Tag Archives: Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture

The Devil is in the Detail

August 20, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Jenny Gradowski drives up to her home each evening, she says the scene still gives her pause. “This is my home,” she says with awe. 

Gradowski and Joe Pittack live in a spacious white home at 3402 Lincoln Blvd., a grand place steeped in history. Their story here started last year, as they added their own touches to their new home. 

The couple shared what they know of its narrative one warm summer night on the house’s porch—a key selling point for Gradowski, who works at Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture. While the home lacks central air, and summer heat can be a challenge, the porch (luckily) remains a cool place to chat.

“It’s not really a wraparound, but it’s curved enough to feel that way,” she says. “The views, though—the views were enough for both of us.”

Designed to make a statement, Pittack and Gradowski’s home reigns over the Bemis Park Landmark Heritage District from its hill on a large corner lot, much like it did when it was built in 1902. The neighborhood was one of the first in the city to be designed with the contour of the land in mind. The view today consists of towering trees, a playground in the distance, and further afield, Cuming Street. 

The 14-room home was one of several homes that prominent architect Frederick Henninger designed in Bemis Park. The neighborhood was a prestigious one when the home’s original owners resided there. It boasted the city’s finest Victorian-era homes and proximity to the Cuming Street streetcar line. Bemis Park remains quietly impressive, with a location that allows Pittack and Gradowski to walk to dinner and Pittack to bike to work. He co-owns Ted and Wally’s, with locations in the Old Market and Benson. 

The home has more than a century’s worth of stories. Pittack says they started looking into them only after they moved in. There are funny ones, tragic ones, and even the odd tale about a religious sect.

The 6,000-square-foot home was built for a well-loved restaurateur named Tolf Hanson and his wife, Jennie. 

Tolf was a Swedish immigrant who got his start selling sandwiches on the streets of New York before moving to Omaha and opening a popular restaurant, Calumet Café, in 1893. He went on to open Hanson’s Café Beautiful on 16th Street in 1906. It was supposed to be the “finest restaurant west of Chicago,” but failed in its first year and sent the Hansons deep into debt. Tolf Hanson went to New York to regain financial footing, but he ultimately committed suicide there.

Pittack says he knows that, tragically, another of the home’s former occupants also committed suicide. John Bryant was the new president of a farm implements and machinery business when he bought the home in 1912 from Louis Nash, an officer of the Omaha and Council Bluffs Street Railway Co. Bryant had some trouble at work and, following disagreements with the company’s board of directors, drowned himself in a cistern in the backyard in 1913. That same year, the Easter Sunday tornado severely damaged the home, ripping the roof from the house.

It’s the home’s lighter stories, though, that Pittack shares more animatedly when he gives people tours. He shares one from the Gerken family, who moved in in 1954. The story involves one mischievous Gerken boy convincing his siblings to send him down the laundry chute. He got stuck midway and had to be rescued. 

Other owners came and went through the decades. There was the saloon owner Henry Keating and his socialite wife, Helen; the attorney Lysle Abbott and his wife, Mary; and the real estate developer George H. Payne. But not many homes have had a New Age religious monastic order as one-time occupants. The Holy Order of MANS moved into the home in 1975, converting it into their new “brother house.” Pittack believes religious services were held in one of the basement rooms. When the national monastic order dissolved in 1984, the Holy Order of MANS moved out.

In 2017, Pittack and Gradowski moved in and began a yearlong renovation. They installed a new boiler and water system and painted some interior rooms. When a hailstorm struck, the roof needed to be replaced and the exterior repainted. They’ve repurposed areas of the home while leaving the structure untouched. An old indoor phone booth is now a coat closet, the butler’s area is a food pantry, and one bedroom with an original coal fireplace is now a yoga studio. Furniture from Pittack’s grandmother’s home, which was nearby, is part of the décor now. 

By making this home their own, the couple adds their personal story while keeping hints of past inhabitants intact. 


This home is one of 10 Bemis Park residences included in Restoration Exchange Omaha’s 13th annual neighborhood tour on Oct. 13-14. Visit restorationexchange.org for more information.

