October 20, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The story of the Gifford family legacy in Omaha has added a new chapter. The return of Charles Gifford to the city of his birth after nearly a lifetime spent in the Northeast ensures a continuation of the narrative that dates back to the 1880s.

How and why the Boston University graduate and Harvard-trained architect picked up the thread to his lineage reveals a deep familial respect. Omaha, in turn, is reaping the benefits of what Gifford and his wife, urban designer and landscape architect Michele van Deventer, bring to the table: over three decades working at top architectural firms in New York City and designing on both national and world stages. Both have a keen sense of what makes a city thrive. They feel they have something to offer Omaha.

“My feeling was this is my only shot at Plan B. I’ve got to do it now.” – Charles Gifford

“My [ancestors are] all buried out at Forest Lawn…a place where you see all these great Omaha names that have become meaningless over time,” says Gifford, whose family donated land that became Gifford Park in Omaha, Gifford Farm, and Fontenelle Forest in Bellevue. “My feeling was this is my only shot at Plan B. I’ve got to do it now.”

Mission accomplished for Plan B. Two years ago this fall, Gifford and van Deventer combined their considerable talents and business acumen and opened the Bath and Tile Corporation in Omaha’s historic Flatiron building—a venture prohibitively expensive in New York. The smart, chic, and brightly lit storefront boutique brings a touch of SoHo to 17th and Howard streets—until now, a no man’s land when it comes to retail.

“Many people will come to the [Flatiron] Café for dinner and they’ll say, ‘What’s that?’ And they’ll call us the next day,” says Gifford.

Word traveled fast, from the contemporary condos at Midtown Crossing to the traditional Dundee homes—and for good reason. With its subheading “architecture for the bath,” B + T offers one-of-a-kind, top-of-the-line fixtures you won’t find in boxy warehouse stores: the Neorest 600 paperless toilet for over $6,000; dual flush, cyclonic flush, skirted, tall, wall hung, and traditional toilets, much more moderately priced; sinks of all shapes, depths, and sizes; bathtubs made of real cast iron with feet; plain tiles, decorative tiles, or tiles with a slightly raised design. Want beige? Customers can choose from what seems like 50 shades of the same color.

“It’s a huge amount of work that Charlie does. He fetches and delivers and follows up and finds things, all unpaid. He’s remarkable. It’s part of the service of making the project come out.” – Michele van Deventer

Though sales are their main focus, Gifford and van Deventer often slip into the role of architect if a customer runs into spatial or functional problems.

“It’s a huge amount of work that Charlie does,” says van Deventer, a native of South Africa with a graduate degree from Princeton. “He fetches and delivers and follows up and finds things, all unpaid. He’s remarkable. It’s part of the service of making the project come out.”

As a couple in life and in business, Gifford and van Deventer fit. “Whatever it was that went into the making of us, we got dollops of the same thing,” he said, returning the admiration.

Though he comes from a long line of prominent ophthalmologists, Gifford seems to have received the biggest dollop from his mother, Emmy.

“My mother was a deft drawer and went to art school in New York. She wanted to stay there. But she lived in a culture that wouldn’t have her as an artist,” explains Gifford.

Emmy Gifford became a wife and mother but fed her creative gene by establishing Omaha’s first children’s theater in 1948, now known as The Rose Theater. In many ways, Gifford has fulfilled his mother’s dream—on his own terms. Now, he’d like nothing better than to see young adults fulfill their dreams right here in his hometown.

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