Tag Archives: architecture

If the Glass House Fits

September 12, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Midcentury modern was the look Jon and Jamie Jacobi were going for when they built their 1 ½ story home in The Prairies near 220th and Pacific streets last year. The couple appreciates the resurgent design style’s clean simplicity and contemporary feel.

To achieve that look, the Jacobis chose to incorporate glass into many of the home’s features. Most notable is a 36-foot-long catwalk with glass railings that runs the full length of the second floor. 

“At first we were going to go with a steel railing with cable spindles, but then decided glass was the look we really wanted,” Jon says. “We had seen [glass railings] in Vegas at Aria and the Cosmopolitan casinos and really liked them. The catwalk runs right through the middle of the house, so you can overlook the main level on both sides. It maintains the open look that we wanted.” 

Elite Glass of Omaha provided the glass panels and railing installation, while Glass Vice USA of San Diego provided the hardware clamping system. Sales manager Corey Matteo with Glass Vice USA says the use of glass railings and balusters in homes is growing nationwide. “They’ve been popular in homes near water, or with a view, such as those in Florida or Colorado. But we’re selling more in the Midwest and everywhere these days because they offer a lot of value. They’re an engineered product, so there’s no fabrication needed. And they’re made of a sustainable material and they last forever.”

For safety reasons, the Jacobis opted for 42-inch-high railings, a bit higher than the 36 inches that residential building code requires. With two small children, ages 2 and 4, they were concerned about the kids climbing them and dropping things over the sides. They also went with tempered glass, sometimes called safety glass, which is many times stronger than regular glass and poses less risk of injury should a panel break.

Each panel is topped with a slender cap railing made of stainless steel and features two small vice clamps. “When you look at it, all you see is the glass,” Jon says. “They look almost free-floating.”

The Jacobis added a midcentury modern flair to the home’s exterior as well, installing two 18-foot-high glass curtain walls spanning 16 feet on the front of the structure. The glass walls are slightly tinted to help prevent furniture and flooring from drying out or fading from sunlight.

“I had seen curtain walls on two other homes and loved the commercial storefront look,” he says.

While privacy might be a concern for some—“The house is wide open. You can see through the house, front to back”—the Jacobis don’t find issue with it, for now. But they had the forethought to have the home wired for large, power window blinds should they change their mind in the future.

Jon says the glass installation process was pretty seamless. “The materials all seemed well put together, very strong and safe.” But there were a few things he’s learned along the way. “When we engineered the catwalk, we had to create a really solid sub-floor to anchor the bolts that hold up the heavy glass panels. It created a little challenge for Profile Homes, our builder.”

He also learned that with two small children, the glasswork requires a lot of TLC. “You’re constantly cleaning the glass for smudges and handprints.”

Despite the added care, Jon is satisfied with their design choice. “The finished look is priceless. And the dog [they have a Westie] loves being able to see all the action.”


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

Tallgrass Vernacular

August 7, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The day I met Jim Schalles he was busy with a machete. That spring afternoon, we found ourselves in the far corner of City Sprouts’ half-acre lot on the corner of 40th and Franklin streets in near-north Omaha. Schalles’ goal for the day was to prepare the lumber that, once dry, would frame a small roof sheltering an earthen oven he’d been commissioned to build for the community garden. As we talked, Schalles and the machete stripped long ribbons of bark from the pile of freshly cut eastern red cedar stacked beside him. Cleaning a full trunk down to its smooth blonde core, he would hoist the thing with considerable ease over his head, toss it out of the way, and begin again with a new log. His dog, Adobe, curled asleep in a nest of mulch beside him, was little impressed.

Schalles is an Omaha native who grew up in the oak and cottonwood forests of Ponca Hills north of town. Until recently, though, he’d been passing time in southern Oregon, immersing himself in a rather broad range of disciplines in pursuit of his permaculture design certificate with the Aprovecho Sustainability Education Center. Coursework there included roundwood timber framing, earthen concretes, and clay-based stucco construction. “I left feeling like I could certainly build a house,” Schalles says. 

Permaculture design, at its roots, is guided by the patterns and forms observed in nature. Rather than engineering structures, agriculture systems, and societies in opposition to the natural world, the movement seeks to embody a thoughtful reflection of nonhuman systems and the inherent design wisdom found there.   

While it’s hard to imagine a better environment for a natural builder to cut his teeth than the dewy old-growth forests of Oregon, Schalles found himself drawn back to the hills and scrubby oak forests of his youth.

“I really missed the climate and culture and people back here,” he reflects. “If I’d grown up in the Northwest I probably wouldn’t have left. Clean swimming holes and mountains and redwoods and beaches, all that great stuff. But when I was hiking around the redwoods I never really felt at peace. I was almost on edge with awe. There are these giant trees that you’re astounded and kind of bewildered by, but it’s different from the sense of security and peace that I feel walking around these giant cottonwoods and the oak savannah that I grew up in.”

Reacquainting himself with the rhythms of his native landscape, Schalles recognized an opportunity to provide a service that was currently unavailable in the area. From this, Tallgrass Vernacular was born, a full-service construction and design business which serves to bring the principles, ethos, and aesthetic of natural building back to the Missouri River Valley. 

The name, Tallgrass Vernacular, references the vernacular architecture style, which Schalles describes as “building with things from the locality in which the building is being created. It embodies the nature of the area where you build. If I’m building in the Loess Hills, for example, I like mimicking the geography, the rolling hills with steep edges, so the structure not only is built with the things from the area, but it also embodies the essence and the culture and spirit of the place as well.” 

The community oven at City Sprouts exemplifies this precept down to its foundation: an assemblage of broken sidewalk concrete sourced from only a few hundred feet away. The subsoil clay integrated to the concrete was also pulled right from the neighborhood. 

While such a construction may sound renegade, Schalles is quick to note that his practice is firmly rooted in tradition and techniques that have stood the test of time. “As a builder, safety has to be a priority. If I want to make an argument for the value of these traditional practices, it has to come from within the guidelines of the building code. If we’re just building like hippies in our backyards and keeping it off the main radar, we’re not able to spread the real benefits of these techniques and make them more accessible. In some ways, I want to see the codes progress and be made more inclusive, but in the meantime I’m happy to learn them thoroughly and make sure I’m building things in accordance with the law.”

To watch Schalles at work is to see a person very much in their element. With a casual diligence, he appears fully comfortable with both his material and ability. There is, in fact, little to distinguish Jim Schalles’ professional life from his personal. Which is how he prefers it. 

“I think living in conjunction with the seasons that are around you is really similar to the way that I build things or the way that I live my life in general. It’s all of us being on the rhythm of when’s the best time to plant our seeds—whether that’s the metaphorical seed of your idea or your literal can’t-let-the-frost-kill-your-vegetable seed.”

In fall 2016, a chance meeting in a Ponca Hills bar provided Schalles an opportunity to commit himself to honoring this rhythm of the seasons in a more substantial way.

Still fresh from his time in Oregon, Schalles found himself trading rounds with a retired local farmer in need of a hand. Today, in exchange for a few hours of farm labor each week, Schalles and his partner have been allowed to build a home for themselves on a segment of land nestled against the Loess Hills State Forest. 

Of course, the Schalles home is no conventional affair. The main living quarters are an elevated yurt supported by reclaimed lumber and local cedar. The home is warmed by a wood-burning masonry heater, also designed by Schalles.  

“To have this been the first winter I spent in the yurt, in something I built, in the Midwestern winter, was really cool. To know that we survived, but to look at it in hindsight now that we’re past the worst of the winter and wonder, okay how do we make this more habitable for next winter.”  

It’s in hard-earned conditions like these that the seeds of utopia are sown. A solar shower, a wood-fired bathtub under the stars, a straw bale sauna—Schalles’ plans for the future are as ambitious as they are enviable.

“If you’re committed to keeping your costs low, you can afford to work a full-time job in your garden growing food,” he says. “And what more do you need? When you’ve got your shelter and food taken care of, your mind starts to go wild with these ideas.”

Like many great optimists, though, Schalles’ bright visions of the future are held against a vivid recognition of the dark places we now find ourselves in, culturally, ecologically, and architecturally. 

“We’re in this crisis right now in the way that we build things. The bottom’s going to fall out sooner or later, and hopefully it’s not detrimental when it does. Hopefully we’ve figured out enough ways to mitigate it and to do things better. Rather than just trying to engineer our way out of these problems I think that we can look toward the past to move into the future with sensible solutions.” 

It’s this recognition of the limitations of modern conventional architecture, and a sincere passion for creating structures that are at once functional, economical, and sustainable that propels Tallgrass Vernacular. 

For Schalles, these principles find their clearest expressions in fire appliances like the community oven at City Sprouts. 

“Fire was the origin of a lot of things. Probably the origin of language,” he says. “The act of us coming together around heat and a communal source of cooking our nutrients opened the door to a lot of things culturally. We’ve lost that. And putting fire appliances in central places like parks and community gardens can help bring that back.”


Learn more about Tallgrass Vernacular and its natural building and permaculture services at tallgrassvernacular.com. 

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of OmahaHome. 

Virtually Necessary

July 15, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Virtual reality has worked its way into daily life at some Omaha-area architecture/engineering firms.

Also known as VR, virtual reality is a computer-generated reality viewed through a headset that situates small video screens about an inch from each eye, yielding a three-dimensional effect. 

“You’re completely blocking out the real world and making the virtual world basically what you see,” says Nathan Novak, a systems administrator with Leo A Daly Co.

Novak says his firm mainly uses VR for client presentations. Previously, presentations were accomplished using drawings.

“Everything would be flat—two-dimensional—just lines everywhere,” Novak says. That method made it difficult for clients to visualize projects.

A few years ago, Leo A Daly began using a building information modeling (BIM) program called Revit to produce three-dimensional representations of drawings.

“Instead of just lines, you place walls, and then you can place textures on the walls,” Novak says. “So now you can actually see that there’s a wall here, and the wall is going to be blue. You can see that there’s a door here, and you can see what the door material is made out of.”

BIM programs such as Revit help perform “clash detection”—ferreting out design problems prior to construction. 

“Once construction starts, any sort of change is much more expensive,” Novak says.

Creating a VR environment from a Revit model requires an additional step.

Raj Prasad, chief technology officer for HDR, says his firm uses Revit and similar tools to build 3-D models, then takes that information into products such as Unity (a gaming engine), Unreal Engine, or HTML5.

“Some combination of those is what we use to take the model that’s generated from Revit to create the VR experience,” Prasad says.

In many industries, VR is a prototyping tool, and that’s also true in architecture and engineering.

“The way we say it is, ‘We’d like to have our clients experience the end results before actually building it,” Prasad says. 

He says VR is catching on rapidly. “We are pretty actively leveraging virtual reality on our projects, in different phases.” Among those projects are bridges, transit centers, and hospitals.

Novak says Leo A Daly has used virtual reality for pumphouse designs, water pumps, and piping, among other projects.

“As long as we can build it within Revit, we can bring it over into virtual reality,” he says. “And we’re trying to expand it out even further into some of the other applications outside of Revit.”

VR also can be used in the quality assurance [QA] process.

“Did we model everything properly? Is there something that’s a mistake that we have to come back and fix?” Novak says. “The QA can be toward the end, but really we QA as we go.”

Making it easy for customers to experience VR environments is another factor that firms consider.

“You don’t have to be in an office to have a virtual reality experience. There’s ways you can experience that in anybody’s office, and that’s really the philosophy that we’ve adopted,” Prasad says. “We want to make sure that, if a client desires it and wants it, we can take it to them versus having them always having to come to us.”

One option HDR has used is to provide clients with a Google Cardboard—a simple cardboard frame with lenses that can be used with a mobile phone to experience VR.  

“I’ll call that the lower-end VR experience,” Prasad says.

Raj Prasad

Among higher-end headsets are the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, both of which have been used by Omaha-area firms.

Though use of VR is growing, it has limitations.

“At this point, it doesn’t replace using your computer and Revit and that sort of thing to do our modeling,” Novak says. “I believe that’s something that will be coming in a few years, but it’s not possible yet.

He says that, although available headsets are high definition, their resolution isn’t enough to replace computer monitors.

“When you look through the headset at the display, most people are going to notice that you can actually see the individual pixels. That’s called the ‘screen-door effect,’” he says. The effect makes text  very difficult to read.

“I think we’re still a few years away from being able to switch from coming in, and sitting down at a desk, and looking at monitors all day to coming in, and putting on a headset, and going into VR, and doing your work,” Novak says. 

Does Novak think the use of VR will increase over time?

“Absolutely.”

What does Prasad see as the future of VR?  “The best way to answer that, is, think Star Trek or Star Wars.”

Prasad noted that when Star Trek appeared in the mid-1960s, its technology seemed far-fetched. 

“People were like, ‘This stuff is hundreds of years down the road.’ And here we are,” he says. “This is reality.”

Within the next five to 10 years, he foresees VR being used in all project phases, and as a way to keep workers safer by accomplishing some hazardous tasks virtually, such as bridge inspection.

“If I’m looking out 10 [years] and then beyond, I would say we’re going down the path of holographs and holograms,” Prasad says. “Imagine, if you will, that you take a VR experience and send it directly to a 3-D printer.”

Examples could include a bridge pylon or a wall in a water treatment plant.

“Once the client and the chief engineer approve it, that goes to a 3-D printer. Now you’re taking modular development that—kind of like a Lego, almost—you can pull it all together. And hallelujah, you’ve got a bridge or a water-treatment plant.”

“The future, as you can imagine, it’s awesome,” Prasad says. “It’s fun, it’s wickedly cool.”


Visit hdrinc.com and leoadaly.com for more information.

This article was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B.

Nathan Novak

Goodbye, Gene Leahy Mall

June 24, 2018 by
Illustration by provided

It’s the end of the Gene Leahy Mall as we know it. And Omaha civic leaders feel fine, apparently. Representatives of Mayor Jean Stothert’s office and the Missouri Riverfront Revitalization Project declined to comment on specific plans for the mall when contacted by Omaha Magazine and B2B. 