This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Bringing Meaningful Design Conversations to Omaha

August 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Architecture as an intellectual endeavor extends far beyond brick-and-mortar structures. For designer Andrew Conzett, architecture is a form of problem-solving and way to rewrite immediate questions about the built environment through a culturally sensitive lens. Early in his career, he positioned his curiosity at one of Omaha’s most creatively focused firms, developed numerous discipline-blurring projects, and helped curate a robust series of lectures with the Omaha chapter of the American Institute of Architects. This fusion of localized projects and international discourse is one that not only pushes his own practice forward, but also challenges existing norms and perceptions of regional architecture.

Conzett grew up in Omaha. Since a young age, he was inspired by his father, a civil engineer at a large international firm, and his mother, who was consistently involved with social service and nonprofit organizations. As a soon-to-be licensed architect, Conzett is a cocktail of both. He has always been keenly interested in art and landscape, both of which were influential in his childhood years and helped to inform his atypical response to the “I-always-wanted-to-be-an-architect” story ubiquitous amongst peers (many say it was from building with LEGO bricks as a child). During high school, a design competition piqued his interest. This community-focused extracurricular project, which combined multi-disciplinary teamwork and a design-based approach, prompted him to apply to the College of Design at Iowa State University.

While at Iowa State, his intense studio assignments were mixed with conversations and projects with artists and creative thinkers. Working alongside a diversity of artistic studies pushed him to see the multiplicity of architecture. During his final year in the architecture program, one of Conzett’s classmates responded to his non-binary projects by asking, “Do you want to be an installation artist or architect?” Conzett did not know how to respond; however, this prompt of either/or has now become a defining feature of his practice.

While studying, Conzett diversified his architectural coursework with internships at the Omaha Public Library and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, where he interned with artist Sean Ward and curator Hesse McGraw. After graduating in 2010, he moved to Omaha and was soon commissioned to design an office pod installation at the headquarters of Bozell. The project resulted in a spatial intervention that was recognized by the AIA Central States Region’s Excellence in Design Awards for “Detail Honor and the Interior Design Best of Year Award for Budget Interiors.”

His interests in a diverse range of project types brought him to his current position at Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture in 2011. At the collaborative open studio in north downtown where architects work alongside interior designers, graphic designers, artists, and engineers, Conzett is staying busy outside the office as well.

His CV for research-based and experimental projects is dense. Stepping one foot outside the firm, Conzett has worked collaboratively on award-winning projects with Emerging Terrain, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Council Bluffs Park System, including River’s Edge Park. Each project allows him to intensely research form, material, and site. They also provide an instant design-to-built-project process that allows ideas to come to fruition faster than with traditional design-bid-build projects, which often take years to complete. These research-based projects also speak to his interest in architecture as built form that has the ability to blur lines between disciplines and methodologies.

For Conzett, “contemporary architecture practice requires thinking about new methods and materials, and thus inspires me to seek out unique project types as a way to expand my knowledge of design and the built environment.”

His most recent endeavor, the AIA Omaha lecture series, conflates his efforts in community activities and intellectual pursuits. Organized in collaboration with Ross Miller and other AIA Omaha members, the 2017 lecture series is a thought-provoking forum for design thinking. Bringing in award-winning international and national architects, such as Mike Nesbit of Morphosis in Los Angeles and Kai-Uwe Bergmann of Bjarke Ingles Group in Copenhagen, the role of these lectures are two-fold. First, they are an opportunity for professional architects and the general public to participate in architectural discourse. Secondly, the lectures provide a voice for a range of architectural practices that are advancing disciplinary boundaries.

While the series may seem hyper-niche, the visiting lecturers produce a diverse range of project types. These architects discuss the scholarly and tactile impact of design beyond simply making buildings. As award-winning content creators, the lecturers stimulate the public and challenge architects to aim their work to an elevated level of design excellence.

“It is always good to hear professionals talk about their design process and work,” says Emily Andersen, owner of DeOld Andersen Architecture. “But it is even more important to have lecturers come to Omaha that are truly challenging assumptions. The lectures bring the potential of a meaningful conversation that allows us to see into the creative process of other design professionals. And so I really appreciate the work that AIA does, as well as Design Alliance Omaha to help bring that discourse here.”

In all of his work, Conzett is running against the boundaries of the discipline with a keen understanding that traditional definitions of architecture and the built environment deserve to be challenged and pushed forward. “Opportunities such as professional work with [Alley Poyner], design-build exhibition and installation commissions, and the AIA Omaha lecture series are all ways for me to continue to experiment with and better understand the practice of architecture,” he says.

Visit aiaomaha.org/lecture-series for more information.

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of B2B.

