Tag Archives: Omaha Home

Moroccan Door DIY

March 7, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Costa Rican fine artist Elisa Morera Benn and her husband, Dr. Douglas Benn (a professor in the Creighton School of Dentistry), are patrons of the arts. Their stylish home located near Leavenworth Street features great views of downtown Omaha and a vast array of compelling works of art—a mix of hers and others.

Benn’s surrealistic artworks are also showcased around town at places like the Artists’ Cooperative Gallery, the Jewish Community Center, and Hot Shops Art Center. Benn—whose work has been featured at the Louvre in Paris—studied with art masters in Costa Rica and has been a professional artist for over 35 years. A popular theme of her work is children and women who have overcome obstacles.

Just off Benn’s home art studio in the basement, however, is a guest room that features a fully functional and wholly different type of art. Benn transformed the back of an ordinary bookshelf into a pleasing, extraordinary work of art—a portal, if you wish, to other lands.

The bookshelf divided the guest room that also includes a small office area. So, Benn painted the back into the style of a mythical Moroccan door to transform it into an “attractive, surrealistic gateway for the guest.” Her inspiration? The royal arches and neon lights of Morocco. “I love the Morocco style. I have never been in this country, but it is on my bucket list,” she says. 

The project took her about three days and cost less than $75. She was inspired to create the door after finding the Moroccan handles on sale at a craft store. Her array of tools also included acrylic paint, masking tape, dimensional texture acrylic paint, some chalk, glass tiles, flat and clear glass gems, flat and round metal pieces, and a ruler. 

She first Googled examples of Moroccan doors, then she chose her favorite model. “I transferred the design to the back of the bookcase, measured it with a ruler, and then marked it with chalk.” She then put masking tape around the border to prepare for painting. She used Moroccan blue, brown, white, and black. After painting with the plain colors, Benn used a dimensional fabric paint for clothes called “Tulip Slip Black” to paint the flowers and symbols. “This gives you an acrylic texture,” she says.

Benn then finished by adding the handles, round metal, flat and clear glass gems, and glass tiles. “The glass gives you the sensation of looking at a wall with a nice Moroccan door.”

Through her handiwork, Benn created a passageway that often surprises and delights visitors to the Benns’ home. The creative door serves as a continual reminder of her wish to travel to Morocco one day and gives her guests something nice to look at. “As an artist, I love the intervention of making artistic things with normal pieces. Blending new things with old things is part of my inspiration.”

Items used:

  • Free-standing bookcase
  • Moroccan handles
  • Acrylic paint: Moroccan blue, brown, white, and black
  • Dimensional fabric paint (Tulip Slip Black)
  • Ruler
  • Masking tape
  • Chalk (two pieces)
  • Pieces of flat, round metal (approximately 16) the size of a nickel
  • Flat, clear glass gems (approximately 26)
  • Glass tiles (1-by-2-inch tiles, approximately 200)

Visit the artist’s website at artistamorera.com for more information.

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

Starting Seeds

February 23, 2018 by

Growing produce is a great way to save money on groceries and promote healthy eating. Buying greenhouse-started plants is one option, but starting your own seedlings allows you to grow atypical plants at a fraction of the cost.

Springtime planting takes a little bit of foresight, so plan ahead. Seeds should be started six to eight weeks prior to planting in the ground. With Nebraska’s climate, seedlings will not survive in the winter cold and should be started indoors or with protection.

Dr. David Hibler, the owner of the Benson Plant Rescue, recommends starting your seeds in January or February. Hibler says that this will help you get your plants in the ground before the generally accepted frost-safe date of around May 4, noting that the date has been less consistent in recent years.

To start seedlings indoors, Hibler says you need three things: a light source, moisture, and a growing medium such as soil. He says kits are available, with the “72 slot” being a popular option. The 72 slot is a small greenhouse-like tray with subdivided slots for growing medium and seeds.