“The project team is in a critical review phase of the preliminary master plan, including a review of plan elements with study consultants in San Diego,” explained Stephanie Rittershaus of HDR in an email response to a media query submitted to the Missouri Riverfront Revitalization Project. “That will be followed by a full committee meeting in late April to review and approve the updated master plan. Until that process is complete, there isn’t a finalized plan to review.”

The Missouri Riverfront Revitalization Project is a public-private initiative working to revitalize the local riverfront in five zones: the Gene Leahy Mall, Heartland of America Park, and Lewis & Clark Landing in Omaha; and across the river along Council Bluffs’ riverfront (encompassing River’s Edge North and River’s Edge South). ConAgra’s campus is conspicuously absent from the declared scope of the comprehensive riverfront planning.

At public consultation meetings for the Riverfront Revitalization Project, preliminary architectural drawings showed that the Gene Leahy Mall’s man-made river would be filled with land; development zones covered the new ground from the city’s main library eastward to the Heartland of America Park. Meanwhile, the W. Dale Clark Library (a post-war brutalist building of architectural significance that has been subject to speculative redevelopment interest for years) was labeled a “development opportunity.”

The Gene Leahy Mall is only one part of the latest riverfront revitalization plans. The mall (previously known as Central Park Mall) holds special historical significance for the city’s past half-century of riverfront redevelopment plans. Originally built in the 1970s, the mall was the first phase of Omaha’s effort to reinvigorate the urban core at a time when a legacy of heavy industry and lead-polluted land separated urban downtown from the Missouri River.

Fundamentally changing the Gene Leahy Mall’s riverine landscape would overhaul the most iconic backdrop to Omaha’s urban skyline. Likewise, a drastic reshaping of the Gene Leahy Mall could mean removal of the downtown park’s public slide that is a popular draw for families.

But the park’s overhaul could also make crossing from the Old Market to the Holland Performing Arts Center easier for pedestrians while invigorating the space with increased activities that spur other developments. Proposed activity zones in place of the current man-made river and landscaping may include an outdoor amphitheater, a dog park, botanical paths, restaurants, activity areas, and other open spaces. 

The president of San Diego-based OJB Landscape Architecture, James Burnett, spoke about the proposed designs on Nov. 16, 2017, at the Riverfront Revitalization Project’s second public consultation presentation. “We think that by connecting the north and the south [lawns of the Gene Leahy Mall], we will have a lot more users in the park, a lot more eyes on the park, and a lot more events so that downtown could have a space where special events can occur,” Burnett said.

The project is co-chaired by Ken Stinson of Peter Kiewit Sons Inc. and Mogens Bay of Valmont. Other members of the advisory committee include Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, Council Bluffs Mayor Matt Walsh, Doug Bisson of HDR, Brook Bench with Omaha Parks, Michael Alley of Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture, Gary Gates of Omaha Public Power District, Pete Tulipana of Iowa West Foundation, Mark Warner of ConAgra Brands, Rhonda Ferguson and Jack Koraleski of Union Pacific, and Jane Miller of Gallup. 

The project’s consultant team includes the firms OJB, Gensler, Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, Magnusson Klemencic Associates, Applied Ecological Services, The Concord Group, RSM Design, Lamp Rynearson, and HDR.

At the first riverfront revitalization public meeting, held Sept. 11, 2017, project co-chair Ken Stinson explained that the public-private partnership is “a very collaborative process, and part of that is reaching out to stakeholders in the community to get feedback and input.”

One person not approached was Gary Bowen, principal architect at Omaha-based BVH Architecture. 

Bowen had helped to design the Gene Leahy Mall during the 1970s with the city’s original plans for the land as civic leaders sought to revitalize Omaha’s struggling central business district.

Bowen and BVH were also involved in a proposed redesign of the Gene Leahy Mall in 2012 that would have maintained many of the area’s most beloved features (such as the man-made river and public slide) while adding an additional pedestrian bridge at 11th Street and an outdoor amphitheater, and expanding activity spaces in ways similar to those outlined in the Riverfront Revitalization Project’s second public meeting/presentation.

“The DID [Downtown Improvement District] was the nonprofit organization driving that project,” says Holly Barrett, executive director of the Downtown Improvement District, referring to BVH’s proposal for updating the Gene Leahy Mall. “It was a beautiful little plan that included updates like improved lighting and access, a brand-new playground to go along with the restored slides and improved lagoon habitat. However, it has always been part of the big picture open space opportunities connected to the riverfront. Given the scope of that concept and the powerhouses behind it, it only made sense to turn our plans over to them and allow them to run with it. The riverfront group was able to take our idea and expand it more than several times what we could have done. We are wholeheartedly supporting their efforts and have been a welcome community member at all meetings every step of the way.”

For the sake of public awareness of alternative proposals for updating the Gene Leahy Mall, B2B Omaha spoke with Bowen at BVH’s Omaha office.

Planning concept provided by Missouri Riverfront Revitalization Project

Gary Bowen on the Gene Leahy Mall

How did your work with the Gene Leahy Mall factor into early riverfront revitalization plans?

There are a few of us that go back to the very beginning of what was called the Riverfront Redevelopment Era. I think it was in the late ’60s when the City Planning Department, Alden Aust mainly, formed a group of architects to put together a preliminary masterplan, a guide, a dream for rejuvenating downtown Omaha—and it was labeled “Back to the River,” and the whole theme was linking the central business district to the riverfront. This architectural group developed a preliminary master plan, outlining a number of projects that were kind of blue-sky projects, like a stadium and so on.

BVH was involved with this group of architects. Aust took the preliminary plan and went to the federal government and got a planning grant. Then, for the next step, they hired Lawrence Halprin’s office out of San Francisco, which was one of the premier landscape architectural design firms in the country at that time; they had come into other cities, such as Seattle and San Francisco, and put together plans that helped to stimulate redevelopment in the city core. 

So Lawrence Halprin came in, and these same five firms that did the initial grant proposal—Bahr, Vermeer & Haecker (BVH) with Hartman, Morford & Bowen; Leo A. Daly; Dana Larson Roubal (DLR), Henningson, Durham & Richardson (HDR), and Kirkham Michael and Associates—worked with Halprin’s office. Each firm was assigned a specific project to work on. One of those was a park, a mall. It was called the Central Park Mall at that time. At that time, I was with a different firm—Hartman Morford Bowen—and we teamed up with BVH to work on the preliminary plans for the mall. That was our assigned project. 

We worked for two years together on that. Then in 1974, after that round of planning was done. The city said, OK, we’re now going to start building something, and the mall was the first development. By that time, I had switched over and joined BVH, and we worked on the Central Park Mall with Halprin’s office. We teamed up with them, and over the next 15 years, developed the mall and built it in five or six phases. 

Another key player with this project was a city planner, Greg Peterson, who was the project manager through the entire duration of planning and construction. Without his perseverance and continuity, the project may have never been completed in its final form. It was a very complicated process from the start. The city had to acquire all of the various parcels of property in the six square blocks and haul in dirt to fill the void before any construction could begin in 1974.

The whole idea was to create an open green space that was a link between the CBD and the river. The theme of the park used water as a symbolic river that,  because it flowed from west to east, suggested movement to the riverfront.

