A local designer updates the lower level of the governor’s residence, transforming it from dark and gloomy to a room fit for company.
Three years ago, designer Barbara Hafften was tapped to transform one room at 1006 Summit Avenue in St. Paul.
It was a hypothetical project. The state-owned Tudor Revival mansion wasn’t really getting a makeover; the occasion was a fundraiser hosted by the local chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. Twenty-one designers tossed their business cards into a hat, then their names were drawn and assigned to a room at the governor’s residence. Hafften (www.bhinteriordesign.com) got the lower-level family room.
“We did dream boards — what a designer would dream up if they had the opportunity,” recalled Hafften. She envisioned a large stone surround and built-in bookcases to enhance the fireplace, restoring original windows that had been covered over and lots of fancy embellishments, including a decorative painted ceiling.
Little did she know that she’d soon get the chance to redo the room for real.
About a year after the fundraiser, she was contacted by the 1006 Summit Avenue Society, the nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the 1912 mansion. The society had selected the lower-level family room as its next target for a touch-up, and they liked Hafften’s vision for it.
“I said, ‘I don’t think you can afford what I dreamed up,’ ” Hafften said. So they asked her to modify her fantasy design to update the room in a more affordable way.
For almost five decades, the residence has been home to Minnesota’s governors, including Gov. Mark Dayton, who lives there now.
But he wasn’t Hafften’s client. “I haven’t met the governor, but I know his dogs very well,” she said, thanks to the many visits she made while planning and overseeing the project.
Instead, Hafften worked for the Summit Avenue Society, which does private fundraising to finance mansion updates (no tax dollars are used). All furnishings in the mansion, which belong to the residence, are selected by the society.
The mansion’s main floor and lower level are “official” rooms, used to host visiting dignitaries and gubernatorial staff meetings, while the governors and their families make their home above, in the second-floor living quarters.
The lower level hadn’t been updated in at least a dozen years, according to Kristin Parrish, president of the society.
“It was not a very welcoming space. It was really dark, and the couches were not comfortable,” she said. At events, especially during the winter months, “people trickle into the lower level.” But they rarely stayed for long. “People would wander down, then wander right back up.”
The society wanted the space reconfigured to accommodate more people, as well as being lightened and brightened so that they’d actually want to spend time there.
But with so much dark woodwork and so little natural light, lightening and brightening was no easy task.
There wasn’t enough budget money to restore the original windows, and besides, they were now obscured by landscaping. The furniture and accent pieces were also dark and heavy. “Everything was red and navy blue,” Hafften said. To add to the masculine vibe, there was a pool table and a foosball table, thought to be a holdover from Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s era.
“It felt like a man cave — so one-gender,” Hafften said. “It needs to be appealing to all.”
To lighten the space, Hafften had the dark red walls painted a soft warm yellow. “It’s modern but not trendy. You still want it to feel Old World,” she said. The painter suggested a top coat of glaze, giving the textured walls the look of old stucco.
Hafften also reworked the way the space was used. “The room is long and narrow, so furniture placement is a challenge,” she said. Before the makeover, the room had a sofa and a loveseat. “The loveseat ends up being one chair because people don’t like to share,” she said.
A new brown leather sofa had been donated for the makeover, along with a wool area rug, so those pieces became the starting point for the furniture. But instead of another loveseat, Hafften chose two chairs, in cornflower blue. “They swivel, which I love. They can face the pool table or the TV.”
Hafften “floated” the sofa to create a walkway, then added two sets of pub tables, for additional, conversation-friendly seating.
She also repurposed some items that were already in the residence, including an antique settee that she had recovered with new fabric. “I tried to re-use things to give it a nice historical sense,” she said.
But she also freshened the look with accent pieces in contemporary colors like burnt orange. “Bursts of orange bring it up to date,” she said, and the items can easily be replaced when the hue falls out of favor.
Best Buy had donated a flat-screen TV for the makeover, but instead of putting it in the existing built-in TV cabinet, Hafften had it installed next to the fireplace. The old TV cabinet was converted into a granite-topped beverage center, with a small refrigerator and microwave. “There’s no kitchen on that level,” Hafften noted, so the beverage center added convenience for casual entertaining, as well as storage for glassware, dishes and serving pieces.
Brighter, warmer bulbs in recessed light fixtures and a new fixture over the pool table helped increase light levels in the room.
As Hafften knew going in, there wasn’t enough budget to do everything she envisioned. “I would have loved Minnesota stone to face the fireplace and give that a focal point,” she said. But changing the color palette and the lighting made a big impact. “I’m very pleased. And honored. Not too many designers get an opportunity to do a public place that’s open to the people.”
The society also is pleased with the transformation. The updated space encourages guests to spend more time on the lower level — and check out its conference room with its gallery of portraits of former First Ladies.
“We’re very happy with the project — to see it brightened, freshened and transformed,” Parrish said.
There’s only one downside. Now, when events are winding down, staff members and volunteers have to take one last surveillance trip downstairs, according to Parrish. “We have to make a sweep at the end of the party to make sure people aren’t still lingering down there.”
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784