For the growing medium, expanding medium pellets are an easy option. Hibler recommends a lightweight organic seed-starting mix. Soil can be mixed with peat moss or vermiculite to lighten it. Hibler also recommends reusing seed trays and soils.

For lighting, Hibler recommends full-spectrum fluorescent lights. “Daylight” bulbs, he says, are often a fraction of the price of “grow lights” but contain the necessary spectrum. A brood light with a full-spectrum, compact fluorescent bulb also works well. He says LEDs are also available.

Hibler says that when the soil reaches around 64 degrees Fahrenheit and there is no risk of frost, seedlings can be planted. Perennials, he notes, can tolerate a little bit of frost.

John Porter, agriculture program coordinator with the University of Nebraska Agriculture School, lends a few supplementary suggestions. Porter says seeds need around 75-80 degrees Fahrenheit to germinate. Once they come up and have leaves on them, they need to be a bit cooler—60-65 degrees Fahrenheit—so they don’t get long and leggy. He notes that most seeds don’t need light to get started. He says they can be started on top of the refrigerator for warmth.

Porter also recommends sterile soil and sterilized containers. “There are some diseases that will kill the seedlings when they are very young,” he says. Porter also recommends using recycled containers for seedlings. They will need drain holes. He recommends cleaning them with a detergent and sterilizing with a 10 percent bleach solution.

Once the seeds germinate and have leaves, they should go into the potting soil. “Seeds have the nutrients to get [seedlings] into the first set of leaves; they don’t need nutrients until then,” Porter says.

As for lighting, Porter says commercial greenhouses use LEDs, but fluorescent bulbs also work. He notes that if full-spectrum bulbs are not available, a mix of warm and cool fluorescent bulbs contain enough of the light spectrum required for most seedlings. Porter recommends putting the lights as close to the seedlings as possible without causing damage to the plants.

Growing seedlings indoors is not an exact science to yield good results. If you need supplies, the Benson Plant Rescue has them for sale, or Hibler can steer you to the right place to find them. If you want to learn the science of starting seeds, Porter offers a course with the Douglas-Sarpy County Extension Office. Everything else about starting your own seeds and planting your garden is DIY. That is half the charm.

The Benson Plant Rescue is on Facebook at @bensonplantrescue and can be reached by e-mail at bensonplantrescue@cox.net. Details on plant propagation classes with the Douglas-Sarpy County Extension Office are available at extension.unl.edu/statewide/douglas-sarpy or by e-mail at john.porter@unl.edu.

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


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.

Omaha’s First Neighborhood (Forest Hill)

February 21, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Big pine and oak trees, patches of green space, historic mansions, and single-family homes (many of which were built in the late 1800s, not long after Omaha first became a city)—that’s what you’ll find in the area affectionately known as Omaha’s First Neighborhood, located just south of the Old Market between 10th and 13th streets.

You’ll see grand, welcoming porches where neighbors stop to greet each other on picturesque walks; multi-story gables flaunting tall, stained-glass windows; and architectural styles ranging from Victorian to Romanesque.

You can stroll by Bishopthorpe (1240 S. 10th St.), a large Victorian mansion that Bishop George Worthington built as his residence while he served as Episcopal Bishop of Nebraska. Just down the street is the majestic St. Francis Cabrini Church (1248 S. 10th St.), a shining example of Spanish Renaissance Revival style designed by the renowned architect Thomas Kimball. A few blocks down is the Cornish Mansion (1404 S. 10th St.), known as one of the best examples of French Second Empire architecture in Omaha.

“The neighborhood has a lot of character and charm, which is what draws people here,” says Nancy Mammel, who has owned property in the area for several years.

The problem is, over the past several years, the neighborhood has also been drawing more and more new development, some of which residents believe is threatening the area’s origins and integrity.

“Many people who are living in the homes are concerned about the future of these homes and this neighborhood,” says Marie Sedlacek, who moved to the neighborhood in 1985.

02 December 2017- Marie Sedlacek is photographed in front of her home for Omaha Magazine.

In 2015, John E. Johnston & Son Funeral Home on 10th and William streets, formerly the Kountze Mansion, was demolished to make way for William Rows, a cluster of 27 row houses. Grace University’s announcement to halt operations at the end of the 2017-2018 school year has attracted a developer’s proposal for more high-density apartments on some of the property. Omaha Public Schools purchased land at 10th and Pine streets to build a new 600-capacity elementary school, which residents are concerned will take away green space and bring more commuter traffic.

Progress itself isn’t bad. But residents believe progress that changes the historic look and feel of the area—the quaint community vibe and distinguishing architecture that holds an important place in Omaha’s past—isn’t good, either.

“We just want people building and developing in a smart way,” Mammel says.

While it’s colloquially called Omaha’s First Neighborhood, the area’s official name is Forest Hill. The parameters go north to south from Pacific to Bancroft streets, and east to west from Sixth to 13th streets, according to Arnie Breslow, president of the neighborhood association, who owns the Cornish Mansion and other properties.

The residents who live in the area, either as homeowners or renters, are diverse in both age and ethnicity. Sedlacek says her neighbors range in age from 30 to 70 years old, including single people, families with kids, and people who are older or retired. And these neighbors represent many different ethnicities, including Latino, Italian, Czech, and Bohemian.

The neighborhood began to form in the late 1800s. Some of the city’s first businessmen built the first homes in the area because they wanted to live close to their downtown businesses, but not right downtown, to get away from muddy streets, odors, and a general abundance of soot and pollution.

Breslow says about 28 large-to-mid-sized mansions were originally built on the “hill,” and he estimates maybe five remain. As the development of railroads increased commercial development and a need for more workers, immigrants began moving south of downtown, building more modest homes around the parameter of the mansions.

The three things residents love most about the area—what they believe is important to maintaining the neighborhood’s authenticity—are these homes (big and small), the bigger plots of green space, and the walkability around the neighborhood as well as to several popular destinations (a trait that is also attractive to developers).

Depending on which direction you are headed, the Forest Hill neighborhood is roughly a mile’s distance from two of Nebraska’s most popular tourist attractions—the Old Market and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. The Durham Museum and Lauritzen Gardens are also easily accessible. Residents who work downtown can easily walk to work. And everyone who lives in the area can enjoy walks to some of the area’s popular independent businesses, some of which have been around for generations, such as Cascio’s Steakhouse, Sons of Italy, Johnson Hardware Co., and Olsen Bake Shop.

In an effort to be proactive about the neighborhood’s future, Breslow, along with a group of several neighbors, worked with an architect to draft a plan to revitalize South 10th Street with more gardens and green space, new streetlights, and sculptures. The plan for “District 108” was approved by City Council about 10 years ago and even won Omaha by Design’s Neighborhood Leaf Award in 2009. Unfortunately, funds have not yet been made available to move significantly forward.

“Part of our plan is to do some things to try to slow the traffic down,” Breslow says. “People don’t like to walk down a street where a car is driving 50 miles per hour.”

Several aspects of the neighborhood’s future remain uncertain, and some are out of the homeowners’ control. However, Sedlacek, Breslow, and Mammel love this neighborhood. They love its history, its vibe, and how it has evolved since it was founded more than 100 years ago. And they will continue to do what they can to preserve it.

“We just really want our neighborhood to be sparkly,” Sedlacek says. “We have the kind of details people don’t realize we have until they are gone.”

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

Sometimes Life’s a Beach

February 16, 2018 by and
Photography by Jeffrey Bebee

Imagine you are in a Florida beach house. This is what our client wanted to feel every day when they walked into their kitchen.

Although the home was built with a very closed-concept floor plan, we took this challenge head-on.

Our main challenge was to open up the space. We did so by tearing down the wall between both the formal dining room and moderate-sized kitchen. This allowed the natural light to pour in, which was essential in the overall feel of the space.

Meanwhile, we carefully planned adequate storage in the cabinetry so that we could run windows along the entire length of the kitchen without upper cabinets. Since the home is located on sprawling land just north of Omaha, the added windows allowed the western view to roll on through the beautiful new bank of glass.

For the finishes, we kept things light and bright, adding very specific points of interest. We incorporated lots of crisp white woodwork and warmed things up with a walnut-stained wood floor. Clean white quartz perimeter counters added another touch of serenity and simple flow, while rich iron hardware succeeded in creating a nice contrast with the white.

We topped the design off with a tranquil blue tongue-and-groove wood ceiling and an island constructed from the family’s inherited old planks of wood. The color palette was also crucial to the overall aesthetic of the room: whites, oceanic blues, intense purples, and nature-inspired greens.

Together, these elements worked to create a calm, beautiful space with just the right amount of punch.

The biggest hurdle we faced was working around the existing locations of doors, adjoining rooms, and the staircase.

We wanted to create an open area for entertaining while maintaining as much of the integrity of the original space plan as possible. This resulted in careful design of each elevation in order to provide a functional work triangle and flow of the space.

A space needs to be as functional as it is beautiful, and we feel this one is definitely a gem to surround yourself in. We were honored to design, guide, and help complete the transformation of this space, allowing us to witness our client enjoying their long sought-after dream kitchen.

Rachael Cavanaugh

Julie Hockney








Julie Hockney and Rachael Cavanaugh co-designed this project. They are two of the six designers at jh Interior Design Studio. Now in business for 10 years, they recently expanded, for the fourth time, into a new studio featuring a unique shopping boutique and design office. The firm designs both residential and commercial spaces and has designed spaces ranging from 1,200 square feet to 40,000 square feet. The designers’ goal is to create a curated space suited for success—no matter the size. They focus on bridging the gap between function and aesthetic, with a strong emphasis on how their clients will use their space. Their design team aims to make each client’s space an extension of their own personality, all the while having a great experience during the design process.

Visit juliehockney.com to learn more about the designers responsible for this kitchen transformation.

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

Wood Works

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It all began with a Hail Mary pass to get Graham Nabity enrolled at Elkhorn High School in time for football season.

In 2010, David and Kim Nabity hastily moved from their 5,000-square-foot Pacific Hollow home to a 2,700-square-foot, 1965 Elkhorn home just in time for Graham to suit up that fall. With three of the seven Nabity children still under the roof at the time, David says they “sardined” themselves into the new, smaller home.

“The whole point was moving in with enough time for [Graham] to start at Elkhorn, so we always knew at some point we’d do something different with the house, but it took us six years to finally get to the place where we had the design we wanted and were ready to do it,” says David, an Omaha native who grew up in the Benson area.

At the tail end of 2017, after 15 months away for a massive remodeling project, David and Kim finally moved back into their gorgeous, fully redone (now 3,800-square-foot) Elkhorn home that makes heavy use of gorgeous reclaimed barnwood. Why so long? Well, that whole “fully redone” part ended up being much more involved than initially expected.

The first order of business was clearing the ample lot from its excess of uninviting flora.

“The woods were so thick when we moved in you couldn’t even walk through them—it was just dead trees, thickets, poison oak vines, thorn bushes…It took me two years to clean the grounds so we had a meadow,” David says. “By about year four, I’d cleared out all the trees so we could see the beautiful river valley view we have now.” 

From August 2016 through December 2017, the Nabitys moved in with their son, Justin, planning to simply skin the outside and inside of the home, “leave the sticks and the roof, and add on the garage and extension.” But simple was not in the cards for the Nabitys.

The framers reviewed the plans and the house, indicated the plan was not possible, and recommended tearing down the south side of the house. The Nabitys agreed to that, only to discover that the house also lacked headers over the doors and windows, and the frame was not bolted to the foundation. Ultimately, they took the house all the way down to the foundation and built back up from there—thus the unintended 15-month diversion to dwelling in Justin’s unfinished basement.

In January 2017, the Nabitys parted ways with the original general contractor and David took over the project, with no prior construction or homebuilding experience.

