The Trouble with Trouble

Before Chris Abell left for her annual winter retreat in Florida last January, she asked daughter Kelley for one thing: Please have an elevator installed in her three-story Zorn Place condominium.

“I just felt there would be a time when I’d need the elevator to get around in here,” said the still-spry octogenarian. “So it was kind of a long-term investment.”

Kelley Abell’s favorite description of what happened next is inscribed on a napkin: “The trouble with trouble is, it starts out as fun.”

When she went into the condo after her mother had left for West Palm Beach, she was struck by how dark it was. Widowed only five years since the death of her husband Bill, whom everyone still lovingly refers to as “Scoopy” (a boyhood nickname), “my mother needed brightness, fun and happiness in here.”

Kelley decided a drab couch in the living room needed to be reupholstered, and brought in her friend – decorator Mary Alexander (of Alexander Interiors on Frankfort Avenue) – to do the job.

“When we started poking around, we took down some heavy drapes and saw how the paint on the walls had darkened,” recalled Alexander. “The walls needed a repainting, as well.”

“We decided on a new, overall design theme,” said Kelley. “Bright and happy.”

Like pulling on a thread, the reupholstered couch that led to the repainted walls led to a wholesale redecoration of the condo’s main floor until the entire place was unrecognizable. They even re-landscaped the charming front patio behind the iron gates. (Barbie Tafel Thomas Exterior & Landscape Design on Starmont Road planted a magnolia, boxwoods and a climbing vine.)

The living room was painted a light and inviting white, with a soft aqua textured linen wallpaper in key areas.

The couch – now a bright, textured woven coral with a whimsical bubble pattern – led to the need for other furniture. Two new club chairs with colorful floral patterns joined the room, along with a blue and white polka dot ottoman and a black and tan diamond-patterned rug.

Alexander had trim and moldings added to a wall of built-ins (by Sutton’s Classic Renovation on Glen Rose Road) and plantation shutters where those heavy drapes had been. But mostly, Alexander decorated not with new acquisitions but by relocating and repurposing items that had long existed in Chris’s possession.

The pièce de résistance was her collection of family photos – her late husband, four children, three grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren – taken from the shelves or elsewhere in the house, reframed and assembled in a presentation that now occupies an entire wall of the living room. (Art Emporium on Wilmington Avenue in St. Matthews did the framing.)

“I love taking clients’ possessions, looking at them proportionally and rearranging them by shapes and styles,” said Alexander.

For example, Alexander found in Chris’s basement the inside top of an old steamer trunk, once owned by and painted by Mary Alice Hadley, that now hangs as a piece of art over the doorway to the kitchen.

The kitchen itself was repainted Candlelit Beige (from Porter Paints) with all new cabinetry as a perch for Chris’s collection of roosters – ceramic, wood, metal, etc.

The vaulted living room is now a dramatic cranberry color (from the old yellowy-beige), with Chris’s existing furniture rearranged into comfortable conversation areas and clear, open sightlines. A mirror over the fireplace had once been owned by actress Helen Hayes.

And a little-used sun room in the back, with three walls of windows, was made inviting and functional by bringing in a whimsical coral-red couch with a monkeys-and-trees pattern that Alexander found in the home’s lower level.

All this went on while Chris passed a happy Florida winter with her other longtime companion, 17-year-old rescue dog Sandy, unaware that her home was being transformed. In fact, Alexander’s challenge was making decisions while the actual client was a thousand miles away.

The moment of truth arrived last weekend, when Kelley assembled a surprise “Extreme Home Makeover” party of 40 – family, friends and the various subcontractors – to greet her mother’s return.

“I didn’t know what all these people were doing in my house,” said Chris. “Then I saw that wall of pictures. That’s when I realized – and I cried. And when everyone went home and I was by myself, I cried again. Because it was beautiful, I loved every detail, and it was done with love.”

The only fly in the ointment: In all that time, the elevator has not yet been completed.

And that’s the trouble with trouble. It started out as a reupholstered couch. But this time, it will end up fine.

Contact the writer at YourVoice@voice-tribune.com.

Photos By CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune