Home Is Where the Art Is

Written by Vicki L. Ingham
Photos courtesy of Crose & Lemke Construction

When Richard and Jeanne Levitt returned to Des Moines after 24 years in Minneapolis, they spent a year weighing options about where to make a new home. A top-floor condo at the Park Fleur won out: It already had been enlarged by a former resident who had merged two units, and the Levitts added a portion of a third unit. Then they gutted the entire space, taking it back to the concrete shell and starting from scratch. “We wanted it to work for our life and lifestyle,” Richard says. After a long career in banking that started with his grandfather’s company, Dial Finance, Richard retired from Wells Fargo & Co. but continues to oversee the Nellis Corp., a private capital management firm. He and Jeanne travel frequently and entertain often, and they had a good idea of the kinds of spaces they needed.

The Levitts assembled a team of advisers, including architect Mark Kawell and interior designer Kristen Mengelkoch, both from Minneapolis, and acclaimed New York designer Thad Hayes, named one of the “Deans of Design” by Architectural Digest. Crose & Lemke Construction Inc. of Des Moines served as the general contractor. “I loved the process,” Richard says, “and I became personally engaged in it. It was fun to be involved with all the details.”

One priority was designing spaces to accommodate the Levitts’ art collection. Many of the paintings are large, and the Levitts were concerned that they might not show to best advantage under the low ceilings at the Park Fleur. Kawell’s solution was to bring as much natural light as possible into the interiors to alleviate the closed-in feeling. An open floor plan, wide doorways and a vaulted clerestory above the living room usher light inside. Frosted glass panels divide the breakfast room from the hallway, borrowing outdoor light for the indoor passage. Similar panels above the kitchen pantry share light with the powder room on the other side of the wall.

The importance of showcasing the art also dictated the handling of artificial illumination. On the recommendation of Hayes, Levitt consulted a New York City firm that designs lighting for art galleries. The resulting plan called for recessed lighting throughout the condo, providing bright, clean illumination, with no hot spots over the artwork. Installation of the fixtures, each crafted and placed to the firm’s specifications, required cutting through the concrete ceiling and nesting the fixture in a supporting framework to preserve the structural integrity of the ceiling.

A second priority for the remodeling was to design spaces to suit the way the couple live now and anticipate needs they might have later. “We enjoy entertaining,” says Jeanne, “and one thing I really wanted was a big dining room.” They enclosed two balconies, one to make the dining room and the other to create a cozy den. A large living room welcomes crowds, and a bar sink at one end serves both the living room and the den.

Opposite the den, a library filled with art books and catalogs serves as a wide passage to a shared office. To bring natural light into this area, Kawell designed the den wall as a room divider that supports a flat-screen TV. It helps enclose the den without blocking the light.

Beyond the master bedroom and bath suite lie the Levitts’ most forward-thinking additions: a self-contained one-bedroom apartment that can house a future live-in caregiver and a separate guest room with its own entrance. Both are in constant use now for visiting family and friends and offer privacy and independence for both the Levitts and their visitors.

“It was a thoughtful process,” says Jeanne of the entire project. “It was fun,” adds Richard. “She loved it, I loved it. The condo turned out to be exactly what we needed.” Gesturing toward the art, Richard says, “This place was built out for Jeanne and Dick, but also for these members of our family.”

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