“Since I’d never built a house before or been a general contractor, I was flying blind,” he says. “I had to really trust and rely on my subcontractors because I was in uncharted territory.”

But what David lacked in experience, he made up for in vision and vigor.

“Our vision for the house was rustic meets elegance; for the home to feel warm and friendly,” David says. “It’s kind of a Cape Cod look meets mountain home. Over the years, Kim and I visited places like Beaver Creek, Colorado, and Whistler in Canada, and we love the mountain home look of housing in those areas. Since we’re on a hill overlooking the river valley, we wanted to bring that mountain home feel to the house and felt like the barnwood would do the job. We couldn’t be more thrilled with [the result]. It’s exactly what I envisioned it would become.”       

In the meantime, Graham had indeed played football for Elkhorn, and then UNL, before graduating college and partnering in Nebraska Barnwood with David’s friend Tom Day, who had a massive supply of reclaimed barnwood.

“They build barnwood tables, desks, other pieces of furniture, and I bought all my barnwood from their company,” David says. “I picked up the wood, brought it home, power-washed and sanded every board, and stained, painted, or put a clear poly on every board that’s in the house. [Kim] and I worked side by side on that.”

The result is lovely, with a variety of barnwood featured throughout the home, from David’s Western/cowboy-themed office with a horse-worn, notched barn beam and striking multicolored boards in a repeating 8-inch, 4-inch, 6-inch pattern, to the airy, open floor plan living/dining/kitchen area, to the French mountain resort-esque family room with natural stone fireplace, to the stunning master suite, and beyond.

Every inch of the home is appointed with thoughtful care for details like doorknobs, hinges, and other hardware to add subtle elegance, as well as strategic use of knotty alder for certain doors and trim areas to mimic the rustic barnwood charisma. Corresponding colors and themes are found throughout the house.

“Every room’s a little different, and I use the barnwood differently in every room, but I tried to tie all the metals and wood together,” David says. “A lot of thought went into each space as far as how we [executed] to get the look we wanted.”

Ultimately, David says the end result was worth the wait, and though much of the remodel could’ve been achieved with any wood, he and Kim love the way their use of reclaimed barnwood lends character and warms up the home.

“God provides a seed, you plant it in the ground, and it grows into a tree. Then that tree provides fruit or shade until it comes time for the tree to die or be harvested. Then you cut the tree down and can shape the wood into so many different things. But once you stain it and put it at its rightful place, it just lives forever,” he says. “It’s a really phenomenal natural thing, when you think about it. If you take that concept to an old barn, the wood is old, tired, worn, used…yet it still maintains that character, and when you bring it back to life by power-washing, sanding, and staining it, something really special happens. It goes way beyond just being a piece of shiplap; there’s much more to it. It’s an amazing thing.”

Visit nebraskabarnwood.com for more information about Nebraska Barnwood and the reclaimed wood used in the Nabitys’ Elkhorn home.

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

Taking Time To Design

Photography by Jeremy Allen Wieczorek

90 seconds.

In a little over a minute, a buyer falls in love with a house. That’s all it takes.

It happened to Aubrey Hess. She knew it immediately when she entered the front doors of the two-and-a-half-story American foursquare house. She called her husband Corey in a panic.

“This is it,” Aubrey said. “Get over here.”

Aubrey realized it needed some work. She should know. Aubrey, a realtor for the past 12 years with Better Homes and Gardens, has stepped into countless homes. Only a few have grabbed her attention.

But something in those seconds on 110 S. 52nd St. moved her. She looked beyond the peel-and-stick laminated tile, the orange-tinted wooden floors, and lackluster yellow walls. Aubrey saw potential. Corey, an architect with DLR Group, realized it despite knowing the electric wiring and roof needed work. No “little pink houses” on this block. Instead, the uniqueness of the midtown neighborhood appealed to the creative couple. The added space would be ideal for their two growing girls, Emerson and Montgomery.

