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Death of Danny O’Neil, a classic of ‘old St. Paul,’ ends an era

He ran a famed downtown antique shop, one of the last remnants of a time when the city’s wealthy showed up in limousines each year to pick out the latest Christmas ornaments.

Danny O'Neil, with his nieces
Danny O’Neil, with his nieces

Danny O’Neil, a classic St. Paul character who ran the Nakashian-O’Neil antique shop in downtown St. Paul, has died. He was 75.

The shop, in the historic Hamm Building, was one of the last remnants of the old St. Paul and a place where the Crocus Hill and Summit Avenue wealthy once showed up in limousines each Christmas season to pick out the latest ornaments that O’Neil and his partner, William Nakashian, displayed with taste and refinement.

So it was perhaps fitting that O’Neil died on Christmas Eve, soon after suffering a stroke in his store.

A black bow sits atop a wreath hanging on the shop’s door, to commemorate the longtime proprietor.

A wreath adorning the door of O'Neil's shop.
MinnPost/Joe Kimball
A wreath bearing a black ribbon adorns the door of O’Neil’s shop.

“His doctor had told him for years to slow down, but Danny did his own thing,” said his brother, Richard O’Neil. “He was at the shop at 7 a.m. the morning he had the stroke; he was on the floor for an hour before someone found him.

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O’Neil died a day and a half later, soon after midnight on Dec. 24, his brother said.

In a 2004 Star Tribune column, I called Danny the shop’s “deep-voiced, wry and worldly proprietor.”

The Nakashian family had been selling antiques in St. Paul since 1906; O’Neil came on as a partner more than 50 years ago. William Nakashian died in 1974, but O’Neil kept the shop alive, even as the city changed around him.

He was a well-respected interior designer, too, working in many of the city’s tonier homes, and was always pleased that his shop had become an annual destination for those seeking tasteful holiday furnishings.

And he was full of stories of the glory days when the wealthy demanded, and received, exceptional service from downtown merchants like him. He always took care, though, not to reveal the quirks and skeletons he’d come to know about the city’s elite when he worked in their homes. In later years, he rued the changes he saw overtaking the city, particularly the loss of downtown full-service shops like Frank Murphy clothing and Bockstruck Jewelers.

“Danny absolutely loved St. Paul; he talked about St. Paul to anyone who would listen, but he was sorry about what had happened; that there weren’t any more places like his,” Richard O’Neil said.

Over the past 10 years, he’d evolved from being somewhat eccentric to “being the best, brother, brother-in-law and uncle anyone could want,” said Susan O’Neil, his sister-in-law.

Ramsey County Judge Margaret Marrinan says O’Neil’s passing signals an end to an era.

“He was a key person who knew everything about St. Paul; he was part of that time when downtown was dotted with small shops, where people knew you by name,” she said. “It was vintage St. Paul.”

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Some of the online obituary comments help illustrate O’Neil’s personality:

  • Danny was a brilliant interior designer with notable wit and warmth. He would present an exquisite little Christmas tree decoration with the same glee as he would a fabulous antique find … As a mutual friend said, he was St. Paul’s Noel Coward, a master of high taste and classic wit.
  • He had a wonderful droll way of telling his stories. Surely a fun Irish wit. Loved to be in the beautiful space he had created, especially at Christmas it was just a delight.
  • I am quite sure that heaven will soon experience a little “sprucing up.” I can only smile as I imagine his arrival there, his discerning eye passing over everything, spotting something that he deemed to be slightly less than perfect, and then that quiet but firm statement, “Well, THIS will have to go…”
  • I loved to just sit and talk with him and enjoy his insights. I never knew where the conversation thread would lead, but I knew it would be intriguing. We talked about old homes, Dayton’s furniture clearance items, and end up talking about his beloved Latin Mass.

Richard O’Neil says he’ll keep the store open through 2012 to sell the inventory.