At that time, Jobbers Canyon was still intact, and we proposed retaining two of the buildings and located them within the mall—the Burlington Building and the former McKesson-Robbins Building. Under great duress, we persevered and kept those buildings in the plan to link the urban fabric of the city to the park. But it was a difficult task because the city leadership at that time didn’t think old buildings were worth saving and basically told us not to show them in the plans or else we would be fired.

You’ve watched this riverfront issue come up over and over again as a longtime resident of Omaha. What’s your take on the recurring discussion of riverfront planning?

To back up a bit, in the late ’60s early ’70s, downtown Omaha was on the skids. When Brandeis closed downtown, that’s when everything hit bottom. So, in retrospect, we can see the whole idea of regenerating the CBD has worked.

The mall and the W. Dale Clark Library were the first projects that went into place. The idea was that if the city made a public commitment, that would stimulate private development. The whole idea worked wonderfully. If you look at where we are now, compared with where we were 50 years ago, it’s pretty amazing. 

But one of the biggest negatives of the city’s riverfront revitalization push was the loss of Jobbers Canyon. That was eight square blocks of warehouses. Had they escaped demolition, today they would have been renovated into condominiums and apartments, and the Old Market would have extended all the way to Eighth Street. Right now we are out of warehouses. There aren’t many left to renovate, and this whole movement to save old buildings and renovate them into businesses and condominiums has caught on fire. 

What’s happening now is infill projects, the gaps are being filled in—like this building at Ninth and Jones streets where BVH has its offices in Omaha. This was on the side of the old Butternut Building that burned down. If you look around, there is nice mix of new and old. 

The other part of Omaha’s historic riverfront redevelopment plans that didn’t work out so well is the area next to the river. There was a restaurant, Rick’s Cafe Boatyard, and later the Storz Trophy Room. But access was a problem. That restaurant location, occupied by different businesses, was one attempt to use an attraction to get people right down on the river that didn’t work out.

Of course, there have been a lot of successes with the riverfront redevelopment projects over the years. The CenturyLink Center has become a major anchor in close proximity to the riverfront, drawing people from all over.

Another major development that has proved beneficial is the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, which of course provides a pedestrian link across the river. There wasn’t any access before that. That bridge has stimulated activity from east to west, and BVH came up with the original design for the bridge. We worked with an engineering firm that prepared a cost estimate that was over the budget, and after working for some time to get the estimate within budget, it didn’t work, so the city hired another firm to implement our design and do the final engineering drawings. But the idea, concept, and design are virtually identical to what we came up with originally.

Then, when it comes to generating activity on the riverfront, the Council Bluffs side has made wonderful progress. There’s Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park, and the casinos have worked wonders. 

Everything has been heading in the right direction when you compare Omaha and the riverfront to what it was in the early days of my involvement. It’s been a miraculous turnaround. But there is still a way to go, in my opinion.

How were you involved in subsequent discussions to update or renovate the Gene Leahy Mall?

I recall that there have been two or three redevelopment plans for the mall, and we did one of them. There was an East Coast firm, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, that did one in 2006. Omaha By Design hired this firm to produce the plan. The whole idea was to activate the mall because, of course, downtown has changed in the last 50 years from virtually no one living downtown to more than 10,000 people living downtown today. 

The city was looking to activate the mall and kind of tweak it. Then, we were hired in 2012 to take a look at the mall after the update plan was not implemented. We looked at it and proposed an amphitheater, a plaza on the west end, an observation tower, a new pedestrian bridge crossing the mall at 11th Street with the idea to create another north-south bridge crossing the water to the Holland Center, and expanding the playground with the slide remaining in place.

Omaha’s Downtown Improvement District was heavily involved in that plan, partnering with the city, and the intent was to raise $20 million from sponsors to do this major overhaul of the mall. There was a personnel change, and then nothing ever happened. I don’t think there was any objection to our proposal, but nobody picked it up and ran with it. 

Were you or any BVH parters involved with the latest riverfront redevelopment planning meetings?

No invitation was offered.

I think one of our staff went to those meetings, but I suppose I’ve somewhat distanced myself because of such a close earlier personal involvement—and the fact that no one has reached out to the local architects who worked on the mall in the past.

I think there were open-ended invitations, that everybody was welcome. That’s good. It’s good to get input. But no one has ever approached us concerning the current mall redevelopment proposals. Nobody has come in to talk us about it like Omaha Magazine or B2B has.

It’s good that there is public and private interest in updating the Gene Leahy Mall. There is still work to be done; it’s never finished. But the current planners need to be aware of the reasoning behind what was done 40-50 years ago, because I think some of that is still valid. 

Having worked in the original conceptual development of the Gene Leahy Mall, do you feel attachment to its place in downtown Omaha’s environment?

Oh, being part of the creation of the mall was one of my career highlights. Right up there near the top. To help create a project that has had such a big impact and helped turn downtown Omaha around, I take pride in that. 

Cities are always evolving and changing, responding to different criteria and influences. I still think the mall is a valid part of downtown Omaha in its present location. Does it need to be revised and updated? Yes, but not with major surgical changes. Downtown Omaha still needs this linkage between the CBD and the river, and it still needs an open green space with activities. 

What do you think of flattening and paving the Gene Leahy Mall?

I think that would be a major mistake. Parts of it could be paved, and that was part of our proposal that we did with the city and the Downtown Improvement District. In fact, in the first block, we proposed a level-paved plaza with fountains, gazebos, and a restroom pavilion. Part of that plan was to level the mound on the north side of the mall to create a large lawn where one could kick soccer balls around and play tag football. 

I think one of the objections early on in the development of the mall was that it was lowered. That was intentional to create a separation of people from the busy traffic noise on both sides. There were some low walls around the mall, and some of those have been taken out to offer more view and to enhance security. 

But I don’t think filling it in is a good idea. Water is a magical attraction, especially in urban areas. It’s refreshing, and I think that aspect of the mall is important to keep. 

Part of the issue could be maintenance, realizing that the park is almost half a mile long. Six square blocks of lawn and trees take a lot of money for the city to maintain. I think that has been a challenge, so paving it and flattening it out could save a lot of maintenance money. But you get what you pay for.

Should the mall be updated? Yes. That’s what we were trying to do, too. But to completely wipe it off the map and start over? I would have hoped Omaha had learned its lesson with Jobbers Canyon.

How was the Gene Leahy Mall situated next to Jobber’s Canyon when you were originally involved in developing the project?

Jobbers Canyon was between Eighth and 10th streets, including the McKesson-Robbins Building and its twin to the north. It went all the way to Douglas Street on the north side of the mall, all the way south to Jackson Street between Eighth and 10th streets.

ConAgra came much later in 1986. The first phase of the Gene Leahy Mall was built in 1976, and it was about 10 years in the making before the issue of demolishing Jobbers Canyon came up. In the beginning, part of Jobbers Canyon was proposed to extend into the riverfront park. We were not involved with the Heartland of America Park. But that project completed the link from the CBD to the river.

When we first became involved with the Central Park Mall, that was before Jobbers Canyon or the Old Market had been declared a historic district by the National Register of Historic Places.

In fact, we were actually threatened with losing our commission if we didn’t remove the old brick buildings from our conceptual plans. City leadership did not want to see them on the plan. “Don’t show them,” they said, “Why would you want to keep those?”

