IN this city renowned for its family traditions and historic homes, the Johnson family is tied by generations of intimacy to a block of Montague Street. ``I can't imagine living anywhere else,'' says Stevie Johnson, 33, looking up the block at the 18th- and 19th-century houses that his family has restored. He corrects himself, ``I couldn't live anywhere else.''
These feelings run through four current generations of his family.
When his sons Stevie, 8, and Mikie, 6, ride their bicycles up the block, they pass their aunt Peggy Worth and her husband Mike in No. 6, their parents, Stevie and Darlene, and great-aunt Pat Johnson in No. 8, their grandparents George and Estelle Johnson in No. 12, their aunt Estelle Dukes and 10-year-old son Chip in No. 13, and their great-grandmother Estelle Ohlandt in No. 14. Their grandparents own and rent out Nos. 15 and 16.
``I don't think I could live anywhere but Montague Street,'' says Estelle Johnson, 61, who grew up with her parents and grandparents in the house that is at the center of the family's history here, the 26-room, 175-year-old No. 12. ``I just love it. My lifeblood is here.''
Historic preservation for the Johnsons is a kind of personal maintenance of houses and streets and heritage that give the family its sense of identity.
Estelle's grandfather first moved onto Montague Street in 1907, buying No. 12 for himself and his wife and his parents. At one time he owned the Victorian houses at Nos. 8, 10, and 14 as well. But by the time George and Estelle bought No. 8 from Estelle's uncle in 1949, houses all over the neighborhood had begun to deteriorate, many in the hands of absentee landlords.
``It was do something about it or get out, move to the suburbs like everyone else,'' recalls Estelle. ``Well, we didn't want to move, I mean my family was here, Mom and Dad, and we didn't want to move.''
Instead, they began buying and renovating property, financing each purchase with the sale or rental of a previous house. ``We did it mainly because of the neighborhood,'' says George, 59, describing how they refinished the woodwork and painted interiors themselves, rewired and added plumbing.
Eventually they renovated 17 houses in their district, all receiving the Carolopolis award for restoration from the Preservation Society of Charleston. No. 6, No. 12, and the two-centuries-old No. 13 have been on the Historic Charleston Foundation's annual tour of historic homes.
``I mixed all my colors at that time,'' says Estelle, pointing with satisfaction to the Greek Revival-style house at No. 16. ``At dawn and dusk this one looks just like the sky. I sit over there on my daughter's steps and watch it.''
Around a corner she pauses before a 19th-century Charleston single house, one-room wide and turned endways to the street. ``This house my great-great-grandfather on my mother's side built. I spent many hours of my childhood sitting on that porch, learning how to crochet and knit from by great-grandmother.'' She and George bought the house and restored it, and then sold it to a young couple. They gave a house to each of their four children. ``We wanted to do for them what my father did for us,'' Estelle explains.
Outside No. 12, a horse-drawn carriage of tourists draws to a stop, and Estelle hesitates for a fraction of a second before advancing. ``It makes you feel kind of silly,'' she murmurs.
``Look at that door,'' the tour guide is saying. ``See the pressed brass of the doorbell?'' As Estelle unlocks the 14-foot mahogany door and steps into the piazza, the guide calls out, ``Beautiful door, ma'am.''
``Thank you,'' she responds warmly, closing it with a mixture of relief, amusement, embarrassment, and pride.
The piazza, a wide porch with bougainvillea, wicker chairs, an Oriental rug, and two excited collies, runs the length of the house for two stories and overlooks a walled garden of nasturtiums, Confederate jasmine, sweet peas, and kiwi vine.
As the ceiling fan pulls evening air and the scent of the jasmine in from the garden, members of the family drop by from their nearby houses, sit on the porch, and chat. Conversation drifts easily among them, one completing another's thoughts.
``There's usually always someone having a birthday or graduating from school,'' says George, settling on the swing with his one-year-old granddaughter, Stephanie.
``You can keep in touch with people and call on them if you need them, but you can lead your own life in a separate house,'' says Darlene. It's the little day-to-day things that mean the most, she says, watching as little Stevie and his great-grandmother examine a new spaceman toy.
``I still take care of the great-grands,'' says Estelle Ohlandt. ``The grands don't need me as much any more.'' She has a special relationship with Chip, who has lunch with her every day while his mother is at her job as a librarian. ``He's been a blessing to me, that little boy. I think I've done a little more than my share, and I've loved it.''
In the afternoons, Chip often studies at his home alone. ``He's right there in calling distance. We can see right in the yard,'' says his great-grandmother.
``I can see right into Mother's yard from this porch,'' says Estelle Johnson. ``I once hung one of those little stained glass things in my kitchen window, and it wasn't any time at all before she called up and said, `Estelle, I can't see you any more.'''
This kind of closeness isn't for everyone, the family admits. George and Estelle's oldest son George III (known in the family as Bubba), has chosen to move with his wife Patty to her home in Mt. Pleasant, 10 miles away across the Ashley River.
``It's like he moved to another country,'' moans Estelle. ``Bubba, you can't imagine how I miss you.''
Ten years ago, Stevie and Darlene spent 18 months in Houston, where Darlene got a master's degree in reproductive medicine.
``It was good for him to live in Houston,'' says Darlene, whose family moved to Charleston when she was in the fourth grade. ``It gives you a sense of perspective to live in a different place.''
``I hated it,'' says Stevie. He rushed them back to Charleston so that their first baby could be born here. Fortunately, he recalls, No. 8 was vacant. ``It was that or live with Mom,'' he says.
Stevie, a land surveyor, and Darlene, now a computer operator, work for his father's engineering firm, George A.Z. Johnson Jr. Inc. Estelle is a part owner of the firm, which is located in a restored house two blocks from Montague Street.
The son of a Greek immigrant, George A. Ziozias Johnson, who raised five children singlehandedly after his wife died, George Jr. admired people more than places before he married Estelle in 1948.
Now he and his children have become foundations of their community. He served for nine years on the board of directors of the Historic Charleston Foundation, and from 1976 to 1980 was one of two Republicans since Reconstruction to serve on the Charleston City Council. This year he is a delegate to the state Republican convention in Columbia.
``For years and years to come, people will recognize the name and associate it with where you live,'' he says.
According to his son Stevie, they already do.
``You can expect things from people because they know who you are and what to expect from you,'' he says. ``I know a lot of older people, 65 to 75 years old. They still say, `Little Stevie, how are you?'''
Watching his two boys riding their bikes up and down the block, he says, ``If it were up to me to advise people, I'd tell them to raise their kids here. But you'd have to experience what we've experienced for it to be perfect.
``I feel comfortable here,'' he adds. ``It's my heritage, I guess you could say. I feel like I have everything I want right here.''