|If you were invited over to dine with Don Allen in his converted carriage house home, you would enter the dining room through elegant doors similar to a front entrance. Once inside, the garden wall and marble floor make you feel as though you entered Italy. It certainly doesn't feel like you have entered the garage. What an ingenious idea to convert a garage to compensate for a small dining room! His converted dining room can seat 20 with two tables seating 10 people each - when it is not being used to store his vintage 1967 chocolate brown Mercedes.
Plaster walls with a garden design, inspired by walls Allen saw in a restaurant in Rome, and the painted concrete floor that mimics marble, similar to that seen in an art gallery in Venice, were painted by faux finisher Kyle Hibb. Even a chandelier hangs above, putting the finishing touch on an Italian villa setting.
Don Allen of Allen House Inc. is a very colorful designer, but not necessarily in a design sort of way. He has a colorful personality. He is outspoken and admittedly very direct. He certainly is not for the meek. In fact, just getting directions to his house left me with little doubt that if I couldn't find it, I should just not bother showing up at all.
The 4,000 square feet Highlands carriage house that Allen has lived in since 1964 is just as dramatic, quirky, colorful, and rich as he is. Everything has a story, some happy and some sad, from his past or someone else's. He has beautiful, antique pieces along with others he refers to as a piece of junk. But every piece of junk he pointed out was unusual, and something most of us wouldn't mind owning.
Allen's home is very personable with photographs covering the tops of two beautiful pianos in the living room. One piano is working, while the other is simply used as a lovely piece of furniture to take up space in the large room. It is obvious from the photos who has played an important role in Allen's life. For instance, portraits of his four adorable Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, that have now passed away, are so prominent that it's not hard to tell how loved they were. No more needs to be added, but when you find out that the dogs ruined the outrageously expensive silk velvet tiger fabric on the ottoman and not the sun, you know they obviously had the best seat in the house. I n addition to the ottoman, the sofa, once covered in Fortuney (Italian fabric costing about $450 a yard), was recovered in Fortuney again because of the dogs.
What does Allen like about his home? It's a great house to entertain in. Allen's love of entertaining is obvious when he talks about the living room. He describes the furniture arrangement in reference to how it works when friends are over and where people sit. He often has large gatherings so he needs a lot of seating areas. Some are more comfortable than others. Allen prefers sitting straight up in a hard chair rather than slumped in a down-filled chair. Some people think down is comfortable. I don't think it's comfortable. Allen also wants his sofas easy to get in and out of now that he and his friends have reached a less agile stage of their lives. His solution is to raise the legs. I can't tell you how many client's sofas I have raised the legs on so they can get out of it easier.
Living in an old house, much less one that was once a large drafty carriage house stabling horses, presents challenges with today's standards of comfort, for instance small bathrooms and a small kitchen. Regardless, Allen has done very little to the original house, which was converted in 1947 by Mrs. Thomas Kelly, the widow of the owner of The Strassel Company. In viewing old photographs of the carriage house prior to its conversion you can see the original building had beadboard ceilings and brick walls. Allen admits he would not have plastered the ceiling, but is thankful she left one brick wall exposed to enhance its charm.
Remarkably, as much as Allen entertains, the only change he made in the kitchen was moving the sink to put in a dishwasher. Quite unusual are two cedar-lined cabinets in the kitchen that remain a mystery to Allen as to why they are there. Another rather small addition was a loft to a second floor bedroom.
To add architectural interest to the house Allen put in doors he found in Paris that lead into the living room. Shutters that came from an old house on Chestnut Street were added over and below the small windows in the living room fooling the eye into thinking the windows are actually larger than they are. Beautiful doorframes Allen purchased in England give an elegant touch to the house.
What style is this home? A mixed up mess, says Allen. It hasn't got a style. I don't believe in styles. I don't believe in color fads either. People ask me what kind of colors are they using this season? I say, I haven't a clue. I don't believe in that stuff. I think you ought to do what you want to do.
And two big pet peeves of Allen's are picking out wallpaper and lampshades. I hate wallpaper. First of all it's got to be absolutely perfect and most wallpapers aren't. And secondly it's perishable and you spend a fortune for it and another fortune hanging it. I'd rather spend money on paint. I almost always tell the client to do it in an eggshell finish so every time you flip the light off and on with your greasy palms it won't show like it does on flat walls. In some places I like high sheen, like dining rooms [where] it can really knock your socks off.
Allen's other menace is lampshades. Boy do I hate to look for lampshades. I think they should be passive, but people think they should walk and talk and crawl on their belly. In talking with Allen about interior designers today he comments, There are so few people out there doing quality work. They're just doing stuff. Allen believes this is happening because people are just grinding out degrees with few having any true design talent and knowledge. You've got to know about the periods and why they came about. Most of [them] don't know it.
Other regresses in design Allen sees today are younger people not understanding the value in antiques. Why, I don't want any of that old stuff. I'm so tired of hearing that I could cry. I think old stuff gives a room a bit of character.
When it comes to architecture Allen has a strong opinion on that too. The architecture in Louisville is so much better than Cincinnati. Oh god, some of that stuff in Cincinnati you could stick you hand out and touch five different surfaces with one hand. They do brick, they do stucco, they do stone. But of course, there's a lot of that coming back to Louisville with the 45-degree angle houses. Ugh! And I keep thinking 30 years from now we'll be thinking why did we build all those big McMansions. They're all just big, big, big for big sake. They don't have any charm, you know.
As charming as Carriage Court (Allen's name for his house) is, Allen is selling it and opting for a little less charm in place of more luxury amenities which he will be getting when he moves into his new condominium in The River Front facing the Ohio River. He is looking forward to a restaurant being in the building making entertaining even easier, and the building also has its own commissary. Not to say his new condominium won't have charm, but it goes without saying, Carriage Court is a very special home. Hopefully the new owners will love this home as much as Allen has and share it with as many friends and guests as he has. I fear, however, it won't be the same. After all there is only one Don Allen.