Of course, when ConAgra was looking for a site, the city was pretty much willing to put anything on the chopping block in order to keep them. There were several alternative locations offered, and there was even an offer to buy them an alternative site. 

During those early riverfront planning days, the powers that be—the business establishment—were quoted in the newspapers saying things like, “Ugly old brick buildings? What do we want to keep those for?” Keeping Omaha’s old brick warehouses was seen as anti-progress.

All the costs to tear the buildings down and the wasted energy, it was just a disaster. Sure, the fact that the corporation was headquartered here in Omaha, and there was lots of new construction, that was all good. But at the same time, it was the wrong location. If we could have managed to keep Jobbers Canyon and ConAgra, that would have been a win-win situation. Now, after everything is said and done, ConAgra’s headquarters have relocated to Chicago after all—and, ironically, they moved into a renovated historic brick building.

Are there things you would like to see different in the Gene Leahy Mall through to the riverfront?

On either side of the mall, there are some gaps that need to be filled in. The Gene Leahy Mall is really like a miniature version of Central Park in New York City, and it would be nice if the areas on both sides of the mall were more urbanized with more concentrations of buildings, big buildings. I think the contrast between the open green space and the architecture on either side would be better. It seems like there are some teeth missing on both sides that need to be filled in. If you look at Central Park or Golden Gate Park in San Francisco—another example of an urban linear park that is very dense and built up on either side—these models were inspirational, something that we had always envisioned and would be beneficial for Omaha. 

If you take the area east of 14th Street, which is the beginning of the mall, that is where infill needs to happen. There have been some notable new developments in this regard, like the Landmark Building and the Holland Center, that needed to go in next to the mall. 

The mall has been kind of an anchor for this area of east downtown, but it does need to be updated and activated because it has satisfied the purpose for which it was intended. Originally, it was meant to be a catalyst for redevelopment downtown and a symbolic extension of the CBD east to the river. It did that. But in the early days of the park’s development, very few people lived and worked downtown. Now the equation has flipped. Lots of people want to live downtown, and there has to be an open green space with activities in it, like an amphitheater, a bigger playground, play space, soccer fields, and things like that. I would hope that one day something like that happens. 

Can you explain some of the proposed features in BVH’s unrealized proposal for the Gene Leahy Mall?

Well, some of our original proposals for the mall in 1972-73 featured shops, restaurants, and development along the fringe of the park, but were never realized.

The original BVH-HMB concept envisioned a park-like setting with many activities and attractions. This original concept established the basic idea of a linear park with its center below street level, with the east-to-west waterway representing a symbolic “return to the river.” The original conceptual plans were the basis for the more detailed master plan that BVH produced in concert with Halprin’s firm, which is what we have today with the lowered waterway, and the retention of the two historic buildings. 

In our more recent revisiting of the mall for the Downtown Improvement District, we proposed a new pedestrian bridge over 11th Street in addition to the preexisting pedestrian bridge. Our proposed bridge in the middle had a widened area where people could stop and look down. The whole idea for this new bridge, as with the other bridges, is that they have a shallow profile so one can see past it into the mall from one end of the park to the other.

Chroma design was the Denver-based landscape architect that we worked with to develop the 2012 plans. Some of the other elements that we proposed include: a ranger station; we would have kept the slide; we would’ve put some new structures in; a water element would’ve come through from the south side near the play area; there would’ve been new play structures for kids to get in and climb around; we proposed adding some more pathways and the top of the hill would be flattened and used for lawn events; and the arch was retained.

What did the arch belong to?

The arch was part of a building torn down on the south side of the mall, the former Corey McKenzie Building, which was a big stone structure about a half-block long where the Landmark Building and its parking garage are now located.

Before the Corey McKenzie Building was demolished, I convinced the city to have the arches carefully disassembled, the individual stones numbered, and then reassembled back-to-back in the Central Park Mall. The location on the north end of 11th Street represents a gateway from the Old Market to the park.

How did your involvement with Downtown Improvement District compare to the sort of private investment involved with the current riverfront revitalization plan?

There are politics in any kind of major civic projects, and generally, if the project is privately funded, there is protocol that donors like to go to certain firms or have certain stipulations attached to their donations.

Working with Downtown Improvement District was an entirely different scenario.

But there are private philanthropic entities in Omaha that can virtually raise any money they want, and $20 million wouldn’t have been any problem to them. 

I know that Downtown Improvement District did start talking to major players downtown. They showed the plans and said, “This is what we’re thinking. We’re not asking for money yet, but we want to get you acclimated and accustomed to what is being planned, and we’ll be around in a few years to ask for your help financially.” I attended a couple of those meetings.

Did private investment factor into the initial development of the Gene Leahy Mall in the ’70s?

I think it was all funded by federal grants obtained by Alden Aust, the director of city planning, through U.S. Sen. Carl Curtis. This was all federal money, Community Development Block Grant money, urban open space grants, and there were some of the business leaders involved in the early parts of the planning. There were public workshops, a task force that kind of guided the process, and the task force included Omaha residents ranging from business leaders all the way down the social structure to housewives and postmen. 

What do you think of the prospect of redeveloping the W. Dale Clark Library?

There has been talk of tearing it down or renovating it, and I don’t know where that stands. The library was built in the early ’70s, designed by a firm out of St. Louis—Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum. Over the years, it hasn’t maintained a lot of popularity because of its brutalist design 

I don’t think it’s a very open or friendly looking building, and it really occupies a key spot in downtown because it anchors the west end of the mall. It’s one of the stepping stones between the CBD and the mall and the river, a progression of things. It’s got a sunken moat around it, and in today’s world, it doesn’t quite fit into the Old Market architectural vernacular—which is really brick—but that brutalistic style was a popular thing in the ’60s and ’70s.

Would you like to share any additional thoughts on the subject of Omaha’s riverfront revitalization efforts?

I think the Old Market is sometimes taken for granted as an anchor for downtown Omaha and the riverfront. The fact that the Old Market is here, and it has been here since the very beginning—despite all the pressures to tear down buildings—is remarkable.

It was this jewel in a wasteland of vacant and derelict buildings in the ’60s that the Old Market started with the Mercer family buying up many of these buildings and helping to put in place amenities like the French Cafe, M’s Pub, and other businesses. 

Over the years, it has persevered through all the ups and downs and is one of the state’s most-visited tourist attractions. It has been the greatest thing to happen to downtown Omaha, in my opinion, in the last 50 years. It’s still here, and it is better than ever.

The ironic thing is that it was never really developed. It was organic. It started growing, and things kind of fell into place. It has never been grabbed onto by a developer and ruined, like some other areas in the country that have flashy buildings and signage. It is still kind of in that organic mode. It was never really planned. Whatever else happened, the Old Market was always there. It was always going to be there, and now everything has kind of grown up around it.


Visit riverfrontrevitalization.com for more information about the Missouri Riverfront Revitalization Project. Visit bvh.com to learn more about the local architectural firm involved with the Gene Leahy Mall’s initial conceptualization and construction.

This article was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B.

Update: After this magazine went to press, the Riverfront Revitalization Project announced that the master plan would be revealed during a community meeting on June 12 (5-7 p.m. at Gallup’s headquarters, 1001 Gallup Drive). The presentation will begin at 5:30 p.m. Free parking will be available in the Gallup parking lot.