Embellishing the Truth

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Distinctive elements of a residence in the Aksarben neighborhood attracted architects Eric and Trina Westman when they were house hunting.

Since purchasing the home in 2006, the Westmans have been both fascinated and puzzled by the architectural embellishments of their 742-square-foot brick house. Those features—including brown sandstone trim around the front door and decorative plaster crown moldings in the foyer, living room, and dining room—seemed out of place for a small dwelling.

Maag2While the couple sat in their living room, they would look up at the plaster cornices and contemplate.

“I sat here staring at the walls a lot,” says Eric, a project architect at Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture. Trina adds, “We literally stared at it for 10 years, thinking, ‘Why? Where? Who?’” Visiting friends and colleagues were equally mystified. Why would a house of this size, in this neighborhood, have such grand features?

After the Westmans agreed to include their home on Restoration Exchange Omaha’s Fall Neighborhood Tour, they started piecing together the answers.

Maag1Restoration Exchange Omaha (REO) rewards those who open up their homes with a portfolio containing information and newspaper clips about the home’s architecture, history, and occupants. Last fall, University of Nebraska at Omaha honors students conducted research on the homes in the Aksarben neighborhood as part of a service-learning project for REO. UNO junior Justin Korth prepared the research for the Westman home.

Korth’s research detailed the history of the original residents who lived at 1310 S. 63rd St. Edwin and Regina James built the home in 1939 and lived there for 25 years. Edwin was an assistant dean at Omaha University. His father, W. Gilbert James, was twice the acting president of the university and its first dean of the School of Fine Arts.

Regina James was a librarian at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine. Her parents were Freida Maag and her husband, master craftsman Jacob Maag.

Trina read the report, which included an extensive obituary of Jacob, and began a quest to find out more about him. “I started reading a little more and went down to the library that same week. They had a file on him, a couple of articles and some pictures of him carving,” she says. She also ran across a document called “Mallet and Chisel: A Fifty Year Saga of Architectural Sculpture by Jacob Maag.” Primarily a transcript of a 1962 interview with Maag by members of the Greater Omaha Historical Society (now the Douglas County Historical Society), the document includes an in-depth interview with Maag and listings of his stone carving and ornamental plaster work.

Maag4“I think now we have an answer, and it makes sense,” says Trina, who works for the City of Omaha Planning Department. “His daughter, her first home— she was building it in 1938 and that’s when he was doing this kind of work. ‘Sure, your little 742-square-foot house, I’ll put up some fancy plaster work and stone trim,’” she imagines Maag saying.

Maag held impressive credentials. His training included a four-year apprenticeship in Baden, Switzerland, where he earned top marks in his class. Maag then attended the Art Academy in Milan, Italy, and worked for sculptor Angelo Magnioni. He returned to Switzerland and then came to Omaha at the urging of his uncle, John B. Kuony, one of Omaha’s earliest pioneers.

Maag left his mark on some of Nebraska’s most impressive and enduring buildings. He created stone carvings for St. Cecilia Cathedral, Central High School, the University of Nebraska Stadium, the Scottish Rite Cathedral, and dozens of others. He created ornamental plaster moldings for Union Station (now Durham Museum), the State Capitol, and Burlington Station, among many others. He could carve wood and inscribe metal. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a material Maag could not manipulate into some artistic statement. A true Renaissance man, he even wrote poetry.

Maag moved to Albion, Michigan, in 1961 to live with his younger daughter, Jacqueline. He continued to fashion works, mostly in alabaster and marble, in his retirement. He died at age 98 in 1980.

To date, no documentation of the archway or plaster cornices at the Westman home has been found. There is mention in “Mallet and Chisel” of a cast cement fireplace in the home, one of many Maag fashioned. The fireplace is no longer there, though the Westmans see evidence of where it once stood on the north wall of their living room. They speculate that Edwin and Regina James took it with them when they moved to Texas in 1965.

The Westmans plan to build an addition in the next few years and may include a stone fireplace on the far wall.

Maag railed against modern architecture and its “straight up and down” look. He called the new buildings of the day “crackerboxes with holes.” He told the Omaha World-Herald in 1961, “I believe a person should remember the arch over the door he enters.”

Thanks to Jacob Maag, the Westmans can remember the arch over their door and other impressions he left behind. 

Maag3


Restoration Exchange Omaha’s 2016 Fall Tour: The Aksarben Neighborhood

Date: Sunday, Oct. 2
Time: Noon-5 p.m.

