Tag Archives: neighborhood

Sunset Hills: Once-Upon-A-Time Suburban Fringe

November 8, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

What do the Meat Puppets and Omaha have in common? Sunset Hills and local millionaire Carl Renstrom.

Renstrom, who died in November of 1981, left behind two grandchildren—Curtis and Christopher Kirkwood—who founded the Meat Puppets with drummer Derrick Bostrom. While the Meat Puppets have gone on to punk-rock fame, the Renstrom Farm behind Sunset Hills was sold and developed into One Pacific Place. Many residents still fondly remember the farm.

Joyce Green, a resident since 1979, can recall when they could see horses from the backyard. “We felt we were on the west edge of Omaha,” she says. “It was all agriculture.”

Green has even heard stories told by older residents of the Renstrom girls, either Vera or Lisa, selling farm vegetables from their chauffeur-driven car.

Bordered by 90th Street, Pacific Street, and Big Papio Creek, Sunset Hills is hilly with lush old trees, no through-streets, and little traffic.

Betty Salistean, now in her 90s, moved to Sunset Hills during the early 1950s. She relocated from the barracks at Fort Omaha when Pierce Street was still a gravel road. The city limits moved from 60th to 72nd Street in the early 20th century, and Salistean watched Omaha creep westward from her then-new home.

“It is hard to believe how fast the city has grown,” she says.

Sunset Hills’ neighborhood grew, too. An influx of young families caused District 66 to operate a temporary elementary from two houses on South 93rd Avenue. Finished in 1956, the Sunset Elementary School was built in the California-pod style— featuring sectioned rooms not connected by indoor hallways— favored for speed of construction.

“It was a kind of unique school; it actually doesn’t really belong in Nebraska,” says Steve Sorensen, who grew up in the neighborhood. “You were immediately outside when you step out the door [of the classrooms].”

In the early 1960s, hallways were added for security and practicality in Nebraska’s inclement weather, and the beloved Sunset Hills Elementary sign was constructed with beams from the original entryway.

A new renovation of the school was underway during this past summer. On Aug. 31, construction workers were busy erecting a canopy entrance for the new building. According to the school’s principal, Michelle Patterson, the local firm TACKarchitects interviewed students about memorable features. These conversations led to incorporating the sign, a canopy entrance modeled after the original entrance, glass block windows, and a beloved piece of concrete play equipment, dubbed “The Cheese,” into the new building.

It helped to have a lead architect on the project, TACKarchitects’ Christopher Houston, living in Sunset Hills.

The elementary school at the heart of Sunset Hills

“For how small the school is, we had lots of community support,” Patterson says, “which is kind of a theme around here.”

The design process included 15 meetings with an advisory committee of community members and informational meetings that filled the elementary school’s gym. This communication informed the school’s redesign—the low building height protected neighborhood views, and plentiful green space surrounded the educational edifice. Much of the surrounding greenery came from Sunset Valley Golf Course.

Some of the greenery, however, could be disappearing. Members voted on June 13 to sell the 46 acres of Sunset Valley Golf Course to NP Dodge. Speaking with Omaha Magazine in late August, company president Nate Dodge says they began a 90-day “due diligence” examination of soil to “test theory if development is possible in an area from an engineering and financial standpoint.”

NP Dodge may request a second 90-day period and anticipates developing 15 acres due to the Big Papio Creek’s flood zone. The company is considering some single-family lots and multifamily buildings, keeping green space and possibly some golf holes as amenities.

“We would love to develop this in a way that would reflect the neighborhood and district,” Dodge says. “We wanted to take in the concerns of people who would be neighbors of the development.”

NP Dodge held three public meetings attended by roughly 180 people, as well as meeting with individuals. According to the company’s president, they have made “meaningful changes because of the input and interaction of the neighborhood.”

“I live seven blocks from there. Not only have I played that golf course but biked that trail,” Dodge says. “I love that neighborhood and think it could be a great development.”

Dodge is not the only person who thinks Sunset Hills is “on the upswing.” According to Bob Zagoda, chief financial officer for District 66, the district expects growth in the area, and the new elementary building will increase to two sections. This continues a strong concentration of neighborhood students, 83 percent of the total population.

“There were gobs of kids,” Sorensen says of his childhood in Sunset Hills. “There were so many friendships you could have, and the whole neighborhood was your playground.” Residents describe the community as if it were a small Nebraskan town: “safe” and “nice.” Jack and Joyce Green, both from small towns, have hosted 37 block parties in an annual tradition stretching over 40 years.

“Omaha is made up of a lot of small-town people, and our neighborhood always had that feel,” Joyce Green says, adding that some of Sunset Hills’ newest young families are familiar faces. “That is really a compliment to the neighborhood, that kids want to come back and raise their kids here. They feel like they are coming home to raise their families.”

Sorensen is one of those kids, born in 1959, back since 2007. His family frequently visited Sunset Hills during the interim years. In fact, he considered moving into his mother’s house after her passing but instead opted to purchase a home a few blocks away.

The Sorensens now reside in a beautiful old house he has admired since childhood. As a kid, he enjoyed hot chocolate on Halloween with the previous resident. He also recalls accidentally hitting the former mailbox while showing off in his beige 1970s Pinto one winter vacation home from college.

“I’ve lived in Dundee, and there are some great things about living there. I’ve lived in Country Club, and there are some great thing about living there,” Sorensen says.“But I feel happiest living here.”

Visit sunsethills.westside66.org for more information about the elementary school at the heart of Sunset Hills.

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

Steve Sorensen, a resident of Sunset Hills

Such Great Heights

September 3, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The first thing you notice about Wyman Heights is the beautiful view facilitated by the storied neighborhood’s riverside, hilltop perch. The petite enclave, situated on the cusp of Florence and Ponca Hills, spoons with a deep bend in the Missouri River where views of the adjacent waterway and nearby city provide an entirely unique perspective.

