In Britain, it’s increasingly common for the landed gentry to recast ancestral homes as grand hotels, not only to preserve the estate but—ideally—to kick-start the local economy with tourism, agribusiness, and the arts.
Sheila Johnson hopes just that for Middleburg, where this month she opens the 168-room Salamander Resort & Spa, 50 miles west of DC. Capitalizing on serene landscapes and the area’s rich sporting history, features include carriage rides, falconry, and weekend mornings replete with fox hunters breakfasting on the terrace, their mounts tethered nearby.
In other words, a country lifestyle, which some think is not Johnson’s to sell. After a five-year slugfest over permits and zoning with locals who feared that the $100-million-plus luxury resort on 340 acres might overwhelm the 0.6-square-mile, 673-person town, Johnson won. Then, with construction 70 percent complete, the 2009 recession halted progress, causing tongues to wag again about whether it would ever open.
For Johnson, 64, the past 15 years have been a series of personal and professional crises and triumphs. The salamander isn’t just a stylish moniker to her: As a creature famed for regenerating lost limbs, it symbolizes perseverance.
A frank, unapologetic businesswoman, artist, and philanthropist, she might seem an unlikely booster for a little town known for horses and field sports. But since moving here in 1996, Johnson—number nine on Forbes magazine’s list of the richest African-Americans—has been generous: more than $7.5 million to the Hill School, a private kindergarten-through-eighth-grade academy that her children attended; a grand fundraiser for the Piedmont Environmental Council, which promotes responsible land use; and a $100,000 gift to the Windy Hill Foundation, which builds tasteful low-cost housing in a town where rent is pricey.
There are other tokens as well: One Halloween she handed out candy and stuffed pandas in Mystics jerseys (she co-owns the WNBA team) in front of her newly opened cafe, Market Salamander. She walked in the fabulously quaint Middleburg Christmas parade—a tradition dating to the 1950s and famous for its Corgi Corps—dressed in a sweeping gown fit for a Broadway stage as Glinda the Good Witch, alongside her husband, William T. Newman, who was dressed as the Wizard of Oz. (The year before, Johnson says, she anonymously donned a gingerbread-man suit and was mauled by children.)
Johnson—who’s never been shy about giving to this staid, charming town—considers Salamander Resort & Spa her biggest gift yet. “What I am doing to the town is I am making it a lot better. What the naysayers don’t understand is that $1 million is going to the town to keep this town alive,” says Johnson, speaking of tax dollars estimated to flow from the resort to town coffers. “You see storefronts closing—there’s no reason to come here unless it’s a destination. I think over the years it will bear itself out.
“I’m trying to breathe some life into this area, and I think it is going to work.”
Whether Middleburg wants her help, though, is debatable.
Anyone in Washington who hasn’t heard of Sheila Johnson isn’t listening very closely. A classically trained violinist, she taught at Sidwell Friends School in the ’70s, eventually founding her own youth orchestra, which was handpicked by Queen Noor to perform in Jordan, where Johnson later consulted on a national music conservatory.
In the evenings, she and then-husband Robert Johnson, a lobbyist for the National Cable Television Association, were cooking up plans for a cable network they would call Black Entertainment Television, or BET.
“It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” says Johnson, a striking woman with glowing skin who looks stylish even in sensible shoes. By now it’s legend: Bob Johnson took a proposal for a senior citizens’ cable network, substituted “African-American” throughout, and showed it to John Malone, CEO of Tele-Communications Inc. With Malone’s $500,000 seed, BET debuted in 1980. The schedule eventually featured, among other things, sports from predominantly black colleges and gospel and soul music shows.
“I had a front-row seat on that ride—it started out as a channel and ended up as a brand,” says Jefferi Lee, who in 1982 was BET’s sixth employee and is now general manager at WHUT-TV, the Howard University station. (Bob Johnson didn’t respond to interview requests.) BET spawned restaurants, magazines, and an online presence. At the dawn of music videos, African-American artists found airtime on BET.
In its nascent days, urban rap made its mark with gritty, graphic depictions of ghetto life, drugs, and sex. “What disturbed me was the language and the way young girls were portrayed,” Johnson says. “If you turn the volume down, it looks like pornography. I rebelled against it, and I think it might have caused a little bit of a rift.”