Eric and Trina Westman’s home is one of 11 sites on the tour, which features a variety of residences in the Aksarben neighborhood (between Leavenworth and Center streets, running from 50th to 72nd streets). Styles include Tudor revival, bungalow, Spanish colonial, and foursquare. The starting point, Mount Calvary Lutheran Church, is also featured.

Tour sites:

  • 5525 Leavenworth St., Mount Calvary Lutheran Church
  • 5501 Leavenworth St., owned by Jennifer Bauer
  • 1301 S. 52nd St., owned by Sarah Cavanagh
  • 5848 Hickory St., owned by Scott Swanson
  • 5844 Pine St., owned by Royce Cannerley
  • 1310 S. 63rd St., owned by Eric and Trina Westman
  • 6239 Poppleton Ave., owned by Kim Riege
  • 6024 Poppleton Ave., owned by Katie Blesener and John Royster
  • 5611 Leavenworth St., owned by Rebecca Anderson
  • 5522 Marcy St., owned by Steven and Amy Thompson
  • 5542 Marcy St., owned by Russell Hollendieck

Tickets are $15 apiece or two for $25, with a discount available for Restoration Exchange Omaha members. Tickets can be purchased the day of the tour at Mount Calvary. They include a tour booklet with the histories of the tour sites and a history of the neighborhood. The route is 2.6 miles and accessible by walking, bicycling, or driving. A free shuttle to the locations will also be provided.

Visit restorationexchange.org for more information. OmahaHome

Ambassador Apartment Renovation

October 25, 2012 by
Photography by Scott Drickey

Dundee is one neighborhood in Omaha trying to continue an historic, authentic feel. One Dundee building in particular, brimming with charm and grandeur of old, has succeeded in that effort—the Ambassador Apartments.

The 20-unit Spanish Revival building, which sits just south of Dodge Street on 49th, has undergone serious renovations over the past three years. The Ambassador was recently recognized by a regional chapter of Commercial Real Estate Workshop, CREW Midwest, as the 2012 Renovation of the Year.

Dundee Apt Ambassador Remodel

The project was the result of the vision and work of local business people Randy Wheeler, Bob Sadler, Neil Willer, and Carol Jones, who combined their individual expertise to restore the Ambassador Apartments.

The parties are equal owners of the property and each add a unique talent. Wheeler’s experience is in landscaping, while Willer is a building engineer, Sadler is an electrician, and Jones’ experience is in real estate.

The renovations were unique in that they kept many of the aspects of the 84-year-old building while incorporating several new, modern upgrades. Each unit contains modern conveniences, such as a washer/dryer, air conditioning, and modern kitchen appliances. Yet what make this property such a Dundee gem is the Spanish tile roofing, scrolled ironwork, original tile, lighting fixtures, doors and hardware, and parquet floors, in addition to the spectacular entry ways and barrel ceilings.

Walking into one of the spacious units you will feel, if for only a quick moment, like you’ve stepped back in time in many ways.

“We wanted to maintain the flavor of 1928, in addition to having all of today’s modern conveniences, while creating a beautiful place where people can live,” Wheeler said.Dundee Apt Ambassador Remodel

During the renovations, the group combined their efforts with local architects from Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture.

“They were a big help in how to configure and arrange the apartments, specifically in the kitchens and how we could modernize them and still maintain the historic aspects,” Wheeler explained.

Christina Jansen, who is a project designer with Alley Poyner Macchietto, served as a historic consultant on the renovations and said it was a great experience to work with such a rare property. The group also worked with the Omaha Historical Society in its efforts to preserve historical details.

“The building is very unique and any opportunity to preserve historic fabric is great,” Jansen said. “We focused on the historic aspects of the building with the goal of salvaging as many of them as possible.”

Dundee Apt Ambassador Remodel

Alley Poyner Macchietto also assisted the group with paperwork for tax credits and financing, which were extremely beneficial to the project, according to Wheeler.

The group was drawn to the property largely because of its architectural beauty, as they all share a passion—as do many in Dundee—to maintain an historic feel.

“It’s a great location in a great neighborhood and we are very proud and excited for the future of this property,” Wheeler said. “We all had worked on remodeling projects in the past, just nothing on this scale. You definitely had to have faith and a vision with something like this. I’m glad we were able to salvage the building and make the [new residents] living here happy.”