Speaking of perspective, Jody duRand has an interesting one, having grown up in Wyman Heights in the ’60s and ’70s, and returning to live there in 2010 when she and husband Roger duRand bought their dream home. 

“Most people don’t know it’s there—this little gold mine in the hills,” she says of Wyman Heights.

Her parents left the neighborhood in 1991, and the self-described “North O girl at heart” lived for a time in a Florence home designed by her father, Del Boyer of Boyer & Biskup Architects.

The duRands nearly closed on a house in the Memorial Park area when her favorite Wyman Heights home—the one she’d admired since childhood, the proverbial belle of the neighborhood real estate ball—came up for sale. 

Cathy Katzenberger

“I loved this house more than anything in the world,” duRand says of her 1933 home. “When we got the chance to buy it, it was day one, full offer, we’re taking it as is. It’s a really special, beautiful house with so much charm and a view you just can’t get anywhere else in the city. Plus, this [neighborhood] is my home.”

Kristine Gerber, executive director at Restoration Exchange Omaha, agrees that Wyman Heights is a “hidden gem.”

“Very few know where it is,” Gerber says. “Its views of the Missouri River to the east and downtown Omaha to the south are incredible. Neighbors love that it’s this quiet oasis, yet in minutes they can be on I-680 to get to wherever they need to go.”

In 1905, Omaha real estate agent/banker Henry Wyman took a shine to the hills north of Florence—then known as Florence Heights and Valley View Heights. Wyman envisioned the area, with its breathtaking views, as the perfect spot for “an idyllic retreat for Omaha’s elite,” according to research gathered by Restoration Exchange Omaha in preparation for the organization’s 2017 neighborhood tour. Wyman spent two decades gathering land, planting trees, and grading and paving North 29th and 30th streets before the neighborhood was replatted and rechristened “Wyman Heights” in 1925.    

Tudor Revival homes populated the area from the late 1920s into the 1940s, when World War II and a national housing shortage slowed development. But by the mid-1960s, Wyman Heights was fully developed, with midcentury modern homes filling in the gaps. 

“I always have to explain that the house numbers are totally out of order,” says resident Cathy Katzenberger, who loves the area’s peace and quiet, perfect views, and combination of seclusion and accessibility. “It’s because the neighborhood started with great big lots. Then, through the years as people sold off parts of their lots, new numbers were put in.”

Katzenberger has lived in the neighborhood for 27 years, in two different houses. She grew up in nearby Minne Lusa and was always determined that someday she would live “up on the hill.” Her current abode is informally known as the Hayden House (not to be confused with the welcome center on UNO’s campus), named for Dave Hayden, proprietor of Omaha restaurants from days of yore, such as the Birchwood Club and Silver Lining Restaurant.

“This [neighborhood] originally started off as the weekend country retreat for people who lived in central Omaha—now we’re talking back in the old days,” says Katzenberger, who recalls the hill being home to “all the fancy people.”

Between the stunning views and architectural diversity, Wyman Heights was indeed a magnet for Omaha’s interesting and elite, just as Wyman envisioned. According to Restoration Exchange Omaha, the neighborhood was home to many a local movers and shakers, including Claude Reed, owner of Reed’s Ice Cream; William Sealock, president of the Municipal University of Omaha, originally located at 24th and Pratt streets and now known as University of Nebraska at Omaha; Harry Shackelford, Nebraska State District Attorney; and Genevieve Detwiler, prominent socialite and local proponent of the Girl Scouts. 

Roger and Jody duRand

Wyman Heights retained its allure into the ’60s, attracting prominent residents like mayor Gene Leahy and artist Tom Palmerton.     

“[The neighborhood] was filled with successful, smart, interesting people,” duRand recalls.

While the neighborhood has become more economically diverse, duRand says Wyman Heights hasn’t changed too much—still offering its lovely views and solid, neighborly network. 

“If you can find a house up here, you’re lucky. It’s a safe neighborhood and the neighbors are wonderful,” duRand says. “It’s nice to be able to look back all these years and see how it’s changed yet how it’s stayed the same.”

Katzenberger is pleased to see traditions like the annual neighborhood party endure, while several young families have moved into the neighborhood and livened it up with a new generation of kids at play.

“We’ve got very good neighbors. People are connected here,” says Katzenberger, noting that despite the lack of through traffic, children’s lemonade stands always do very well, as the neighbors all make a point to stop for a glass.

Katzenberger and duRand appreciate the unique blend of pastoral respite and urban access that comes with living in Wyman Heights.   

“We’re so close to everything, yet we can sit outside and hear nothing but birds…see a fox running through the yard, or deer walking up the middle of the street,” duRand says. “It’s the best of both worlds.”

Despite Wyman Heights’ affluent roots, duRand says there’s no pretension here.   

“People here are really just being themselves—and we all are very different,” she says. “It’s classy, but very eclectic. We all have love for the neighborhood and that’s what stabilizes us. If one person has a tree fall in their yard, all of us are there to help; we’re all watching out for each other.”

Restoration Exchange Omaha’s Wyman Heights neighborhood tour takes place Oct. 1 from noon to 5 p.m. Visit facebook.com/restorationexchange for more details.

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

Home Is Where the Oven Is

July 18, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Nicola Shartrand decides to spend a lazy summer morning with her two young children in their home near Lake Manawa, odds favor the happy trio baking sheets of cookies before noon in their newly renovated kitchen.

When she drives deeper into Council Bluffs to the family’s bakery, often with kids in tow, she makes hand-painted macarons, tortes, breads, cookies, and dozens of cupcakes, which then fill space in the display case, ready for public consumption.

