Clarence Paulsen called his palatial penthouse “my blue heaven,” after the delicate hue of the living room and dining room walls.
His widow, who chose the subtle color scheme, still calls her downtown eagle’s nest home.
For 40 years Helen Paulsen has lived quietly in the unsurpassed elegance of one of Spokane’s choicest bits of real estate - 16 floors above the sidewalk at Riverside and Washington.
The grand art deco office building that bears the Paulsen family name has been sold and resold over the years, but with a proviso: Helen, who’s now 86, may stay in the penthouse as long as she desires.
“Until they take me out in a box,” she says, adding a spirited laugh.
Generations of Spokane residents have gazed at the city skyline only to stare at the Paulsen penthouse and wonder.
Who lives there? What must it look like on the inside? What about that tree growing on the terrace?
The 15-foot juniper tree rising from the northeast corner was a natural focal point. When the tree vanished recently, it set off another buzz of interest.
For the first time since moving there in 1957, Helen Paulsen opened her doors to the press. It took a year of telephone calls and the intercession of a mutual friend, attorney Joe Esposito, before she said to come on up.
She’s no recluse - far from it. Helen Paulsen is a gracious and gregarious woman who possesses a razor wit.
For example: Curious about her family background, I ask Helen what her late parents did when she was growing up. Not pausing a beat, she quips, “Oh, Doug, they didn’t have to do anything.”
Indeed not. As I learned from reading old newspaper files, Helen’s mother was a countess who married often and quite well.
So many people have asked to visit Helen’s penthouse that she found it easier to settle on a blanket “no.” “You can’t let one person come and refuse others,” she reasons.
But last Thursday morning, she meets me in the Paulsen Building’s marble lobby. In her hand is the special elevator key that allows riders to ascend to the top floor.
Helen is a striking woman with snow-white hair and gray-framed glasses. She’s wearing a pink suit and walks with the aid of a silver-handled cane.
A second cane is for me. “You better use this,” she warns, extending the stick. “It gets like glass out on the patio when it rains.”
The elevator stops. She opens a steel door. A few steps take us inside Helen’s world of immaculate, understated luxury. Louis XV furniture. Wrought-iron gates. French windows. Gilded mirrors. Hanging “valance” style drapery….
It is a mammoth apartment that, counting the terrace, occupies nearly half a city block. The three main rooms are on different levels. An old-fashioned, built-in bar is lined with the original silver-capped bottles.
At the east end is a magnificent sun room. The room is ringed with tall, wide windows and will seat 16 people.
All of the carpet and walls are done in the same muted blue so appreciated by Clarence, Helen’s husband of 50 years who died in 1981.
At the dining room table, Helen pours black coffee into floral-patterned china cups. She talks about life on top of Spokane. Helen speaks in a halting, whispery voice. It’s a result, she says, of an operation some years ago.
A large oil painting of her mother, the Countess Annette de Martinprey, hangs on a dining room wall. She looks regal in a velvet dress draped with furs.
I tell Helen she looks just like her beautiful mom. “Thanks,” she says. “I just put on some makeup.”
Nobody is sorrier than Helen to see the landmark tree go. Planted as a shrub 67 years ago, the juniper bush outgrew its long narrow planter.
Last November’s ice storm sent four big branches crashing onto the 12th-floor balcony. The juniper’s roots clogged the planter’s drainage system, which leaked water into the law firm a floor below.
It was curtains for the overgrown shrub. “I couldn’t win,” says Helen, laughing again. “Those lawyers pay more rent than I do.”
It’s amazing to think that a Paulsen has lived here since 1930, when the penthouse was built to the exacting requirements of Helen’s mother-in-law.
Myrtle Paulsen shocked Spokane when she entered the business world with part of the $3.9 million estate left by her mining magnate husband, August, in 1927.
Women simply didn’t do this back then. A world traveler and a headstrong woman, Myrtle wasn’t content to fill her time attending high society teas.
So she built this 16-story medical and dental building. More eyebrows were raised when she topped her imposing structure with a resplendent six-room rooftop apartment for herself and two daughters.
“Mrs. Paulsen’s apartment is said to be one of the finest roof homes west of Chicago,” wrote a reporter for The Spokesman-Review in 1930. “For truly it is a beautiful spot … all riding high as if on a magic carpet or hanging in a huge crystal ball.”
When Myrtle died in 1957, surviving family members agreed that Clarence, the oldest son, and his wife, Helen, should be the next penthouse residents. Helen quickly made her own imprint, replacing the gaudier English and Chinese furniture with the more graceful French motif.
From this vantage Helen literally has watched Spokane grow up:
Rectangular bank buildings rose. Train trestles were demolished for Riverfront Park and Expo ‘74. The riverland was cleaned up to make way for the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute.
“It’s so beautiful up here. I’m constantly entertained,” she says, though the noise of booming loudspeakers from the cars does get a bit annoying on Friday and Saturday nights.
With our canes in hand, we venture out onto the red-tiled patio. The view is extraordinary: Idaho to the east, Mount Spokane to the north and the Sunset Hill to the west.
Perhaps to console herself for the demise of her tree, Helen had a nursery bring in 300 pink geraniums. They give a splash of color to the solid bronze statues and a small concrete pond.
With our tour nearing an end, Helen decides it is time to take me into a bathroom and show me the money seat. It is a clear toilet lid and seat embedded with dozens of coins and a $2 bill.
Millionaire mining magnate “Henry Day gave it to my husband as a joke,” she explains.
I mention that Clarence must have felt quite flush on it. “I never asked,” she says.
Not long ago, a group of fourth-graders was touring the Paulsen Building. Breaking her visitation rule, Helen invited them up for a rare peek at her penthouse.
A few days after the tour, they sent Helen a bundle of thank-you notes. Nearly every letter writer had drawn a picture of the money seat.
Luxury, like beauty, really must be in the eye of the beholder.
Having Helen in the penthouse “is special for the building and unique for Spokane,” says Joe Dinnison, the Paulsen Building’s current owner.
Penthouse ownership reverts to the building after Helen is gone, but Dinnison would prefer that day never comes. “I hope she’s around for a long, long time,” he says. “Our goal is to have her live there as long as possible.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Photos (2 color)