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Joe Namnoun says he “chased” the house for 20 years. Built in 1980 by renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern, it stands amid historic mansions on Prospect Avenue in Hartford — the result of the rare subdividing of an estate there and possibly the only building lot to become available along that stretch of Prospect in a century….
“I always thought it was so town and country — in town, but in the country,” says Namnoun, who owns J. Namnoun Oriental Rug Gallery, which he opened in 1985 in Hartford. Years ago, when he heard the original owners planned to sell, “I was a day late and a dollar short.”
But Namnoun never lost his love for the house. And in 2005, he and his partner, interior designer Marianne Donahue, finally were able to turn their longtime dream into reality and make it their own.
The couple have spent the past five years updating the house, including extensive work shoring up the grounds, which had begun to erode. They took out plastic bathroom fixtures including a lilac-colored bathtub, reinsulated the sun porch, replaced outdated lighting and painted and papered throughout.
They’ve added spectacular Venetian plaster — a Danube blue in the entryway so deep, you could almost take a swim; a rugged leather-like burgundy in the “man cave”; and a calm, classic bisque on the columns that flank the living room entrance.
They delight in the home’s architectural details — the columns, the turning stairway with Palladian windows, the numerous oval windows, the niches, and the French doors that are hallmarks of the modern traditionalist style of Stern, now dean of the Yale University School of Architecture.
But it’s clear that decorating their home has been their particular passion — from commissioning an airily light and dynamic Murano chandelier for the dining room to finding just the right spot for their collections of paintings and rugs.
“The beauty of this home, from a decorating standpoint,” Namnoun says, “is that everything has a story.”
There’s the small tablecloth Donahue made from old balloon shade fabric salvaged from the Mark Twain house, prettily trimmed with ball fringe that she also used in the dining room draperies. There are the 17th- and 18th-century rug fragments that she has turned into lovely pillows. And the rolls of hand-painted wallpaper that Namnoun bought back in 1988 and kept for years in a wine cellar — it’s now on their living room walls.
Both now in their early 50s, the two avid collectors met in 1987. Donahue, then married and the mother of two young children, ran a residential and commercial design firm in Longmeadow, Mass.
When Namnoun first met her, she was working on a commission, making 150 shower curtains for a hotel.
We were nearly crippled by the work! What did us in was all that grommeting,” Donahue laughs.
Namnoun remembers thinking, “That’s an interesting woman: She can go from high-end silk to rubber.”
Their friendship evolved. She bought rugs from Namnoun for her clients; he referred design work to her. When Namnoun’s cousin, who worked with him, became ill with incurable cancer in 1987, Namnoun asked Donahue to help with his company.
Twists Of Fate
Now, when the couple talk about their home together, everything does indeed have a story. As Namnoun puts it, “This didn’t just happen in five years. It evolved over many years.”
They recount with pleasure the many fortuitous twists of kismet. For example, it took them 2 1/2 years to find the 18th-century vegetable-dyed Aubusson rug with a lovely lattice and repeated palmette design that now graces their fairly small, square dining room.
When they spotted it in Miami, “We just looked at it and just knew,” Namnoun says. “It was almost too good. I thought, this is too lucky.”
Aubusson rugs typically are much larger, so he needed to be sure it had not been cut down. It hadn’t, and it fit perfectly in the room, which is also decorated with a pair of Chinese screens and a Jacobean table in English oak with brushed gold carving.
That’s a story, too: The dining table used to have a plain top, burned by a candle in a mishap years earlier. The couple had a smaller, similar table and decided to replicate that table’s carving to replace the dining room tabletop.
A small 19th-century Farahan Sarouk rug in camel hair, now in their powder room, was another lucky find. Namnoun says that of the 23,000 rugs he’s handled in his 25 years of dealing in rugs, “It’s the only one I’ve ever seen in that color.”
“I wasn’t looking for the powder room rug at that point,” Namnoun says. “The key to good decorating is to have a booklet with all the sizes. Good collecting is opportunistic.”
Similarly, the French Jansen marble-topped table in their entryway took the couple “four years to find and 10 minutes to buy.”
Namnoun grew up in Hartford and began his career importing watches and exotic cars.
“I was very lucky in my 20s, and I got to travel,” he recalls. He also became “an auction rat” and was particularly drawn to rugs; “I was an enthusiast before it was my profession.”
“I was clueless, trying to pronounce the names. But because of the way I looked” — he explains that he is of Christian Lebanese descent — “I had credibility. People looked at me and asked, ‘Where’s your rug store?'”
Donahue, who recently became a grandmother for the second time, meanwhile marvels that her maternal grandfather was a weaver and her maternal grandmother was a seamstress, and while she never met them, she too was drawn to work in fabric. And her paternal grandfather collected rugs.
In December, the couple opened their doors to about 800 visitors for the Mark Twain House and Museum‘s annual holiday tour.
“I was a little bit apprehensive,” Donahue says, “but it was really fun.”
Namnoun has gotten to know Dr. William Petit through golf, and he and Donahue again are making plans to open their home for a good cause — a Sunday afternoon fund-raiser later this spring for the Petit Family Foundation.
Copyright © 2010, The Hartford Courant