And when John Shartrand takes the family across the Missouri to their restaurant that bears Nicola’s name, they no doubt top off the meal with Nicola’s award-winning Italian lemon cream cake.

The Shartrands’ life revolves around the food created in three different kitchens. The family travels back and forth along the routes that connect the points in their life: Nicola’s Italian Wine and Fare at 13th and Jackson streets in Omaha’s historic Old Market; Stay Sweet, Nicola’s—their bakery at 805 S. Main St. in Council Bluffs; and their gracious home in hues of gray on a quiet cul-de-sac.

The restaurant represents 15 years of ambition, hard work, and faith rewarded; the bakery, which opened in December, symbolizes dreams fulfilled; the new home kitchen has its own story, one with deep meaning for the family.

“John knew I had been putting in all these hours all these years at the restaurant, and he said, ‘You’re going to wake up one day and the kids will have graduated high school, and you will have missed the whole thing,’” Nicola recounts. “He said, ‘You love baking, you’re really good at it, why don’t you practice while you’re at home? Let me run the restaurant at night.’”

And so the original home kitchen became a laboratory for perfecting and tweaking popular dishes served at Nicola’s Italian Wine and Fare, creating new dishes, and developing recipes for baked goods. Nicola experimented for six months on the lemon cake “because Martha Stewart said every restaurant should offer something lemony.” Once perfected, the light, moist, not-too-sweet lemon cake exploded on the scene. As a result, demand for all her baked goods exploded.

So did the family kitchen.

“I pretty much destroyed it from overuse,” Nicola says, laughing as she proceeds to list a litany of problems. “We went through every single major appliance. The cabinet doors fell off from constant opening and closing. The stove went out. We needed a bigger refrigerator. And it was a really cramped working space.”

For Nicola’s birthday two years ago, John announced he would build her a new kitchen. “I wear many belts,” he quips.

The couple used a computer program offered by an assemble-it-yourself home furnishings store to measure, design, and order the materials for the new kitchen. The transaction could have gone better.

“They told us our plans were too ambitious, that we were out of our league,” John says. And when it came time to lug 279 flat boxes out of the store, “they said they wouldn’t help me.”

Undeterred, John loaded a U-Haul truck by himself, drove home, and emptied every little chrome knob and handle, every shelf, drawer, door, and cabinet from the containers. It only took a month to transform the culinary space.

They painted the new cabinetry gray to match the wall coloring. The cabinetry—above and below the long kitchen counter—helps provide 50 percent more storage space than before.

A narrow floor-to-ceiling pantry pulls out shelves and drawers to hold foodstuffs categorized by cans, bottles, and paper, “so nothing gets lost inside it,” Nicola says. Two bottles of industrial-size Worcestershire sauce appear prominently in front, as does a gallon of olive oil, which she affectionately refers to as “the best stuff on earth.”

A backsplash made of off-white, 3-by-6-inch glazed subway tiles provides a simple, clean, classic look.

The couple complemented the backsplash tile by placing an off-white, solid slab of quartz on top of the kitchen island, located in the middle of the open floor plan.

Underneath, a cabinet with 20 drawers of different depths neatly holds everything from dozens of spatulas (Nicola keeps breaking them) and half-used bags of fennel seeds to large pots and pans.

A two-door stainless steel KitchenAid refrigerator shares the kitchen’s color scheme with its gray interior, and the double-oven stove “makes cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the family really easy,” Nicola says.

The doting husband’s wish for his wife, to spend more time with Stavros, 9, and Gigi, 7, has resulted in personal growth for Nicola. Her stay-at-home baking experiments proved so popular she now supplies other restaurants and coffee shops with her sweets. She also takes special orders.

The extra income enabled John and Nicola, who both grew up in Omaha, to purchase a brick-and-mortar commercial space in Council Bluffs last November, which handyman John transformed into a full-service coffee bar and bakery. With its commercial-grade mixers and appliances, Stay Sweet, Nicola’s has taken over as the primary baking site.

John now works 14-hour days. He opens the bakery to start the espresso machine and bake muffins, intersects with Nicola and the kids in the afternoon, then crosses the bridge to oversee the restaurant.

The reward for all this hard work: a happy family.

Visit nicolasintheoldmarket.com and staysweetnicolas.com for more information about Nicola Shartrand’s culinary enterprises.

From left: Stavros, Nicola, and Gigi Shartrand.

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of Omaha Home.

Vintage Charm Restored

July 10, 2017 by

As the saying goes, one woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure. Last year, I struck gold with two vintage chairs that I uncovered during a thrifting trip.

The find just goes to show how little things can bring the greatest joys in life. Looking at these chairs in the thrift shop, I could already see how to revive them with a little work and creative thinking.

Normally, I have a rule for thrifting: Always designate space for a piece of furniture before dragging it home. But these chairs were an exception. Home with me they came.

They sat in a spare bedroom until I decided how to incorporate them into my year-long Omaha Home room remodeling project.

With this particular installment of the project, I wanted to achieve a classic look (with a little glamour added, of course). That’s where the white and gold paint came into play for the color scheme.

Choosing the right fabric would either make or break the look I was trying to achieve. Just throwing any old material on them was not going to work. I wanted something timeless, classic, and durable enough to stand the test of time.

I have many different pieces I’m bringing together for this entire year-long project. Each component will bring something unique stylistically to the room. Don’t be afraid to mix and match different styles and textures; it adds more interest to the room.

DIRECTIONS:

There are several steps that you need to get right when staining or painting wooden furniture. These steps ensure that all of your hard work pays off, and you can then proudly display your piece. You cannot skip the important prepping steps.

Prepping

Step 1—If you have a seat cushion on your chair, remove that first. Save the old fabric and cushion for later.

