Helene Houle stood at her living room’s massive windows on the 24th floor of Park Towers in downtown St. Paul.
“John would say, ‘I can see my entire life from here,’ ” she recalled about her late husband, John Nasseff, the West Publishing executive who grew up in poverty on the West Side and made St. Paul his permanent home. “He chose it so he could see the West Side.”
She pointed to the panoramic view of the Wabasha Bridge and two others that span the Mississippi River, as well as the area of the recently demolished West Publishing building where Nasseff would walk to work.
Nasseff was one of the first residents of the high-rise when he bought and moved into the corner condo in 1983. But time seemed to have stood still since that day because Nasseff hadn’t made any changes to the furnishings and interiors.
“He was comfortable with the way it was, so why change?” said Houle, who married Nasseff in 1995.
Last year, Nasseff died on his 94th birthday. This winter, Houle was ready to refresh the home while honoring Nasseff and his enthusiasm for entertaining and socializing. “His personality was larger than life, and he always had such a sparkle in his eye,” she said.
Houle’s hands-down favorite color — cherry red — is at the heart of the condo makeover, tying spaces together with its juicy hue, from soft, subtle accents to bold splashes across the kitchen.
“Red stands for passion, and it makes me feel alive,” said Houle, a former hair stylist and salon owner who decorated her first salon, Helene’s French Flair, in red.
What initially sparked the renovation was an awkward raised “platform” in the dining area flanked by Corinthian-style columns “that felt like you were in Rome,” she said.
Nasseff was in a wheelchair after a stroke. It was difficult navigating him up the step to the dining table, said Houle. The platform finally had to go.
Houle enlisted her longtime friend James Noble of Noble Interiors in Minneapolis for the condo redo. “We wanted to keep the memory of John,” said Noble. “But add a little bit of Helene’s French heritage.”
First, Noble removed the columns and platform to create free-flowing living areas, which draw in light from two walls of glass. He replaced the wine-red plush carpet with French “Versailles”-patterned parquet oak floors, chosen by Houle.
Noble proposed painting over the original dark-paneled living-room walls with a lighter, brighter shade, but Houle was hesitant about such a drastic change. Noble showed her a photo from a previous project. “It reminded me of the St. Regis Hotel in New York,” she said. The couple often stayed there when they traveled. That helped her feel comfortable with the dramatically different look.
After painting the dark paneling a crisp white linen, Noble added a bronze and silver layer to highlight the moldings and the Cedar of Lebanon tree carving above the fireplace. Nasseff was the son of Lebanese immigrants and celebrated his heritage. An oil painting of Nasseff, in traditional Arab garb, by Ken Fox, holds a place of honor on a living-room wall.
“Helene wanted to keep the spirit of John’s style by reusing some of the original pieces,” said Noble. For example, the 1940s red-leather club chairs in the living room are Nasseff’s from the historic Minnesota Club. Noble refreshed two blue-velvet chairs by painting the wood a silver shade, and recovered the seats in a beige and silver swirled fabric.
In the dining area, Noble reupholstered the antique Jacobean chairs in a red damask pattern, which is repeated in the sofa pillows. A red ribbon design bordering the custom area rugs “gives the room softness, with red as an accent color,” said Noble.
Fiery red makes a daring, high-energy statement in the thoroughly remodeled kitchen.
Houle told her friend artist Merry DeCourcy that she planned to renovate and update the condo living areas. “She said ‘Are you going to have a beautiful new living room and keep that 1980s kitchen?’ ” she recalled.
That 1980s kitchen featured a dated linoleum floor, Formica countertops and fluorescent ceiling light.
Noble took space from an adjacent bathroom to expand the kitchen three more feet to make room for an island and counter space. Houle chose vibrant red Cambria with black flecks to top the red-lacquered island base.
“The red center island is so unexpected,” she said. Noble made sure it stood out by picking clear acrylic chairs, which disappear from view. Mixed-metal chrome and brass hardware accent the fresh, clean white cabinets. Finally, Houle took the dining room chandelier of polished brass ram’s horns, picked out by Nasseff, and suspended it above the kitchen island. “It has so much character,” she said. “Like John.”
In the grand foyer, the walls are covered in a custom silver-leaf antiqued finish, which “adds an updated elegance, a little shimmer and is the perfect backdrop for the portraits,” said Noble.
The eye-catching regal portraits are of Houle and Nasseff, painted by DeCourcy. “John reminded me of Doctor Zhivago in his fur coat,” said Houle, pointing out the pop of red in the scarves.
Nasseff was known as a dapper dresser who donned capes, berets and tailored suits. The wealthy philanthropist made a fortune at West Publishing and gave millions of dollars to many organizations, including United Hospital for a heart center, the St. Agnes School in St. Paul, and a dental clinic in Lebanon.
Although Houle has updated the 1980s condo with clean contemporary touches balanced by traditional finishes and furnishings, it still holds her memories of Nasseff.
“When I open the drapes and look out, I feel his presence,” she said. “He would have loved it.”