This article appears in July/August 2015 The Encounter.
I love how isolated I am in downtown Omaha in a parking lot.”
Jill Benz says this from the second floor of her Little Italy home, trees dappling the light through every window. Standing there with her, I can’t disagree that, for a few seconds, I also forgot I am, essentially, at the back end of the Amtrak parking lot.
(“After three days, you don’t hear the trains,” Benz says.)
Sure, there are trains; and on the west side of the building there’s a 200-foot smokestack that tells the first chapter of the building’s story as a steam power plant for Burlington Station and other buildings in the area. But today, that Burlington-branded stack is the backbone of a waterfall that cascades from five different areas, and the sound of falling water, plus the insulation from the trees around the property, do produce an effect more bucolic than industrial.
That’s not to say Benz’s Burlington isn’t urban, or distinctly Omahan.
The exposed brick walls of the main living area show photos of old Omaha—weathered images of buildings that no longer exist—along with an old Summer Arts Festival poster. A thick book detailing 1894 Omaha and South Omaha history perches on a table. On the first level in an open kitchen and entertaining space are old backdrops from the 6 p.m. news—”Channel 7, I think,” Benz says. Back upstairs, a show-stopping white leather banquette hugs the whole length of the living area—its bones are from the old Grandmother’s restaurant at 90th and Dodge streets. And there’s Benz herself, an active member of the Little Italy neighborhood association and a kind of local historian, telling the stories of each part of the history of her home—and her hometown—as we walk.
So, sure, Benz’s home might not feel like it’s in downtown Omaha (in a parking lot)—but it does feel like Omaha.
“I found the listing on Trulia,” Benz says. She left Omaha in the 2000s for Connecticut, where her daughter lives. Benz remarried there and established an interior design business. Then, a few years ago, her husband passed away.
Back in Omaha, her mother fell ill. Benz returned.
She looked at a place on the water that was bigger than she needed before she found the Burlington building. It had been on the market for a while—a friend of hers considered buying it himself. She called him, told him she was interested, and he got her in to see it.
“Then I dreamed about it, which has always been a sign for me,” Benz says. “The next day, we started the deal, and by the middle of the afternoon, I got it.”
She didn’t tell her other family members—specifically her older brother—until a month and a half after the deal closed.
“My older brother has a different kind of brain than I do,” Benz says. “There were no furnace ducts or air-conditioning or kitchen. He asked me about all the things the building didn’t have.”
It has all of those things now—most notably the kitchen, on the entry level, designed in an open format with an island workspace. A lit peace sign hangs over the wall-oriented work area, and the whole thing stands adjacent to a garage door that opens to one side of the patio. Entertainment space both indoors and out boasts plenty of tables and stackable seating; outside, gas and wood fire pits stand back from brick walkways.
The second floor living space is decorated in bright blue and white, with graphic Greek- and Moroccan-inspired prints mixed with mid-century chairs and metal and glass tables. The Grandmother’s banquette plays against streamlined grey velvet sofas and tulip armchairs.
“I picked things I liked,” Benz said. “I went classic modern. I thought it would work.”
A white metal spiral staircase leads from the second floor to the third and fourth floors, where Benz’s bold print choices continue. The fourth-floor space has a cozy seating area with more modern leather chairs.
The building’s roof offers a view of downtown Omaha. A raised, framed structure houses a few outdoor sofas; curtains can be let loose to give the space privacy.
Benz said the floors inside the building’s steel walls are heated now, though she’s tried to be as energy-efficient as possible. The building’s only enclosed area houses a geothermal heating and air-conditiong unit—a kind of new-era nod, perhaps, to the building’s past life.
“It’s such an unusual building,” Benz says. “It’s taken a while to get it right. I do love it. It takes a different kind of a person to live in this kind of a place. It’s such an adventure.”