Step 2—Sand the chair until you remove all the glossy finish. This will allow the paint to better adhere to the chair.

Step 3—Use a tack cloth to remove all the sanded paint/material from the surface.

Step 4—Prime. I used a spray primer, which was easier to get in all of the detailed parts of this chair. Make sure each coat of primer is a light layer, almost dusting it. This way, your chair won’t suffer from paint runs. You may want to sand between coats if you are seeking a super-smooth finish. Also, using the correct paint is very important. Latex paint worked best for me.

Step 5—Use your hand sponge applicator to get your paint in all the hard-to-access areas and detailed spots. Once you have done this, you can take your foam roller to cover the entire piece. Go over the chair several times (or until you feel there is good coverage).

Step 6—If you are doing a detailed accent color, first make sure all your paint is dry. Then tape off the selected area and use a small brush for all detail work. I used what I had on hand—gold spray paint—but I sprayed it into an old cup and dipped my brush into that. You can also buy a small bottle from a craft store if you require a smaller amount.

Step 7 (optional)—Apply a top coat to seal the paint on the chair. I skipped this step and used a semi-gloss finish instead.

Step 8—Now for your cushion. Remove all the old staples from your chair cushion. You can use a flathead screwdriver and then pull them out with needle-nose pliers. Once the old fabric is off, determine if you need to replace the batting material or foam cushion. Mine was still intact, so I went to the next step.

Step 8—Cut out a piece of new fabric large enough that will wrap around the seat of your chair; leave about three inches of material (you will trim it off later). Or you can use the old piece of material as a template, allowing a few inches all the way around. Lay the seat cushion facedown on your material. Starting on one side, grab the material in the middle and wrap it around the cushion, pulling tightly, and place a staple in the middle.

Then do the opposite side, pulling tightly to the middle and placing a staple. Work your way around each side until you just have the corners left.

Step 9—Grasp one corner of your cover and pull the point toward the center of the seat cushion, staple. Arrange the remaining unstapled corner fabric into small even pleats, pulling tightly, and staple. Repeat this until all corners are complete. Make sure you don’t staple over the screw holes. At this point, you could add a piece of liner or dust cover (a dust cover is a black fabric that is generally seen under “store bought” chairs, concealing springs, nails, staples, etc.). Adding the dust cover is optional.

Step 10—Attach the cushion back on the chair, and you are done.

Note: I watched several tutorials for “chair restoration” and “chair refurbishment” on YouTube before beginning this vintage chair project. I suggest doing the same video tutorial research before beginning your own project as this can be very helpful. Good luck!

ITEMS NEEDED:

Two vintage chairs (or upholstered seat dining chairs), 1/2 yard fabric per seat cushion, and 1/2 lining per seat cushion

Scissors, tape measure, staple gun, staples, screwdriver, safety glasses

Sandpaper (in medium and fine grit)

Four cans of primer (I used Rustoleum Painters Touch 2X paint and primer), two cans per chair

One quart of latex paint (I used White Dove paint from Benjamin Moore elsewhere in the room, and Home Depot staff helped match the latex paint for the chairs)

Sponge roller

Several hand sponge applicators (different sizes)

One can gold spray paint (or a small bottle of gold paint from a craft store would suffice)

Fabric of choice

Sandy’s yearlong DIY remodeling series began with an introduction to the room in the January/February issue. The first of five projects, a coffee filter lamp, debuted in the March/April issue. Rustic wall vases followed in May/June. Stay tuned for the next installment. Visit readonlinenow.com to review back issues.

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of Omaha Home.

A Family Masterpiece

May 10, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Some childhood memories stick with you. Dave Carroll, a retired Union Pacific manager, holds onto the memory of one fateful childhood leap that dented his grandfather’s prized 1950 Mercury.

“I’ve got so much of my life in this car,” Carroll says. When he was about 6 or 7, Carroll was playing with cousins at a tree house on his grandparents’ farm in Fullerton, Nebraska. His grandfather John Carroll’s out-of-commission vehicle sat under the tree house.

“I remember it like it was yesterday. Instead of going down the rope ladder, I jumped out of the tree house onto the car and I caved the roof in.”

Carroll remembered his grandpa’s large hands. “He got in the car and he took his hand and popped it out, and I thought, wow.” Some wrinkles remained in the car’s roof and would stay there for many decades. “The funny story is, years later, I paid to fix that roof,” he says.

His grandmother, Etta Carroll, bestowed him the car after his grandfather passed away. Then she accidentally sold the car for $50 to a neighbor kid, while Dave was serving in the military during the Vietnam War. Dave and his father, Jack, travelled to Fullerton to get the car back after Dave returned from overseas. The duo were quickly chased off of the property by shotgun.

“We went downtown and we found the local constable. He was having coffee at the coffee shop. My dad knew him. We told him the story and he said ‘come on, we’ll go back.’” The story ended well for Dave, who was still in possession of the car’s original title. And the car has been with him since then.

Over the years, the Mercury was transported across the United States on a flatbed trailer while Carroll worked his way up at Union Pacific, from a position on the track gang to one in management at the company’s headquarters. His career led him to places such as Sydney (Nebraska), Denver, and Cheyenne. At every new location, Carroll brought along his beloved Merc’. “My intention was to build it, but being a railroader, I didn’t have the time or the funds.”

Carroll returned to Omaha in the ’80s. He met and wed Dianne Cascio Carroll, owner of Anything Goes Salon. Soon after, he began his odyssey of fixing the Mercury. Having the roof repaired is just one of the many changes Carroll has made to his car.

“There’s so many things that have been done to this car,” he says. Over more than 30 years, Carroll says he has spent thousands of hours refurbishing the car. Some projects were finished, only to be torn up again and redone so that he could try the ever-evolving products in the industry that worked better. “That’s my problem,” he says. “I redo things.”