The first month became a flurry of activity. Walls deserved a fresh coat of paint, light fixtures became interesting pieces of art, and wooden floors were unveiled. Birch on the main level, oak on the second, and pine on the third. Pine possibly due to the history of the almost 100-year-old house. Live-in servants typically utilized the third floor, so owners didn’t dish out the most expensive wood.

The bones of the house have remained, giving it a bygone vibe. The dining room has a small circle service bell built into the flooring from days past. Rooms have the original old-fashioned swinging and hidden pocket doors. The light switches don’t flip, but are still the same push buttons from the 1900s. Corey even cooked the heavily painted doorknobs in a crockpot with soap and vinegar to keep the novelty intact.

“We wanted to be respectful to the topology,” Corey says. “What’s the point of buying the house otherwise?”

The house has character, and little touches like these add flavor to the couple’s eclectic, “kick of fun” ideas. A gold chicken-legged end table stands next to a black cowhide in the “smoking room.” Meanwhile, a twisty white papier-mâché night table complements a slat metal headboard in the guest room.   

After the family moved in, Aubrey wasn’t sure how to finish off the last bit of the house. Luckily, interior designer Roger Hazard sat next to her at a charity event and the two talked wallpaper.

Every single project provides a challenge. In this case, it seemed to be a matter of cohesion. Hazard has visited with homeowners in every single state and made his mark making homes interesting. His bold style landed him three hit television shows on A&E—Sell This House, Move this House, and Sell This House: Extreme—as well as two Emmy nominations.

Hazard, along with husband Chris Stout, decided they wanted a change from the fast-paced lifestyle of traveling road shows. The two established Roger + Chris, “the home of the unboring home.” Hazard saw cool development opportunities and hype in Nebraska.

“Omaha is going to be a hot spot in the next 10 years,” Hazard predicts.

The two settled in to design different styles from contemporary to conservative to traditional. Hazard first created a presence in each room for the Hess family. The upstairs hall was painted with a large splash of emerald green while the color continues with a smaller presence in the velvet drapes in the smoking room.

In addition, Hazard and Stout make and name their own furniture. “Bunny” is a black-and-white striped loveseat with a hyacinth-colored interior, which will be placed to the right of the front door.

“Stripes are my favorite color,” Aubrey jokes.

The house is a mix of materials, fabrics, and textures. Plus, it harbors a touch of masculine and feminine. For example, pink velvet chairs in the dining room mingle with a gray tweed couch.

It is relaxed, yet stimulating. The family loves to entertain, so each room is a talking point. Rorschach flashcards are framed and hung on one graphite gray wall. Guests can interpret the psychological blots.

“I would rather buy something fun to mess up than something boring,” Aubrey adds.

This rustic refinement is perfect for a family that loves to eat, play, and have fun. It gives her daughters room to play. The custom-made walnut tree dining room table is strewn with a puzzle the girls started to piece together. Corey, along with a friend, designed the black-bottom base. The family also spends hours in the smoking room—not smoking—reading because the sun warms the area with light. A concrete coffee table in the living room can be moved aside when dance parties break out.

The Hess girls do spend time in their bedrooms, preferring alone time during the day, though the two are inseparable at night. Rather than the typical pink walls, both rooms are adorned instead with empowering quotes from strong women such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Emerson, 8, likes the big house but isn’t a fan of the kitchen (which the family still plans to redo). Other small parts also need fixing up, such as the bathrooms. 

And the basement is currently a work in progress. Corey exposed some bright brick and the trim has been replaced. Hazard plans to add hot pops of pink, blue, and orange to give it high energy. It won’t even feel like a basement, more modern and loft-like.

“We will hopefully be done by 2019,” Aubrey says with a laugh.

These two busy parents fit in bursts of inspiration when possible. Photos and framed artwork from their kids once took two long nights to finish. The grass out front has been replaced with synthetic turf so less time is spent on the lawn and more on relaxation. It’s one of the reasons why the two have spent time and effort designing it—so it will be a place of comfort and joy for the entire family.

