When Jenny Gradowski drives up to her home each evening, she says the scene still gives her pause. “This is my home,” she says with awe.
Gradowski and Joe Pittack live in a spacious white home at 3402 Lincoln Blvd., a grand place steeped in history. Their story here started last year, as they added their own touches to their new home.
The couple shared what they know of its narrative one warm summer night on the house’s porch—a key selling point for Gradowski, who works at Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture. While the home lacks central air, and summer heat can be a challenge, the porch (luckily) remains a cool place to chat.
“It’s not really a wraparound, but it’s curved enough to feel that way,” she says. “The views, though—the views were enough for both of us.”
Designed to make a statement, Pittack and Gradowski’s home reigns over the Bemis Park Landmark Heritage District from its hill on a large corner lot, much like it did when it was built in 1902. The neighborhood was one of the first in the city to be designed with the contour of the land in mind. The view today consists of towering trees, a playground in the distance, and further afield, Cuming Street.
The 14-room home was one of several homes that prominent architect Frederick Henninger designed in Bemis Park. The neighborhood was a prestigious one when the home’s original owners resided there. It boasted the city’s finest Victorian-era homes and proximity to the Cuming Street streetcar line. Bemis Park remains quietly impressive, with a location that allows Pittack and Gradowski to walk to dinner and Pittack to bike to work. He co-owns Ted and Wally’s, with locations in the Old Market and Benson.
The home has more than a century’s worth of stories. Pittack says they started looking into them only after they moved in. There are funny ones, tragic ones, and even the odd tale about a religious sect.
The 6,000-square-foot home was built for a well-loved restaurateur named Tolf Hanson and his wife, Jennie.
Tolf was a Swedish immigrant who got his start selling sandwiches on the streets of New York before moving to Omaha and opening a popular restaurant, Calumet Café, in 1893. He went on to open Hanson’s Café Beautiful on 16th Street in 1906. It was supposed to be the “finest restaurant west of Chicago,” but failed in its first year and sent the Hansons deep into debt. Tolf Hanson went to New York to regain financial footing, but he ultimately committed suicide there.
Pittack says he knows that, tragically, another of the home’s former occupants also committed suicide. John Bryant was the new president of a farm implements and machinery business when he bought the home in 1912 from Louis Nash, an officer of the Omaha and Council Bluffs Street Railway Co. Bryant had some trouble at work and, following disagreements with the company’s board of directors, drowned himself in a cistern in the backyard in 1913. That same year, the Easter Sunday tornado severely damaged the home, ripping the roof from the house.
It’s the home’s lighter stories, though, that Pittack shares more animatedly when he gives people tours. He shares one from the Gerken family, who moved in in 1954. The story involves one mischievous Gerken boy convincing his siblings to send him down the laundry chute. He got stuck midway and had to be rescued.
Other owners came and went through the decades. There was the saloon owner Henry Keating and his socialite wife, Helen; the attorney Lysle Abbott and his wife, Mary; and the real estate developer George H. Payne. But not many homes have had a New Age religious monastic order as one-time occupants. The Holy Order of MANS moved into the home in 1975, converting it into their new “brother house.” Pittack believes religious services were held in one of the basement rooms. When the national monastic order dissolved in 1984, the Holy Order of MANS moved out.
In 2017, Pittack and Gradowski moved in and began a yearlong renovation. They installed a new boiler and water system and painted some interior rooms. When a hailstorm struck, the roof needed to be replaced and the exterior repainted. They’ve repurposed areas of the home while leaving the structure untouched. An old indoor phone booth is now a coat closet, the butler’s area is a food pantry, and one bedroom with an original coal fireplace is now a yoga studio. Furniture from Pittack’s grandmother’s home, which was nearby, is part of the décor now.
By making this home their own, the couple adds their personal story while keeping hints of past inhabitants intact.
This home is one of 10 Bemis Park residences included in Restoration Exchange Omaha’s 13th annual neighborhood tour on Oct. 13-14. Visit restorationexchange.org for more information.
This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.