He has often lost track of time while working in his garage in the Huntington Park neighborhood in Omaha. “I’ve had my wife open the door and say, ‘you know what time it is?’ I look at the clock and it’s 10 after 1 in the morning and I’ve got to be to work at 6 in the morning.”

“It’s not about me. It’s about my parents, and honoring the memory of my grandfather. I kept this car because it was in the family and it’s never been out of the family.”

Carroll’s imagination has affected every aspect of the car, from the striking Candy Purple body color, to the custom purple snakeskin roof interior. The air-conditioning vents were salvaged from a 2002 FordTempo. He ordered the custom-made steering wheel from California, and the windshield from Oregon. Thanks to Carroll’s insatiable creativity, the car has a digital dash, an electrical door opener, a late-model motor with custom aluminum valve covers, four-wheel disk brakes, rounded hood corners, a smooth dash and Frenched-in (curved) headlights.

The restoration has also been helped by Ron Moore of Moore Auto Body, Rick White of Redline Upholstery, and Rod Grasmick, an antique auto restorer. Using qualified professionals means that Carroll knows his car is taken care of, but he also finds them to be knowledgable friends.

“I have a couple of friends that are helping me with this car, that’s how our [automotive] community is—everybody helps everybody,” he says.

Will the car ever be finished? “My dad is always telling that he hopes to get to ride it in when it is done, and him being 92 years old puts a lot of pressure on me,” he says.

“My wife says, ‘you’re taking forever.’ Well, look at it this way, there’s better and newer stuff coming out all the time,” Carroll says. And so the journey continues.

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

W. Dale Clark Library: A Reflection of Omaha

February 21, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Why  are  libraries  relevant? For Rem Koolhaas, international architect and designer of one of America’s premier libraries in Seattle, “in an age where information can be accessed anywhere, it is the simultaneity of all media and, more importantly, the curatorship of their content that makes the library vital.”

This compelling principle of curation—a thoughtful way of organizing and presenting content—is how the Omaha Public Library’s W. Dale Clark branch promotes free public access to multimedia information, programming, and assets inside and outside the four walls of  215 S. 15th St. The library’s architecture, in turn, is both a container for, and reflection of, the community of Omaha at large.
Omaha’s first permanent public library opened in 1877 at 18th and Harney streets. Designed by Thomas Kimball, it was Omaha’s first building dedicated solely to a public library. However, with a capacity of 46,000 books and drastically out of sync with modern needs, the library outgrew this historic building after World War II. Often referred to as “the worst library in America” and “the horror on Harney Street,” city and library officials began contemplating a new building and the role a new central library would have in defining the cultural core of Omaha in the late 1950s.

While some branches of the Omaha Public Library system are named after locations, others are named after prominent city leaders and/or major funders. The central library branch is named after W. Dale Clark, a long-time banker, civic leader, and Omaha World-Herald board member. It is no coincidence then that during the development of this new central branch, the Omaha World-Herald was often a soapbox for the library’s necessity as a cultural anchor. A June 9, 1957, article explained, “a library should offer the opportunity for enlightened citizenship and the continuing education and cultural advancement necessary to a working democracy.” This sentiment held true for W. Dale Clark as well.

Although Clark did not live to see the completion of his library branch, which began construction in 1975, the 124,500-square-foot Bedford limestone monolith opened on March 9, 1977. Architects John Latenser & Sons of Omaha designed the $7 million open-plan building to accommodate 350 patrons and 400,000 volumes (the current collection is 500,000+ volumes). The Omaha World-Herald defined the opening as “the greatest event in Omaha’s history.”

Little has changed architecturally to the branch since 1977, although its surroundings continue to take shape—the neighborhood is part of a six-block $15 million revitalization plan.

The striated five-story W. Dale Clark Library opens laterally east and west and features a 110-foot bridge on the west entrance that spans a parking moat below for 48 cars, special facilities for audio-visual materials, a large open atrium, contemporary art gallery, and significant art collection including Catherine Ferguson’s sculpture Totem and an Olga de Amaral tapestry. The central library maintains practical roles to store government documents, house the ever-growing genealogy department, and to be a repository for community history.

In a building nearly 40 years old, how has the Omaha Public Library advanced into the digital age—an age where traditional media is seen as almost cliché? The answer is quite simple: curated in-person programing.

The facilitators for this community-driven programing are the 78 library staff at the W. Dale Clark branch. With a web of knowledge and resources, Emily Getzschman, the marketing manager for OPL acknowledges, “the staff are our greatest asset.” They fulfill the library’s tagline “open your world” by connecting dots—many of which are obvious (GED training, citizenship assistance, computer training, and literacy classes) and others that seem more disparate (STD screening, a toy lending library, speed dating, a culinary conference, and facilitated conversations around contemporary topics) all under a major OPL tenet of non-discrimination. As Amy Mather, adult services manager, says, “the library allows a smooth transition where a barrier may be to connect people with ideas.” In many instances, the library is filling voids in the public domain with this free niche programming—all of which is community driven.

Since its beginning, some have questioned the role and need for the Omaha Public Library—a story that continues to play out today. These opposing views undermine the very role of the public library as a space to define, beyond hierarchies, the community of Omaha.

It is a privilege and right to use the Omaha Public Library, which is free and open to all of the public. Everyone and anyone has access to its curated network of resources. The potency of programming, outreach, and staff reverberates beyond its architecture and stated mission placing OPL at the frontier of relevancy. As Mather says, “this is your library.”
omahapubliclibrary.org/w-dale-clark-library 

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.