Early conceptual drawing by BVH

Off The Level

May 27, 2018 by
Photography by Tom Kessler

A seemingly endless series of prospective buyers had shopped the tract of land nestled near the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in the Country Club Oaks neighborhood abutting the Omaha Country Club. Most dismissed it without so much as a second glance. Others had visions of bulldozers dancing in their heads. A couple of brave souls even went so far as to purchase the property, only to later resell it when they couldn’t figure out how or where to situate a home.

How does one approach a plot of land dominated by a sinkhole-like ravine that is only slightly less intimidating than the Great Pit of Carkoon, the lair of the wormlike, man-eating Sarlacc in Return of the Jedi?

Just ask architect Gary Bowen.

“As with every project,” the semi-retired partner at BVH Architecture explains, “I let the topography shape my thoughts. I look to these natural clues and work with the land instead of against it. I seek to disturb the scene as little as possible.”

The home’s roofline features seven different planes, a pattern that is mirrored beneath in an astonishing seven different levels wedged every which way inside the 2,600-square-foot home.
There isn’t much subtlety to the violent angles of the 1.1-acre property, but moving throughout the land-hugging home’s varied levels is usually only a matter of a few gentle steps up or down to navigate from space to space.

And often small spaces at that. Rooms measuring as little as 12-by-14 feet could take on a downright claustrophobic vibe in other homes.

“A small footprint doesn’t need to mean small to the eye,” Bowen says while standing in the high-ceilinged den. “Volume—how your mind translates a space—is what really matters.”

“If you had put a regular, flat ceiling in this room like in most homes,” his wife, Beth, adds, “the space wouldn’t work. It would feel so…uptight…so uninviting.”

The couple’s previous home was equally as innovative. Bowen was one of five architects who designed the Treehouse development, the American Institute of Architects award-winning effort located at 60th and Western streets. Something of an early social experiment in urban infill when conceived in the late ’70s, five individually designed but conjoined townhomes rose on a heavily wooded piece of land around a central auto court.

Bowen is also known for such noted projects as the Gene Leahy Mall, the legendary M’s Pub (both original and rebuilt), and the Milton R. Abrahams branch of the Omaha Public Library system, which was designed around its famous starburst sculpture by Harry Bertoia, the midcentury master of both sculpture and furniture design.

The home’s furnishings reflect eclectic tastes where sleek, Bauhaus-era Marcel Breuer Wassily chairs are juxtaposed against earthy Acoma pottery of the American Southwest. The dull matte-glaze finish of Arts and Crafts-era Van Briggle pottery is contrasted against a shiny, streamlined Art Nouveau chair by Charles Mackintosh.

Handmade tiles and railings from local artisans, especially when surrounded by wide expanses of Douglas fir, further serve to ground the space in the finest traditions of time-honored, hands-on craftsmanship.

In keeping with a naturalistic sense of place, vining ground cover replaces sod across most of the property. A brilliant array of flowers bloom on the property that otherwise melts seamlessly into the golf course that was home to the 2013 U.S. Senior Open. (The U.S. Open, incidentally, is slated to return in 2021.)

“Who needs a lawn when you have this beautiful, 190-acre backyard?” Beth asks, gesturing to a panoramic vista while a group of slow-motion deer play through on the fifth hole just beyond the home’s deck.

Taking inspiration from their many countryside travels across the United Kingdom, Ireland, and France, the couple has created a charming, cottage-like home. But the word “cottage” can often evoke visions of the cloyingly cute, like the worlds imagined in the paintings of Thomas Kinkade. While the Bowen home is perhaps equally self-aware, it is a self-awareness saturated in a hyper-realness not found in the Disneyfied doings of other designers or decorators. No visitor here will ever conflate this home with the faux or the phony.

The couple’s art collection includes many of Bowen’s own watercolors hung alongside works by such local favorites as Keith Jacobshagen and Judith Welk. A grandfather clock in the living room and a madcap crazy quilt in the master bedroom are family heirlooms harkening to Bowen’s Welsh roots, as is the name of the home itself.

“Penwyn,” proclaims the rustic sign above the home’s front door as it greets visitors.

“It’s a British tradition to name your place,” Bowen explains, “and Penwyn was the name given to one of my ancestor’s farms in Wales.”

“And Penwyn,” Beth adds, “translates—just like our place—to ‘white house at the end of the grove.’”


Visit bvh.com to learn more about the firm where Gary Bowen is a principal architect.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of OmahaHome.

Farm Simple Meets High Design at Bellswoods

April 1, 2018 by
Photography by Farshid Assassi

The home of David and Diane Bell is the fruit of conscientious design, a reverent attention to landscape, and an affection for trees that has lingered in the family’s bloodline for generations. While its steel framing and prominent angles conjure the best of modernist architecture, the Bell family home in Franklin, Tennessee, draws substance from roots stretching as far back as the Nebraska frontier.

Nearly 150 years ago, in the open prairielands along the Platte River, Jesse Bell built a forest. Having bought a single square mile of land from the Union Pacific Corp., Jesse, a lover of trees, planted hundreds of them by hand. In the years following Nebraska’s recognition as a state, he established more than 250 varieties of hardwoods and shrubs in the soil of what was otherwise a vast and treeless plain.

When the Burlington rail company sought to lay line in the vicinity of Jesse’s burgeoning woodland, he saw an opportunity. In exchange for right-of-way on his land, he secured a Burlington depot for the area, and got immediately to work hiring a civil engineer and pursuing the task of growing a town.

Naturally, Bellswoods was to be the name. For reasons unknown, the Burlington men didn’t care for all the S’s in that eponym. To this day, we know the treed little town, 10 railroad miles south of Columbus, simply as Bellwood.

More than a century after Jesse first put the family name on the map, David and Diane have expanded the family brand into the foothills of Appalachia on their own secluded oasis of trees. Twenty miles from Nashville, down a rambling two-lane highway bordered by dry-stacked stone walls and plantation vistas, an unassuming turn into the woods leads to the family’s 20-acre estate. Perched 200 feet above the road below and fully ensconced in its forested hillside, the Bellswoods name has finally found its rightful home.     

To encounter Bellswoods in photos alone is to know a particular kind of envy—one fixated less by the rich material beauty of the home, and more with the resonating calm and timeless quietude its design embodies. “We called it rustic modern,” explains Omaha architect Steven Ginn who, over the course of five years, designed the Bell family home. The house’s palette—warm Douglas fir, exposed steel, durable stone—creates an effect that, as Ginn describes, “accentuates and exemplifies the idea of shelter.”

From the earliest stages of design, the Bells envisioned the sort of shelter that would feel fully at home in its environment. “We wanted it to feel very open and draw on the materials of the area…A house that feels like you’re outside,” David explains. With nearly half of its walls made of glass, Bellswoods achieves this effect rather gracefully. Other considerations—a bedside window designed to perfectly frame an existing sassafras tree, a living room positioned precisely to capture the warmth of the winter sun—situate the home within its environment as naturally as any other living inhabitant of the forest.

