girls readied the upstairs. Shortly, Willow Smith's "I Whip My Hair Back and Forth" was blaring and I was beckoned up to take a front row seat as the sisters Johnson strutted down their own runway elevated, spot-lit runway.
It was clear these walks had been rehearsed. I wish I could tell you what other little-girl-dreams the designers fulfilled, but I can't — I've got to leave something for Sunday.
Next up for the Johnsons is the release of Eric and Elaine's book, Manage the Bedroom, Master the Boardroom — soon to be available for pre-order on Amazon.com. Watch their episode Sunday at 7 p.m