Neighborhoods, USA

February 20, 2017 by
Photography by Provided

Chris Foster quickly developed a deep appreciation for his Gifford Park neighborhood after arriving in 1986. He joined its neighborhood association when it was launched a couple of years later and served as its president for a two-year stint that ended in 2001.

But it took a trip to Pittsburgh that year to trigger an epiphany. He realized what his midtown neighborhood could become.

On the trip, members of Omaha’s Planning Department and folks from various Omaha neighborhood associations traveled to the Steel City to attend that year’s “Neighborhoods, USA” national conference.

At the NUSA conference, hundreds of attendees passionate about improving neighborhoods and building stronger communities gather to swap ideas, participate in educational workshops, tour neighborhoods, and honor the innovative and life-changing work of neighborhood betterment projects.

And 2017 will see an exciting culmination of the efforts of city planners and Omaha neighborhood advocates like Foster—the 42nd annual NUSA conference is coming to Nebraska for the first time. The conference will be held at the Omaha Hilton Hotel and CenturyLink Center from May 24-27.

“NUSA coming to Omaha is a great training, educational resource, and networking opportunity for Omaha neighborhood leaders to learn about what’s going on in neighborhoods all around the country,” says Julie Smith, a conference organizer and neighborhood alliance specialist with ONE Omaha. “We will learn about programs other cities have and know that they face a lot of similar challenges, as well.”

A Fourth of July parade attracts residents in the Maple Village neighborhood.

Years in the Making

Discussions to bring NUSA to Omaha started six years ago, according to Norita Matt, a city planner who attended that 2001 conference with Foster. Years of planning led to Omaha’s presentation to NUSA leaders at the 2015 conference in Houston that landed the bid to host this year’s event.

“There is a lot that goes along with it; you have to have the mayor’s support and plenty of city support,” Matt says.

The Omaha conference will include local keynote speakers; dozens of local, national, and global workshops; awards for exceptional neighborhood betterment programs; local and national exhibitors; and a mayor’s reception.

The highlight of each conference, Matt says, are the Neighborhood Pride Tours during which attendees learn how neighborhoods use innovation and elbow grease to better their communities. More than 20 tours, including two in Council Bluffs, will focus on the rich history, unique designs, and revitalization of neighborhoods, she says. Tours are capped with receptions, local entertainment, and demonstrations of different cultures through music and dance.

“Going into the neighborhoods gives us a chance to hear about challenges and what people are doing to bring back the neighborhoods,” she says.

Gifford Park is one of many neighborhoods to participate in the city’s annual Spring Clean Up.

Two Omaha keynote speakers will highlight a key crucial neighborhood betterment effort. Jose Garcia and Terri Sanders will present their groups’ efforts to revitalize the 24th Street corridor, Omaha’s original “Street of Dreams,” connecting North and South Omaha, including the Fair Deal Village MarketPlace near 24th and Burdette streets.

Fostering a Better Community Life

For Foster of the Gifford Park association, NUSA coming to Omaha holds special significance because of his profound experience in Pittsburgh more than 15 years ago.  >

“I described it as a life-changing experience because I saw a presentation on inclusiveness involving community gardens,” Foster recalls, describing how he was “blown away” by a Seattle speaker who described the city’s network of community gardens.

Foster and others spent hours with the speaker at a local coffeehouse, and he then found himself doodling ideas about a vacant piece of land behind the Gifford Park home he shares with his wife, Sally.

Soon after, they were cleaning up the double-wide lot and purchasing the parcel for $4,000. Others joined in to transform the lot at 3416 Cass St. into the Gifford Park Community Garden. A youth gardening program soon followed.

A mural on North 30th Street emphasizes the history of the Florence neighborhood. Photo by Mele Mason.

A couple of years later, the garden expanded and an “adventure playground,” complete with a double-decker treehouse, was built as a way to build community ties among Gifford Park families and children.

Since then, a host of neighborhood activities and services have been developed, including a community bike shop and a free youth tennis program held each August at 33rd and Cass streets.

The conceptual seeds that revitalized Gifford Park’s community were planted at that NUSA conference years ago.

“NUSA provides me with some leadership development,” Foster says. “It gets people excited, invigorated, and motivated to want to take on projects in neighborhoods or work with the city and take on leadership roles. As volunteers, we have more effect on our neighborhoods than almost anything else. We’re the owners and stakeholders who can actually get it done.”

Visit nusa.org for more information.

The 42nd annual NUSA conference is coming to Nebraska for the first time. The conference will be held at the Omaha Hilton Hotel and CenturyLink Center from May 24-27.

A mural in Prospect Village celebrates the North Omaha neighborhood.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

Mike and Lynne Purdy’s Electrochromic Dream Home

Photography by Colin Conces

It’s immediately clear that Lynne and Mike Purdy’s beautiful northwest Omaha home is something special. However, the longer you stay, the more you zero in on the many small-yet-mighty details that make it so.

“It’s those little details that make it just right,” Lynne says. “There’s a reason for everything we did design-wise, and there isn’t one thing we’d change.”

That includes everything from smart windows and touch faucets to 18-foot ceilings, a shades-of-grey palette, pocket doors, waterfall counters, hidden kitchen outlets, a programmable doorbell, a fireplace in the wall that serves two rooms, and bathroom drawers customized to the sizes of Lynne’s hair products, among other distinct aesthetic and utilitarian touches.

The Purdys, who met on a fortuitous blind date in 1977, are self-described “empty nesters” and transitioned to their home in Deer Creek Highlands in March 2016, after breaking ground one year prior. Mike, an architect and president of Purdy & Slack Architects, designed the home based upon he and Lynne’s extensive, collaborative exploration of what they wanted in their next home.

First, the couple knew they wanted to live on a golf course, so when they found a Deer Creek Highlands lot they were smitten with, they persevered in attaining it. The community is home to the third nine of the Arnold Palmer-designed Players Club at Deer Creek golf course.