In designing the home, Ginn drew inspiration not only from the unique environmental qualities of the land, but also the architectural character of the area. Sustained by his own Nebraska roots, Ginn sought to bring an “agrarian thoughtfulness” to the design. Inspired by the 19th-century farm buildings still dotting Tennessee’s rural landscape, Ginn worked to design a home that reflected the understated beauty of these utilitarian structures. “Farm simple,” he calls it. “Everything you need and nothing you don’t.” 

David agrees, noting that functionality was a critical consideration when designing the home. Although Bellswoods can certainly feel cloistered from the rest of the world, the Bells are no hermits. Because the home was always meant to be a welcoming space for visitors in all seasons, Ginn worked to develop a “carefully choreographed space,” allowing for natural, fluid movement. Anchored by a central structural cross, the home is divided into quarters, beginning with the most public rooms (foyer, kitchen, living area) at its entrance, and moving eventually to the more private office and bedroom areas.    

Ginn notes that his understanding of movement’s relationship to structure was informed by his years spent designing Catholic churches with Omaha’s BCDM Architects. “Movement is an important part of the Catholic liturgy. That procession. How you move through the space, the views, what you’re looking toward. The building itself works to direct your reverence and attention.”

A similar sort of reverence is found in David’s personal collection of over 20 years’ worth of reclaimed wood, much of which contributed to the furniture and finishing details of Bellswoods. Like his great-grandfather before him, David describes himself as a “lover of wood.” A skilled woodworker by hobby, he passed two decades living in Germantown, Tennessee, collecting the wood of nearly every felled tree he could find. After accumulating some 15,000 board feet of red oak, walnut, cherry, and several truckloads of his great-grandfather’s Nebraska-grown hardwoods, David couldn’t deny he was having more fun collecting wood than making much of anything with it.

These years of careful collection finally bore fruit when construction on Bellswoods began in 2010. While some wood was used in the family’s dining room table (paired with ebony sourced from Nashville’s Gibson guitar factory just down the road), most of David’s collection contributed to the more than 14,000 board feet of wood used throughout the home’s construction.

While Bellswoods is undoubtedly a grand achievement of style and form, Ginn is quick to note that the true success of any home design can only be measured in the way it enlivens the everyday experience of those living inside. There are certain, less conspicuous details at Bellswoods—the hidden grotto tucked behind the waterfall that cascades into the pool; the accordion windows separating the dining room from the porch, which open and erase the border between inside and out—that don’t show quite as well in photos. Subtleties like these spark a dialogue, not just among family and friends, but between the built world and beyond. As Ginn explains: “The natural light, the movement through the day, the light, the dark, the sun, the wind—they all help to embellish the daily life of the inhabitants, help to further create a fulfilled, enjoyed life.”

Visit stevenginn.com/tennessee-hilltop-residence for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of OmahaHome.

Entryway

February 23, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Spring has officially sprung, and I am itching to spruce things up around my house—inside and out.

In other words, spring cleaning. Washing the windows is typically the first item on the list, but this is not as fun as changing my throw pillows or creating floral arrangements to add something more colorful and lighter to coordinate with the new season. Combining succulents with bold colors and metallics is a hot trend (and I’m planning to experiment with them at my own home). I also take the opportunity to weed through my closet and transition to my spring/summer wardrobe.

Normally I create a spring DIY project, but after my yearlong room makeover we decided to change things a bit and feature some new creative talent out there in our city. This issue spotlights a painting project by a professional artist whose love of Moroccan style helped turn an ordinary bookshelf into a portal of sorts.

Omaha architect Steve Ginn spent five years designing a picturesque woodland masterpiece situated on 20 acres in Tennessee. If you love nature and being surrounded by it in almost every sense, you will love this tranquil home.

Does mixing old and new styles ever get old? The Nabitys would say no, as that is exactly their style—rustic elegance. It turns out you don’t have to live at Cape Cod to get the look and feel of being there, minus the ocean.  Hopefully some of these homes or projects will inspire warm weather decorating ideas of your own.

I enjoy that spring is also the beginning of yard sale season. It’s a great way to pick up some great bargains for new weekend projects on a budget.

If you have something you just have to share with the rest of us DIYers, email me at sandy@omahapublications.com. I love to hear from fellow decorators and creatives. 

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of OmahaHome.

Sandy Matson is the contributing editor for Omaha Home.

Paul Erik Nelson’s Home Office

January 12, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In the historic Loveland Park neighborhood, quietly nestled away along a tree-lined street, there is a home and homeowner with an uncanny fervor for contemporary style and historic authenticity.

Perched atop a grassy lawn, architect Paul Erik Nelson’s 4,400-square-foot residence stands regal with worthy bones updated with deliberate modifications. Nelson, who is the sole partner of PEN Architects—a firm known for both restorations and new builds—took this home as an architectural project and space for his growing family.

Built in 1937, the home was designed by Reinholdt Frederick Hennig in an art moderne style (sometimes called “streamline modern”), which is essentially a refined version of art deco. In line with this architectural style, the home features curvilinear elements inside, such as the stairs, as well as rounded corners around the windows.

Through researching the home, its historic neighborhood, and the original architect in preparation for renovations, Nelson learned that his home has several other companions built with the Farronwall technique before World War II in Nebraska. He explains that the Farronwall technique involves brick masonry that provides a formwork for pouring concrete floors. A hollow space between the massive walls helps to ventilate the house. 

Farronwall construction methods were low-cost, and the structures are known for their unique bombproof sturdiness. “We do feel very safe in this house,” Nelson says, “and older neighbors have told us they took shelter in it during the 1973 tornado.”

In the history of the residence, the Nelsons are the fourth owners—and the home’s exterior offers clues to its evolution. Instead of trying to hide previous renovations, he identified them in horizontal charcoal-gray shingles that accent Hennig’s original beige square bricks. Nelson envisioned “not fighting with the original character” while keeping it light with his own renovations.

To passersby on the street, his front yard’s modern treehouse offers one of his own attention-grabbing additions to the plot of land.

“The treehouse is floating and quite transparent, which is a playful contrast to the heavier more massive feeling of the house sitting on the ground,” Nelson says. “When I built it, the idea was to reuse materials from the original house and yard to enhance its physical connection. The horizontally laid wood slats do relate to some of the linear masonry detailing on the house. We liked the look of the treehouse so much we repeated some of the same architectural elements on an upper-level addition added recently.”  

After purchasing the home, Nelson began removing years of ad hoc additives to reveal Henning’s original detailing and intent. “I could tell there was something special hidden,” he says.

Peeling back the layers of the home’s history and functionality, he reorganized the space with warm wood floors, a new centralized kitchen, eclectic accents, and even turned a former garage into a family room. Some original details—including a rounded staircase off the entry foyer and calico fireplace—remain as a nod to the past. Nelson also opened up the second-floor master bathroom, adding large windows and tub that look out onto a lush back and side yard. This updated space includes protruding windows that double as display areas for personal items. It is through these calculated updates and personal touches that the Nelson family is transforming their 80-year-old home to work for their contemporary needs.

His sense of searching for the bones of a place and proposing tactical updates are also what Nelson pursues in his architecture practice. His office, conveniently located above the garage, is a light-drenched space with rolls of construction documents and balsa wood models neatly organized throughout. Two large iMac screens sit on an elongated desk scattered with notes, family mementos, and design periodicals.

