Tracy Zaiss never gets tired answering the inevitable question from first-time visitors to the family’s hilltop home.
“They always ask me, ‘Are you sure we’re still in Omaha?’ And I always say, ‘Oh yes, this is Omaha. It’s Omaha Public Schools [for neighborhood kids], and we’re really just minutes from downtown.’”
The understandable skepticism begins along John J. Pershing Drive heading north, as the two-lane road follows the Missouri River. Turning left onto a road that leads to Hummel Park, surprised travelers immediately experience the wonders of nature, especially in late summer when the flora and fauna reach their peak of beauty and diversity.
They find themselves under a canopy of trees so lush that rays of sunlight barely reach the pavement. Emerging from that dark tunnel, visitors then navigate deeply rutted, unpaved roads—with no street signs—that keep twisting and curving up a steep grade.
Their journey ends at a smooth concrete driveway and a two-story natural stone house sitting high above the Missouri River Valley.
Built in 2011, the Zaiss (pronounced Zayss) home combines a classic, timeless design with contemporary materials.
Contractor Mick Smith of Mick Smith Construction used rough-cut, split-face stone with copper tones on the exterior. Long rectangular copper tiles, now a shade of green due to aging, accent the roof. The look complements the home’s rustic setting.
“We knocked down the original house on the property and built the new one around the same spot,” says Smith, now retired and working part time. He also installed a geothermal heating and cooling system underground “because there’s no natural gas up there.”
Everything about the house and the setting still stands out in his mind.
“I’m telling you, that area is unbelievable, right in the middle of the park,” Smith says. “It would cost a fortune to build that same house today.”
Although Design Basics of Omaha drew the blueprints, Zaiss (who started her own marketing and research firm, Zaiss and Co., in 1989) and her husband, Rick (a social worker by profession and avid bird-watching hobbyist), came up with many ideas.
For instance, Zaiss salvaged the thick red bricks from the original driveway to create a path that leads to the home’s long, arched entryway. “I wanted the front doors recessed to minimize the amount of mud people track in but it has never really worked,” she says with a laugh.
As if to preview what vistas lie beyond the entryway, each of the two heavy wooden front doors has a window with the image of a rising sun etched into the glass. When opened, they reveal a magnificent expanse.
Sunlight streaming in through a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows along the back wall draws the eye into the wide-open living room. Even the freshly tuned grand piano in a corner of the room seems small under the vaulted ceiling.
The wood-burning fireplace on the west wall features the same stone motif as the exterior of the house. A large oil painting takes up most of the space above the fireplace mantle. Titled “Wheat Fields,” it depicts birds flying above wind-swept acres of golden wheat.
But the artwork doesn’t outshine the view behind the Zaiss house. Make no mistake: the land is the star of this show.
Ten acres of deep, untouched woods extend as far as the eye can see, sloping downward to the river. The land teems with the green of cottonwood and black locust trees, the same variety that form the leafy cathedral at the entrance to Hummel Park. Apple trees laden with red fruit grow close to the house. Wildflowers and wild turkeys abound, as do fawns wobbling gingerly along the sizable backyard. When nighttime brings a blanket of deep darkness, Zaiss says she listens to the stillness. The only sounds come from nature and the only light comes from stars that shine exceptionally bright far from the city’s glare.
Zaiss and her husband met while students at Hastings College and married in the ’70s, shortly after graduation. They felt particularly lucky in 2006—while living in their longtime home near 108th and Harrison streets—when a house with a stunning view came on the market in an area of North Omaha that rarely sees a “For Sale” sign. They took their time planning their dream home, while using the original structure as a weekend getaway and entertainment hub.
“This house is a result of five years looking at architecture and home magazines, getting design ideas,” Zaiss says.
Her thorough design exploration resulted in a three-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath, 4,714-square-foot home that maximizes enjoyment of its natural surroundings.
Borrowing heavily from architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Midwest-inspired Prairie style, the house features an open floor plan with free-flowing spaces and lots of windows as focal points. The windows don’t have coverings, except in the guest bedroom and bath.
Lighting brings another architectural impact in the living room. The wall lights shine either up or down toward the floor to avoid any glare on the windows.
Sliding glass doors in the back of the kitchen provide easy access to a concrete patio that spans the width of the house.
Glass doors also open to a separate screen-enclosed eating area off the east side of the kitchen, “which we can use about nine months out of the year,” Zaiss says. “It’s always fun to have guests and eat out here.”
The kitchen sink, installed inside the granite-top center island, faces the patio door, providing scenery to the lucky person tasked with cleaning up.
A large pantry next to the formal dining room contains a second, fully functional caterer’s kitchen with open shelves that display colorful dishes and serving pieces.
The garage holds another of Zaiss’ innovations. A third garage door in the back of the structure allows the riding lawn mower to zip in and out with ease.
“So much of what we wanted to achieve up here was comfort,” Zaiss says quietly.
This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of OmahaHome Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.