The workmen kneel below a ladder—as if in prayer, as they try to coax a jammed pocket door back to life after a decades-long slumber—inside the mansion at 140 N. 39th St. in the heart of Omaha’s historic Gold Coast neighborhood.
Now that the nearby Saint Barnabas Catholic Church has acquired the Offutt-Yost House, its restoration effort is revitalizing one of the city’s most enduring and endearing gems (located across the street from the Joslyn Castle).
Different Iterations of the Offutt-Yost House
The Offutt-Yost House was built in 1894. Casper and Anna Yost commissioned architect Henry Ives Cobb to design the mansion as a wedding gift for their daughter, Bertha (Yost), who married Charles Offutt in 1892. The grand structure cost $15,000. Charles and Bertha’s son, Jarvis, was the first Omahan killed in World War I. Offutt Air Force Base is named in his honor.
Major renovations were completed in 1976 when the home was featured as the showcase project of the Omaha Symphony Guild’s annual fundraiser. In its most recent prior incarnation, the space operated for many years as the Cornerstone Mansion Bed & Breakfast.
The home now acts as the Saint Barnabas Parish House, providing space for educational, devotional, outreach, fellowship, and administrative activities. The 6,000-square-foot home also serves as the church rectory. It is somehow fitting that the Rev. Jason Catania, in his role as a humble servant of Christ, will be using the narrow back-of-house stairs to reach his simple lodgings in what was once the servant’s quarters.
“Saint Barnabas has been in Omaha for over 150 years,” Catania says. “And we’ve been in our present church a couple doors down for over 100 years…almost the same amount of time that this old house has stood…so our shared histories, our shared commitment to this neighborhood and to the larger community, have run along parallel lines. We are proud to become the new stewards of this historic property.”
An Architectural Cornerstone
The mansion exudes an impenetrable and fortress-like weightiness of presence in its historic neighborhood. The edifice is a showcase of tranquil dignity. It is awe-inspiring to passersby, with a foreboding “otherness” that transcends mere mortar and stone.
The Offutt-Yost House is the stoic yin to Joslyn Castle’s audacious yang across the street. The Joslyn Castle—with voluptuous curves (and turrets!)—stands in stark contrast to the impassive, stockade-like blockiness of this neighbor designed by American architect Henry Ives Cobb.
Cobb’s residential masterpiece in Omaha is generally considered to be an example of the Chateauesque style, a subset of the Renaissance Revival movement. Its elaborate entrance, however, is decidedly Tudor. Cobb is especially known for his work in the Gothic Revival and Beaux-Arts styles during his decades living and working in Chicago.
The Massachusetts-born architect studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard. After university, Cobb joined the Boston architecture firm Peabody & Stearns. In 1882, he moved to Chicago. His work on the Lake Shore Drive residence of businessman and real-estate tycoon Potter Palmer was among his first major projects in the Midwest.
At the cusp of 30 years old, Cobb started his own Chicago practice in 1888. He gained national prominence with commissions to build The Newberry Library, Chicago Opera House, 18 buildings for the University of Chicago, and other notable structures (some of which no longer exist). He moved to New York City in 1902, where he continued his practice and designed several skyscrapers. He died in New York in 1931.
Rumors at the Mansion
Cobb’s work on the Offutt-Yost House produced a structure that seems so grounded to the earth, so anchored to the soil, that it is easy to imagine a subterranean root system—like that of a mighty oak—with meandering tendrils sprawling throughout the Gold Coast area. Rumors suggest that underground tunnels once connected to the mansion in exactly such fashion.
According to online articles published by the local architectural website My Omaha Obsession in 2016, a descendant of the Offutt-Yost family claimed that a basement tunnel once connected the residence with the nearby Joslyn Castle.
Paul Koenig, who operated the former Cornerstone Mansion Bed & Breakfast with his wife (1996-2000), posted in the blog’s comments that he had heard rumors of the tunnels. Koenig added that there was no sign of any tunnel when they purchased the bed and breakfast from its founder, Jeannie Swoboda, who established the B&B in 1986.
Just like that stubborn pocket door that wouldn’t budge for the renovation workers getting the Offutt-Yost House ready for Saint Barnabas Church over the winter, there are other speculations that have stuck with the property through the years.
“The underground tunnel may be mythical. We’ve looked for it as well, and we can’t find any evidence that it has been filled in,” Catania says, adding that he has heard rumors that a stained-glass door in the residence was designed by the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The doors are all original, and he says there is only one stained-glass door in the home—but it needs some repairs. The source of the stained-glass door has not been verified, he says.
The Offut-Yost House is also rumored to be haunted. “Mr. Offutt did commit suicide in the house,” Catania says, “and as a matter of course we did bless the house shortly after we moved in.”
Visit saintbarnabas.net for more information about the church that has acquired the Offutt-Yost House.
This article was printed in the January/February 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.