Visit rogerandchris.com for more information about the A&E celebrity couple involved with the Hess family home’s redesign.

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

Cacophony of Curios

Photography by Jeremy Allen Wieczorek

In design, the “rule of thirds” posits that objects grouped in twos or fours render an ungainly sight—that three is the magic number in creating eye-pleasing arrays.

In Scott Shoemaker’s Victorian home, a few doors north of Hanscom Park, the design principle is amplified exponentially. Minimalist, his residence is not. 

Things sit on top of things that, in turn, sit on top of other things. A cacophony of curios dominates the 1891 home built by noted architect John McDonald, the man behind such local treasures as Joslyn Castle and—along with his son, Alan—the Joslyn Art Museum.

Shoemaker’s love for all things Victorian began quite by accident almost 30 years ago.

“I was in an antique store,” the longtime Omaha Symphony violinist explains, “and I found a wax cylinder record. I wasn’t exactly sure how it worked, but I knew that it was how people once listened to music. That led to the need to find a period Edison cylinder player, which led to an antique piano, which led to…well, all of this,” he says with a panoramic sweep of a hand. “It all stems from my love for music.”

Unlike the “less is more” aesthetic of the Bauhaus-inspired midcentury modern movement, where line and form are reduced to bare essentials, Shoemaker’s sitting room hosts a densely packed, dizzying collection of tchotchkes and furniture in such materials as oak, mahogany, ebonized wood, glass, porcelain, silk, metals, and velvet.

Upon entering, one’s eye is immediately drawn to a stout, beefy, Empire desk anchoring one corner of the room. In the other corner, a 19th-century portrait of an Austrian soldier stands guard above a silk Empire sofa upholstered in a traditional Napoleonic bee pattern. In yet another corner, a bust of Shakespeare fixes its gaze on the homeowner’s extensive library of century-old books on music and music theory.

“It’s been years and years of moving this object here and that object there to get everything just right,” Shoemaker says of the intricate symphony he has composed in the once-dilapidated fixer-upper bought for a pittance in the early ’90s. “But I’m finally to the point where I can sit back and enjoy it all,” he says, before quickly adding a wry qualifier of “at least for now.”

While the color palette is decidedly dark, the space is anything but foreboding as no fewer than 15 light sources—including electrical wall sconce lamp fixtures converted from the original gas—bathe the space in a cozy, inviting glow.

Shoemaker has had the opportunity to visit many of the city’s historic homes. At a little under 2,000 square feet, the footprint of his residence is dwarfed by the comparatively cavernous edifices lining 38th Street’s Gold Coast neighborhood and elsewhere. But size is not everything.

“Those places are great,” Shoemaker explains, “But they can have an almost museum-like quality to them where I’m afraid to even breathe, let alone touch anything. I don’t want to live in a museum, and I’m happy that my friends describe my place as warm, intimate, and charming.”

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

Park Avenue Revitalization & Gentrification

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As revitalization has come to diverse and densely packed Park Avenue, a tale of two neighborhoods has emerged. The north end—near 30th and Leavenworth streets and Midtown Crossing—finds a millennial haven of developer-renovated historic properties and shiny new projects on once-vacant lots. The south end—bordering Hanscom Park—is plagued by remnants of drug activity and prostitution. In place of chic urban digs are public housing towers. Amid this transience, reinvestment lags.

Meanwhile, nonprofit InCommon Community Development bridges unchecked development and vulnerable immigrant and refugee populations. Its proactive, grassroots approach to alleviate poverty invests in residents. As a gentrification buffer, InCommon has purchased two apartment buildings with below-market rents to maintain affordable housing options to preserve a mixed-income neighborhood.

“It’s crucial to really involve people in their own work of transformation,” Executive Director Christian Gray says. “We have a very specific assets-based community development process for doing that.

It’s a methodology or mindset that says we’re not going to do for others, and residents themselves are the experts.