Nelson started PEN in 2011 as a one-man-shop specializing in both commercial and residential architecture. To date, he has completed more than 40 architectural and historic preservation projects. For some of his work prior to establishing PEN, Nelson won an American Institute of Architects award for his work on the Joy Residence, Salhany Residence, and Whitcomb Conservatory on the campus of Doane College.

His approach to design allows each project to develop without a preconceived notion or style. What emerges, like his residence, is a studied product derived from an authentic process where appropriate additives coalesce alongside historic preservation—synchronicity at its best.

Visit penarchitect.com for more information about Paul Erik Nelson’s architectural work.

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Home.

The Wigert Residence

December 5, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

On a winding drive, in the northwest Omaha neighborhood of Hidden Creek, sits a residential showcase of contemporary green architecture. The newest addition to the neighborhood is Christine and Ben Wigert’s sleek home.

Designed by award-winning architect Randy Brown, the structure angularly unfolds down a grassy lot with the cookie-cutter designs of suburban Omaha strategically nestled behind a grove of dense foliage.

For seven years prior to building this residence, the Wigerts had been living in a starter home. By 2015, they were ready for a change—“to start the next chapter of our adventures,” Christine says. Thus began their hunt for the perfect new home. Having green space with a view was a priority, and this quickly took them from looking downtown to Dundee to further and further west.

One day Ben saw a home that Brown, his friend, had designed in a new neighborhood called Hidden Creek (near 134th Avenue and Fort Street, close to Standing Bear Lake). They had seen images of this neighborhood before and heard it was out of their price range. However, Christine says they reached out to Brown on Facebook, and “he replied almost instantly and was excited to hear of our interest.” The design process began almost immediately. “After a few e-mail exchanges and sharing of prototypes he designed,” she says, “we were hooked on the idea of working with him.”

After the initial messages, Brown presented several designs with floor-to-ceiling windows for views onto the creek and a rooftop deck. Then one day, Christine says, “Randy surprised us with an entirely new blueprint for a very unique home. He said that after working with us for a few months, he had created a new vision for our home based on getting to know us.” Hidden Creek and their soon-to-be neighbors were also “perfect because the modern eco-living captured both of our favorite design styles and united us around our love for modern architecture.”

Dark wood floors wrap the space while compact nooks, angular supports, and wall cutouts are scattered through the spaces. There are few, if any, 90-degree angle walls— even some of the floors are ramped. The residence is one large open floor plan with the living room attached to both the kitchen and dining room.

The result is a 4,000-square-foot one-of-a-kind structure clad in vertical charcoal-gray siding. It is not only user-specific, but site-specific. Cantilevered spaces and open-ended decks complement the fusion of outdoor and indoor space. Strategic views are emphasized with a flood of indirect and natural light, and a 2,000-square-foot rooftop deck (with space for future gardening boxes) looks onto the wild grasses, forest, and creek adjacent to the building.

The interior design matches and extends many of the tropes found on the exterior. Every space in the two-bedroom home is unique, and nothing is left unconsidered. Dark wood floors wrap the space while compact nooks, angular supports, and wall cutouts are scattered through the spaces. There are few, if any, 90-degree angle walls—even some of the floors are ramped. The residence is one large open floor plan with the living room attached to both the kitchen and dining room. The open concept and high- lofted ceilings “allow us to share the space at all times,” Christine says.

Although the home is now complete and they have moved in, with Brown’s open-ended design, the Wigerts say that there is still “lots to dream about” on both the interior and exterior of their contemporary home.

 

 

 

Visit moderneco-homes.com to learn more about Hidden Creek.

This article was printed in the November/December edition of Omaha Home.

Neil Astle

September 17, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It is not often that an Omaha architect is featured in The New York Times and Architectural Digest, but the reputation of Neil Astle is noteworthy for much more than mere publication clippings. His local homes and buildings remain architectural treasures in the Omaha metro.

Daniel Naegele, associate professor of architecture at Iowa State University and co-author of the soon-to-be-published Astle & Omaha, says his buildings are “highlights of architecture.” Bruce Wrightsman, assistant professor of architecture at Kansas State University and the other co-author adds, “Astle had a profound effect upon architecture in the state of Nebraska.”

Tollefson House (Wausa, Nebraska)

In 2008, Astle was posthumously awarded the Harry F. Cunningham Gold Medal for Architectural Excellence in the State of Nebraska—the highest honor that the regional chapter of the American Institute of Architects can bestow in recognition of distinguished architectural achievement. This path to praise was laid in a dedication to material detailing and modernist ideologies.

Astle was born in Salt Lake City in 1933 and earned a degree in architecture from the University of Utah in 1958. The next year, he earned a Master of Architecture and Planning from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The department was then chaired by Pietro Belluschi, designer of many high-profile buildings, including the Pan Am (now MetLife) Building in New York City. At MIT, Naegele says, “Astle would have been seduced by Eero Saarinen’s extremely popular Kresge Auditorium and Chapel and by Alvar Aalto’s Baker House auditorium.” The concrete-and-glass structure auditorium and brick dormitory with a large S-curve would later be reference points to many of his projects in Nebraska.

In 1964, Astle moved to Ralston; in 1965, he founded Neil Astle and Associates and began teaching architecture and community design at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

Benedictine Mission House (Schuyler, Nebraska)

From 1968–1981 his Omaha-based firm received six AIA Nebraska Design Awards, five Central State Awards and two Architectural Record Awards of Excellence. In 1983, he became a fellow in the AIA. Then in 1999, Astle received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Utah Society of Institute of Architects—the first and still only Utah recipient of this award. Astle died in 2000, receiving the Cunningham Gold Medal from AIA Nebraska posthumously eight years later.

Why such lingering admiration for this Omaha-based architect?

Astle’s architectural style, now known as midcentury modern, confronts the expansive nature of suburbia with a counter solution: intense material and spatial investigations, along with honed detailing. As Naegele says, “The transition from man-made suburbia to Neil-made suburbia is one of Astle’s great accomplishments.”

Searching for authenticity in materials, Astle’s architecture was primarily fabricated in cedar and concrete—aging with the landscape of the site—finding continuity of interior and exterior space. Through their specific placement, these structures cascade on their sites. Like other architecture of the period, searching for simplicity was not simple.

The DeSoto Wildlife Center (Missouri Valley, Iowa)

With a focus on micro details (for example: hinging on cabinets and closet cladding) and using natural light and architectural space, many of his projects (including several Omaha-area homes and the DeSoto Wildlife Center in Missouri Valley, Iowa) strike an uncompromising balance of form, function, and the environment. 

In 1980, Architectural Digest described Astle’s award-winning work as “an architectural gem” and “unmistakably modern.” This respect continues to be felt by many of his contemporaries. Ross Miller, architectural designer at HDR, speaks to Astle’s legacy by simply stating, “he is a true architect.”

Visit aiane.org for more information about the regional chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

This article was printed in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

Learn about two Neil Astle homes for sale recently in Omaha in this article’s companion piece: “Two Homes, One Architect”

Ball House (Omaha, Nebraska)