Michael Heaton had a royal curiosity, which he ultimately satisfied by buying a palace.
Eleven years ago, Heaton and partner Barry Burt happily occupied an adorable English Tudor home in Florence, which they had lovingly remodeled. That’s when the Chiodo Palace came calling.
“I never thought we’d leave [the Florence house], but my friend Christy, who’d just started with NP Dodge, said ‘Michael, you’ve got to come look at this amazing house with me,’” Heaton says. “So, we came to look four times and would just sit on the floor fantasizing about living here…then we just went for it. I’ve never regretted it. It’s been an adventure.”
The Chiodo Palace, near 25th and Leavenworth, was built in 1922 by Vincenzo Pietro Chiodo. Burt and Heaton, together nearly 20 years, have worked diligently to preserve the legacy of one of one of Omaha’s more unique, storied homes since purchasing it in 2006.
Chiodo immigrated from Southern Italy to the United States in 1885 at age 16. He studied in Chicago before settling in Omaha, where he operated a tailor shop, then found his fortune in real estate.
“He owned 50 homes in the area,” Heaton says. “This was one of many he built, and his primary residence.”
According to the Nebraska State Historical Society, Chiodo wasn’t so much an architect or builder himself, but he had ample vision and funds to support the proliferation of his real estate empire.
“He was billed the first Italian millionaire in Omaha and was also very politically active,” Heaton says.
In fact, Chiodo was an Elk and a fourth-degree Knight of Columbus. His titles included Italian Vice Consul of Omaha, State Supreme Deputy of the Sons of Italy, Knight of the House of Savoy, and Cavalier of the Order of St. Gregory.
Heaton lights up when sharing stories of days gone by in his abode, many of which were relayed by longtime neighbor Angelo Bonacci, now deceased, who worked at the Chiodo Palace as a young man when it functioned as the consulate.
“Chiodo was very popular, and described as an elegant man,” Heaton says. “He could be seen walking the neighborhood and his domain wearing a long, white fur coat. When the Santa Lucia Festival parade made its way through the neighborhood, they always stopped in front of the Chiodo Palace and saluted Vincenzo, who’d be sitting up on his veranda. You can just picture him up there with the crowds passing by.”
“‘Chiodo Palace’ is what Angelo said they called it,” says Heaton, who believes the moniker comes from “palazzo”—Italian for a large, palatial building.
Chiodo passed away in 1949 at age 80, but his grand domicile lived on to weather years of general dirt and disrepair, water damage, and updates like ill-placed drop ceilings and gaudy, yellow wallpaper that spoiled or obscured the home’s unique character and verve.
Heaton and Burt, who are members of Restoration Exchange Omaha, purchased the house to preserve its history.
“We knew it had been an important house in the past and, seeing the sad condition, we thought we could have some fun, restore its appeal, and get the history back as much as possible,” Heaton says.
For Heaton, who owns and operates Legacy Art & Frame in Dundee, preserving historical homes and objects is a longtime interest.
“The house is a mix of styles,” he says. “The outside is very Craftsman. There’s some Italianate detail with the dentil molding around the tops of the eaves. The stained-glass windows are a mix: Some [feature] traditional designs, but in the dining room there’s a very Frank Lloyd Wright Mission-style design. So, there are unexpected elements here and there.”
The interior swims with stunning, rich mahogany woodwork, accented by a striking fireplace constructed of rough-hewn, imported Burmese stone. Colorful, original tile surrounds the floor of the fireplace, featuring a horseshoe that’s open into the room and closed toward the hearth.
“That was to deter unwanted spirits from entering the home through the fireplace,” Heaton says.
In the sunroom above another fireplace, a large painting in memoriam to Chiodo’s wife and daughter, both named Caroline, remains molded right onto the wall.
Ornate, hand-painted, original murals on linen grace the tops of walls throughout the main floor.
“Each of these murals depicts different aspects of Italian culture and Roman life,” Heaton says of the incredible illustrations of accolades, life phases, arts, animals, and plants.
“I love these dragons,” Heaton says, zeroing in on a mural. “They’re griffins, protectors of the empire, and their protection allows wealth and prosperity to extend from them, so they turn into these leaves. I’m just so glad no one ever ruined them.”
Part of one dining room mural suffered water damage prior to his ownership, so Heaton completely—and 100 percent convincingly—reconstructed it.
“I rebuilt the wall, put linen on the top, created a stencil off another wall, transferred it, and then, over about four weeks, hand-painted it,” he says.
With the scope of work Heaton puts into his home and a handful of rental properties, you’d think he had extensive training, but no. He says just the occasional HGTV show or YouTube video help him complete home projects.
“My grandfather was a real hands-on kind of guy, so I learned lots about working with wood, building, and fixing from watching him,” Heaton says. “He could do it all, so I just kind of hung out with him a lot.”
Like Heaton and Burt, Chiodo himself preserved Omaha history.
“Chiodo was a preservationist way ahead of his time,” Heaton says. “He got the salvage rights to the original county jail and courthouse, and used all of the marble, stones, cobblestones, and other materials he harvested from that in several of his other properties.”
We’ll never know whether Chiodo was a sentimental preservationist, simply a cunning businessman, or perhaps both. As for Heaton, that case is closed.
“I’m painfully sentimental,” he says. “That’s my inspiration.”
Visit Legacy Art & Frame on Facebook for more information about the homeowners’ business.
This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Home.