“We couldn’t have asked for a better neighborhood or better neighbors,” says Lynne.

Mike’s design was informed by the logistics of the site.

“Lynne wanted an open plan with our master suite adjacent, so we had the floor plan in mind,” he says. “I wanted to keep the views of the golf course, plus the sun in the wintertime comes up on the axis of the large window and the great room.”

Mike refined his design until it was everything the Purdys wanted and he received approval from the neighborhood’s architectural review committee.

“The challenge was creating something unique and contemporary, but not so radical it wouldn’t blend with the neighborhood, and also something that facilitated the way we want to live,” Mike says.

Mike also designed the Purdys’ previous home, where they raised sons Bryan and Keith and lived for 28 years, but the couple says it was a family house, not an empty-nester house.

“It was a beautiful home, but our family grew, then left. Our current home is an adult house, but still with room for the kids to come visit,” Lynne says.

Indeed, the downstairs bedrooms, family room, and walk-out patio are designed to welcome Bryan, Keith, and their own expanding families, including Keith’s 4-year-old identical twin daughters, whom Lynne says “love coming to Gaga and Papa’s house.”

Mike embraced his creative side while designing the home.

“With architecture, you try to get a reaction from people,” he says. “It’s like a piece of art—meant to draw out emotion and create conversation. That’s what I tried to do with the house.”

“One of the design elements I wanted to do was to hide the front door so there’s a little bit of mystery as you approach the house the first time,” Mike says of the slightly obscured front door that bucks street-facing tradition. “It creates a different experience, and then you make the turn into this big space, so it’s kind of a surprise.”

The first thing visitors will notice upon entering—after the Purdys’ adorably petite white pup Holly—is the 16-foot-wide, 18-foot-high, attention-commanding window that overlooks the golf course from the rear of the house. What you wouldn’t immediately notice or know is that the window panes are SageGlass, an electrochromic glass that can be set to various levels of tint via an app. The window can be dimmed by row or pane, or even programmed to react to the level of sun or clouds.

“It’s a commercial-grade glass we’re putting in some of our office buildings. They don’t require blinds and save energy from heat gain,” Mike says. “In wintertime we keep ours mostly clear to maximize the heat gain. In summertime we keep it pretty dim so it doesn’t heat up the home as much.”

Mike estimates that within 20 years most new windows in homes will be this type of dynamic glass.

“It’s newer technology, but I expect it’ll become standard and you’ll find it in the houses of the future,” he says.

Whether through the giant window or from the glass-railed cantilever deck outside, the Purdy home’s crown jewel is the incredible, ever-changing view that’s shown Lynne and Mike sublime sunrises; pop-up “lakes” born of hard rains and golf course curves; wildlife like ducks, hawks, and frogs; and confused golfers seeking errant balls.

“We’ve enjoyed every season here,” says Lynne. “In the morning I have my coffee and look out the windows … it’s just beautiful all the time, whether it’s a layer of snow or a sunny summer day. And relaxing on the deck after a stressful day is the best. In the summer we’re out there every night.”

Speaking of nighttime, Lynne says the home is prettiest after sunset when the flameless candles and decorative lit-glass spheres she’s placed throughout the house turn on. Just like everything else, that’s by design.

“You come home at night, and you want a relaxing space space. The soft light gives you that,” she says. “That’s also typically when you entertain, and I want everyone to feel relaxed and at home when they visit.”

Visit purdyandslack.com for more information about the homeowner’s architectural firm.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

Gifford Park

April 15, 2015 by
Photography by Keith Binder

Originally published in March/April 2015 Omaha Home.

Until the relatively recent past, a rapid-fire word association game played on the subject of “Gifford Park” would, for many, elicit the most meager of responses. Sure, blurting out “California Tacos” and “Shelterbelt Theatre” would tally points in this exercise, but other responses, even among the more intrepid of urban adventurers, would likely have included variations on the theme of “crack houses,” “prostitution,” and “buckets of 9-1-1 calls.”

Like so many Midtown neighborhoods now being reclaimed by a pioneering and diverse group of new settlers, the once-neglected area is experiencing a dramatic rebirth. The renaissance of Gifford Park, longtime homeowner and community leader Chris Foster explains, had the most fundamental of beginnings.

“The Gifford Park Neighborhood Association [organized in 1988] was founded on fear,” Foster says. “It was really about nothing more than survival. Our streets weren’t safe. Some very dedicated people built on and decided to try other things. They added simple things like an Easter egg hunt in the park. They started a newsletter. Today the fabric of the neighborhood is its community spirit. We care about this place and a tremendous number of volunteers pull together here in Gifford Park.”

 

The children of the neighborhood, Foster says, best represent the focus of the association’s efforts.

“Young kids don’t see color,” Foster says. “They don’t see incomes. They just see people as people.”

Volunteers of the neighborhood association offer a robust tennis program in the park, including free lessons with donated equipment. In the same once-quiet park whose silence was interrupted only by the very occasional thump-thump-clang of a pick-up game of hoops, kids swarm to the soccer events made possible by the donation of used nets. And at the community gardens, special sections are reserved for children so that a new generation can plant the seeds of change in the butterfly-strewn space that itself is a big part of the neighborhood’s metamorphosis.

The garden was established in 2001 and has become a center of both social and agrarian activities for many in Gifford Park. The neighborhood is also home to the the Big Muddy, a collectively run urban farm whose goods often travel only a couple blocks to be sold at the Gifford Park Farmers Market during growing season. Raising chickens is also prevalent in the neighborhood located just north of the Mutual of Omaha campus.

