August 30, 2014 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Southeast of Tekamah, Neb., Jack Savage savors a chunk of watermelon as he peers out over the Missouri River from his picture window. Prairie grass and sapling cottonwoods undulate in the foreground. Just above eye level, purple martins flitter around a Colonial-style birdhouse. That roiling, fickle river flows deceptively placid through the middle ground. Farmland and a stand of mature cottonwoods in the riparian plain of Iowa take the eye to the Loess Hills far beyond.

This is a vantage point he designed more than two decades ago and, with occasional help from Nature, one that has been evolving ever since. The noted architect, arguably the biggest single influence on the skyline of Omaha, designed his dream home in his dream space fully expecting that Change would visit.

Retired now, Savage’s more than half-century career helped nudge Omaha from big-shouldered market town to budding metropolis. Woodman Tower, Omaha Douglas Civic Center, ConAgra Twin Towers, Union Pacific Headquarters, the Mutual of Omaha Dome Addition. He’s had a hand in dozens more iconic structures. In 1975, Savage even led the groundbreaking renovation of the Orpheum Theater.

Drive the lonely gravel road for several miles from Highway 75, wind in through cottonwoods along the river and you arrive at a structure that, knowing some of his groundbreaking work, is almost anti-climactic at first glance. It looks like a farmhouse with common ag-land out buildings.

The mastery is in the details, for one, in the crafted open-space livability and flexibility, absolutely paramount in Savage’s mind when he thought of his ideal living space. Openness. Light. Views in all directions. A connection to this land, now a federally designated conservation easement. A place he could decorate in tune with his wildly eclectic tastes and penchant for whim buys and new hobbies. This is not a modern masterpiece of design. It’s a place that fits this particular guy and his peculiar menagerie of interests.

“When you’re younger, you’re trying to make your name and impress people with new things and bold ideas,” he says. “I wanted a Nebraska feel here, something comfortable that fit this place and fit me. I don’t have to impress anyone out here. It’s just my little corner of the world.”

Eclectic and evolving. Early on, Savage went on a bit of a salvaging binge. The carriage house brags a cupola from a fallen barn, for one. Most notably, perhaps, visitors pass through the dark oak doorway and dual coat closets that once graced the entry to the law offices of William Jennings Bryan.

Next to the small antique table where Savage eats his breakfast sits both a banjo and a ukulele. The furniture throughout the house comes from myriad design eras. Look closely, though, and you realize many of the pieces (and works of art) could just as easily be displayed in a museum.

His reading chair, which also looks out over the river, is surrounded by books that range from beginning music guides to the grand tomes of literature. Currently, Savage says, he is using the solitude of this perch to “try to figure out” Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. “I think I’m getting some of it,” he says sheepishly.

“There’s a big difference between solitude and loneliness,” he says. “Solitude is peace. This is my place of solitude.” As part of that solitude, Savage has cultivated a preserve. “With that Conservation Easement designation, this will be a lovely habitat for birds, animals, and fish forever.”

This refuge, both for the architect and fauna, was always designed to evolve. It weathered the great flood of 2011. (The house stayed dry. The road to the property had to be rebuilt, utilities restored. Savage still is chain-sawing downed and dead trees). The work has had unintended benefits, he says. “You haul a chainsaw around a lot, you get in shape.” (Savage even whips out his bicep for his guest. Pretty dang buff for an 83-year-old).

A side room designed as a small theater has morphed into a first-story bedroom. He has increasingly lost interest in television. At the same time, he wanted a sleeping space on the first floor. He has reconfigured several spaces for the enjoyment of his grandkids.

His favorite space all along, though, has been the picture-window view of the river. Savage even purchased land across the river so “it couldn’t become a dump I had to look at.” When he first saw this piece of land while hunting back in the late 1980s, this spot was where he imagined himself at sunset reading a book, ham-handing a new instrument, or chewing on concepts of space/time.

“I love it,” he says. “Lovely solitude. It just feels right.” 

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