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Johnston's parents, Alexander Johnston and Louise Johnston (née Buckhout), moved to Waseca County, Minnesota, in 1856, along with a few other families.
They established a settlement named Okaman on the shores of Lake Elysian. They moved again, to Saint Paul, where their fourth child, Charles Albert, was born in 1864.
In 1886 Johnston formed a partnership with William H. In 1895 Johnston entered the competition to design the new Minnesota State Capitol, but lost to Cass Gilbert.
On May 22, 1901, the Minnesota State Board of Control, a body responsible for the construction and operation of all state-funded institutions, appointed Johnston as State Architect.
His work specialized in domestic, religious, and public architecture.In 1886 Johnston established his own practice in Saint Paul and gained a reputation as a respected domestic architect.By this point in his career, he was designing countless homes and churches in Saint Paul, especially in the vicinity of Summit Avenue and Saint Paul's Hill District.Their first son, John Buckhout Johnston, was born in 1858, and became a prominent manufacturer and businessman. The family then moved to Wilton, which was then the county seat of Waseca County, and Alexander Johnston took over the publication of a local newspaper. After moving briefly to Hastings, the family returned to Saint Paul permanently in 1868.