“It’s slower, patient, but sustainable work because then you have people with buy-in and trust collaborating together for that change. The iron rule is never do for others what they can do for themselves. We made a commitment when we moved in the neighborhood to set the right first impression. We said, ‘We’re not here to save you or to give away stuff for free. We’re here to listen—to get to know you. We want to hear your ideas about change and be the facilitators of that.’ I think that’s made the difference.”

The faith-based organization “starts with the idea people want to be able to provide for themselves and their families,” he says. “We help them build their own capacity and then start building relationships. Then comes leadership development. As we get to know people, we identify their talents and gifts. We talk about how they can apply those into developing and strengthening the neighborhood. The ultimate goal is neighborhood transformation. We want them to see themselves as the neighborhood change agents.”   

A hub for InCommon’s work is the Park Ave Commons community center, which opened in 2013. It hosts GED, ESL, literacy, citizenship, job readiness, and financial education classes, first-time home-buying workshops, community health programs, and Zumba.

“If someone walks out of there with their GED, better English proficiency, or better able to provide for their family, we’re pleased,” Gray says.

The center is also where InCommon hosts neighborhood meetings and an after-school drop-in space, conducts listening sessions, identifies neighborhood concerns and interests, and activates residents’ civic engagement.

“One of our shining examples is Arturo Mejia,” Gray says. “He’s super passionate about the neighborhood. He started getting involved with the organization and eventually became a staff member. He leads our ESL and GED programming. He also does community organizing.”

Arturo Mejia, leader of ESL and GED programming

Mejia, a Mexican immigrant, says what he’s found with InCommon mirrors other residents’ experiences.

“InCommon has invested in me in many ways,” he says. “It’s helped me to use my full potential in my work for the Latino community of this neighborhood. InCommon has found the goodness this neighborhood has. When shown the assets, instead of the negatives, residents find encouragement and empowerment enough to keep reaching their goals.”

The community center resulted from feedback gathered from residents like Mejia. The Zumba class was initiated by a woman living there.

“Adults come through the workforce channel. Kids come through the after-school channel,” Gray says.

At an InCommon community visioning process last fall, a group of young men shared the need for a new neighborhood soccer field and, with InCommon’s guidance, they’re working with the city on getting one. InCommon’s gala last fall recognized area superheroes like them and Mejia.

Besides the center, InCommon’s imprints include a pocket park, a community garden, and artist Watie White’s mural of neighborhood leaders.

The first wave of redevelopment there, Gray says, saw “empty buildings activated and populated, and it actually brought an infusion of new people, energy, and resources—the positive elements of gentrification.”

“It’s certainly cleaned up,” he says. “But a lot of the problems remain here, they’re just beneath the surface now.”

As more development occurs, the concern is the people InCommon serves “will be displaced.” That’s where the low-income housing comes in. The Bristol, fully occupied and awaiting renovation, features 64 studio apartments. The Georgia Row, currently closed and undergoing repairs, will feature 10 or 11 multifamily units.

InCommon is investing $10 million in refurbishments. Local and state historic tax credits and tax increment financing, plus expected low-income housing tax credits, are making it possible.

“As a landlord, we’re not only able to preserve affordable housing, but we can integrate individual capacity building services directly on-site with residents,” Gray says.

He looks to solidify InCommon’s work in this and other “opportunity neighborhoods” poised for redevelopment.

“Right now, redevelopment is like a tidal wave people get drowned in,” he says. “We are interested in getting people to withstand and actually surf that wave and leverage it. People have to have some wherewithal to be able to make their own decisions and not be co-opted into other people’s plans. We’ve started looking at how do we get residents more involved in directing how they want their neighborhoods to grow, so none of this happens in ad hoc form. In this more thoughtful approach to creating neighborhoods, there’d be a vision for what residents want Park Avenue or Walnut Hill to look like.

“The goal isn’t to come up with a plan for them, it’s to facilitate the process so neighbors and stakeholders come up with the plan together.”

Visit incommoncd.org for more information.

Christian Gray, executive director of InCommon Community Development

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

Farm Simple Meets High Design at Bellswoods

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.