Johnson pioneered programming like Teen Summit, featuring young African-Americans discussing such issues as bullying, respect, and teen pregnancy. Debuting in 1989, it had an 11-year run that garnered Emmy and CableACE awards.
“Bob was at the helm of the company, but Sheila was the conscience,” says Lee, who left BET in 1998. “There were several times I would get calls from both of them—they had opposing views, and I was in the middle. Bob was more focused on business.”
BET was the first African-American-owned company to go public, in a 1991 New York Stock Exchange initial public offering. But instead of stability, the heady combination of power and money that accompanied success caused the couple to splinter. In 1999, Bob Johnson fired his wife. Amid allegations of his infidelity, their marriage was also at risk. They divorced in 2002.
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In 1996, as Johnson’s world was unraveling, she came to Middleburg, pulled by her daughter’s passion for horses. Paige Johnson, born in 1986, has been riding since childhood. Her mother is more than just supportive—she chaired the Washington International Horse Show for three years.
Salamander Farm’s 169 acres, lined with stone walls and board fencing with vistas of the Blue Ridge, offered plenty of room for 27 horses, stables, and an indoor riding ring nearly the size of a regulation hockey arena. Johnson gutted the little house, expanding it to the tune of $7 million, with a pool, outdoor kitchen, and plenty of entertaining space. In 1996, Johnson uprooted Paige and her brother, Brett, three years younger, from Sidwell Friends and put them in the Hill School.
“They didn’t understand why at the time,” says Johnson, who also brought her now 89-year-old mother to live on the farm. “But I loved the intimacy of the [Hill] school and I needed the support. I had to cut the umbilical cord.”
Johnson joined the board of the elite 200-student academy and immediately gave $300,000 to construct a music room for the strings program—which had already been using a textbook she’d edited while an undergraduate at the University of Illinois. She still receives royalties from it, a trickle in her revenue: In 2001 Viacom bought BET, and the Johnsons received $1.3 billion. Assets and real estate were equitably split in the divorce.
The luxury hotel has been in planning for more than a decade.
“I could have taken my money, sat back, partied, become a social climber; instead, with lots of prayer and lots of therapy—and I have no problem saying that—I was able to move forward,” says Johnson, who gave the Hill School the $5.2-million Sheila C. Johnson Performing Arts Center, then endowed it for $2 million more.
Johnson retained Salamander Farm—named by a previous owner, Bruce Sundlun, a former governor of Rhode Island and a pilot in the US Army Air Corps during World War II. His code name was Salamander.Johnson also owns Salamander South, a training facility in Wellington, Florida, a town where the horse set goes for the winter show season.
“Salamanders can walk through fire and come through alive—if you chop off their legs, they regenerate,” says Johnson, sitting in her office amid piles of her own photography, framed and ready to hang in guest rooms at her resort, as well as modal scarves imprinted with her photos.
Empowerment and creativity thread through Johnson’s post-BET endeavors: She says she’s creating a lifestyle brand that she feels will make the world more just and enjoyable.
Along with Salamander Hotels & Resorts, which owns and/or manages four resorts, she has a line of luxury linens and is co-owner of ProJet Aviation, an aircraft-management company. As a partner in Monumental Sports & Entertainment, she is the only female African-American co-owner of three sports teams: the Mystics, the Capitals, and the Wizards. She has produced several social-justice documentaries and is executive producer of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a feature film based on the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American White House butler who served eight Presidents. She sits on numerous boards and is magnanimous with money and ideas in both very public venues and very private gestures.
Johnson’s ventures—from aviation and hospitality to films and basketball—may seem to have no logical business connection. Detractors call this scattershot approach a “flavor of the week” investment strategy, and her instincts haven’t always been foolproof, especially just after her divorce, when she ponied up cash for failures in areas from publishing to real estate.
“I never have a plan—I know what I want to do but as doors open you have to know when to walk through them and that is how I live my life,” says Johnson. “I believe in my instincts.”
“She’s a driven person,” says Newman, Johnson’s second husband. “She sees the beauty in things, and if she thinks she can make a difference, she makes it happen.”
Sandy Ain of Ain & Bank, who is general counsel to Johnson, agrees: “The challenge is restraining her. She gets impatient with anything that interferes with her goals.”