“Sometimes I think that our chicken population is approaching that of the people here,” Foster quips. Neighborhood kids also learn and work at the Community Bike Project, a nonprofit that’s many initiatives aim to provide transportation in a fun setting. One of its most popular offerings is the Youth Earn-a-Bike program. Through the course of six free classes, students receive instruction on bike maintenance, safety, and riding skills. At the end of their schooling, they take home a bike they fixed up in the process, including a lock and helmet, all at no charge.

“Gifford Park is a great neighborhood with an amazing amount of community involvement,” says Charles Mitchell, the shop’s manager who happens to live right next door.” The people who have lived here a long time are really invested in this place, but now younger people and even the kids that we get to work with here in the shop all come together and connect in really authentic ways.”

Decoding the impetus behind a neighborhood’s rise is often an exercise in assessing the “bones” of a community.

Benson, for example, is hot-hot-hot in large part because of its collection of previously underused structures along Maple Street. It’s a place that practically screamed for the new and novel. The formula was deceivingly simple. Just add an eclectic mix of innovative, risk-taking entrepreneurs, stir in an uncanny sense for what it is that people seek, and…voila…instant and seemingly
overnight revival.

Gifford Park has few such assets in the way of infrastructure. A mere handful of storefront options are available for any aspiring business-launchers at the neighborhood’s small commercial epicenter, the intersection of 33rd and California streets.

So what accounts for the symphony of nail guns and table saws throughout the neighborhood that will reach a crescendo once temperatures continue to rise? Here it is not about dollars invested. In Gifford Park, neighbors are building stronger communities one household at a time.

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September 29, 2014 by and
Photography by Sarah Lemke

On a homeowner’s association website tucked away under the seventh tab marked “Contact Us” is an innocuous picture of a United States Postal Service van making its first mail delivery in 2008 to a new neighborhood in postal zip code 68130.

Six years later, the mailman delivers letters to some of Nebraska’s most important movers and shakers. Fortune 500 CEO’s, an NFL football star, and top doctors live along tree-lined boulevards and winding cul-de-sacs in the area known as Legacy. It’s a luxury community located at South 173rd Street just off West Center Road.

A proximity to all that is grand gives Legacy residents a taste of the good life, whether they fancy a lakeside stroll or a spin through a shopper’s paradise.

The tranquil, yet inviting area, all roughly 70 lots of it, was once home to a grand mansion nestled among 100 wooded acres belonging to Crossroads developer John A Wiebe.

It’s not a stretch to say that Wiebe left his own legacy, the gift of nature’s beauty in the form of trees and a lake, to the future residents of Omaha’s Legacy neighborhood.

“He had his own private airstrip and his own private lake, so we benefitted from the pre-existing, dammed lake,” says the president of the Legacy Homeowners  Association, Greg Scaglione. “He also planted all of these trees on the perimeter of his lot, so we benefitted from that” as well.

Scaglione appreciates the privacy and beauty that the older trees provide. “The beauty of having those existing 20-year-old trees to then build your house behind, you don’t really have that in
Omaha that frequently.”

He also points to the interesting design created by developer Jeff Johnson of the Cormac Company. “Professional office buildings are contiguous to our neighborhood. That’s the way the developer wanted it. It’s called high density,” he says. “Once you get on the other side of the hill, you don’t see any of that. You don’t see Life Time Fitness. You don’t see West Center Road. You don’t see the office buildings. It’s like all of a sudden you’re in this little community.”

The Wiebe Reservoir is a popular spot for fishing, and bass, bluegill, and crappie are stocked by the association. “The neighbors are very engaging. You’ll go down to the lake and there will be families fishing. The whole family is out there with the rods
and reels,” he says.

The residents meet annually at a pot-luck picnic by the lake. But impromptu gatherings happen frequently. “Everyone is very welcoming. There’s a lot of parties,” Scaglione says.

With the neighborhood’s proximity to Zorinsky Lake and its trails, it is not uncommon to spot wild turkeys, deer, and the occasional butterfly or two. But should you decide to walk just a few minutes toward West Center Road, you can snag a Venti Latte from your favorite barista.

“The uniqueness of the neighborhood is that you feel like you live in the country amongst trees,” says Sallie Elliott, a Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Ambassador and a Legacy resident. You live away from the city, but you can walk to Starbucks. You’re within two minutes of everything. You can walk everywhere.”  She enjoys dining at Baby Blue Sushi Sake Grille and frequents her favorite design store, Pearson & Company, located in the adjoining Shops of Legacy, an area of high-end specialty stores. “It has unique furniture accessories for staging, new construction, and my personal home,” the real estate professional explains.

Elliott says the spacious acre-plus lots at Legacy are unique to Omaha. “There’s a mix of styles in the neighborhood, from Mediterranean to French to more contemporary lines.”

The homes, all upwards of $1 million properties, vary in construction between brick and stone. “Real stone is classic and timeless,” Elliott says. “I’ve mixed stone and brick to try to be more classic.”

As a testament to the area’s thriving development, Scaglione says there are only two or three available lots left. CEO’s of Omaha, take note.

Elliott’s favorite part of living at Legacy is walking along the Zorinsky trail and seeing her neighbors. “Everybody’s out walking. With a big lot like this, you are separated from your neighbors and you don’t see them as much…unless you’re out walking.”

Legacy Homeowners Association Secretary Clay Cox says that he loves the great schools and opportunities available in the area.

“My son started working at Immanuel’s Pacific Springs Retirement Community when he was 14, and it has been a wonderful opportunity for him to learn responsibility and the value of a dollar and the value of hard work.”

He also appreciates his neighbors. “We watch out for each other’s kids and property. We love that our kids can go out to bike, ride, or fish and feel safe,” Cox says.

“It’s active,” says Scaglione. “People are active in their business. They’re active in their recreational lives, so it’s a lively community. It’s not a sleepy community.”

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