Tag Archives: National Register of Historic Places

The Fabric of Life

January 15, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Ian Rose and Robert Voelte moved to a new condo on the top floor of the historic Beebe & Runyan Lofts, northeast of the Old Market and Gene Leahy Mall at Ninth and Douglas streets, the location provided everything the elementary educators and arts enthusiasts were looking for.

“We’re able to walk to the Holland. We’re able to walk to the Orpheum, the Old Market, all the parks down here. We’re also members of Film Streams, so we can walk over there as well,” Voelte says. “And as much as we’re passionate about teaching, we’re also passionate about travel. We’re close to the airport, which makes it really convenient because we do travel quite a bit, and it’s easy to get there.”

textiles1However, the spacious two-bedroom, two-bath, 1,700-square-foot unit just can’t accommodate their entire collection of beloved artworks, furnishings, accents, and decor carefully selected over 30 years. So rather than giving up a sizable percentage of these treasures or relegating them to permanent storage, Voelte has come up with an inspired solution: change out decor and refresh the look of his and Rose’s home twice a year.

“I thought about how museums only have a small percentage of their holdings on display at any one time,” he explains. “I decided to adapt that idea for my home and only display a limited amount of my belongings at one time, rotating things in and out. I am able to appreciate my home and the decor even more because everything always seems new and fresh to me.”

The process evokes good memories of past adventures, old friends, and even the story of how each item was acquired, Voelte says. The pieces come from all over the world, and much was purchased during or influenced by travel. Core favorites include an antique Chinese chicken coop used to store dishes and linens; an antique Japanese kitchen cabinet that serves as a bookcase in the master bedroom; hand-carved one-piece spider tables from the Bamileke tribe in Cameroon; mid-century walnut Eames chairs; Akari washi—paper lantern lamps made by Noguchi in Japan; and Verner Panton dining chairs.

textiles31textiles6“I think our home is very unique,” he says. “My style is eclectic with Asian, African, natural, classic, and utilitarian themes. Authentic vintage textiles previously used in utilitarian ways—indigos from around the world, Indonesian ikats, Japanese obis, African tie-dyed raffia skirts, and Kuba cloth—are often the inspiration that begins the design process.”

It’s never quite the same look twice, Voelte adds, but he does work around his core pieces as well as some palette constants.

“In late spring or summer, the feeling is lighter and fewer items are on display. The mood is brighter with hand-dyed indigo fabrics, khakis, whites, creams, and seashells—things I associate with summer because we are both teachers who look forward to travel, socializing, relaxation—recharging our batteries,” Voelte says. “In the fall and winter, decor gets changed out, including rugs, artwork, and linens, as well as some furniture rearrangement. It is a more spiritual, reflective, introspective time, which is reflected in darker colors: purples, charcoal, Chinese red. The decor is more layered with design elements.”

The Renaissance Revival-style building in which the couple’s condo is located was built in 1913 to serve as a warehouse and showroom. The original architect was John McDonald, best known for the Joslyn Castle. The Beebe & Runyan building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. Rose and Voelte purchased their condo as a raw space following the building’s 2007 conversion.

“When we walked in, we immediately were drawn to the exterior brick wall on the west side, which has two inlaid brick arches that span three windows each,” Voelte says. “It is quite eye-catching.”

textiles1Their unit boasts sloped ceilings that reach a height of 16 feet, original brick walls, and wood posts and columns. They finished the space as a semi-open loft designed with custom finishes and natural materials like walnut cabinetry built by hand, honed marble counters, and slate tile or refinished original birdseye maple floors.

Every detail shows thought and consideration, like backsplash tiles that were hand-carried in a suitcase from California. Niche and built-in shelves highlight special artworks. “Everything has to be aesthetically pleasing to me or it won’t be in my house,” Voelte says.

The space was also designed with entertaining, especially dinner parties for family and friends, in mind.

“I love to cook, so I spend a lot of time in the kitchen,” Rose says. “Our kitchen is so open that even when you’re in the kitchen, you’re not detached from the rest of the home. I can still be in the middle of what’s going on.”

“As much as we love to travel, we love our home,” Voelte says. “We have a great life!”

Visit beeberunyan.com for more information. OmahaHome


Riverfront Redevelopment Plans

August 26, 2016 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

North America’s longest river is receiving lots of local attention—and not just because of all the Pokémon in the vicinity.

Omaha’s Old Market is the place to be for players of the successful augmented reality game, Pokémon Go. There are more Pokémon “trainers” roaming from the Old Market to the Missouri riverfront than anywhere else in the city.

Development of local Pokéstops (i.e., actual locations geo-tagged within the virtual game) began in summer of 2016. Omaha’s riverfront in real life—not in the virtual game—has been a big development question mark for decades.

Concerted discussions about developing the riverfront started with a master plan drawn up in the mid-1970s. Plans for the Gene Leahy Mall took root. The lush riverine park now connects the interior of downtown to Heartland of America Park, ConAgra, and the river’s edge

Dan and Katie Good portray Team Rocket

Dan and Katie Good portray Team Rocket

Historic controversy lingers in between, where ConAgra forced the 1989 demolition of Jobbers Canyon. The Jobbers Canyon Historic District was the largest “historic district” ever to have been lost (according to the National Register of Historic Places). Omaha leaders cleared the hulking red-brick warehouse district to make way for a suburban-style campus, in order to appease ConAgra and keep the corporation headquartered in town. Until 2015. That’s when ConAgra announced it would be relocating its HQ to Chicago’s Merchandise Mart (a historic structure akin to those ConAgra forced under the wrecking ball in Omaha some 26 years earlier).

In recent years, even before ConAgra’s pullout, Omaha community leaders began taking another look at riverfront development options. “Everyone was in agreement we couldn’t jump start it,” remembers consultant Donn Seidholz, a leader in the local planning committee. “We decided to bring in someone with no skin in the game.”

The mayors of Omaha and Council Bluffs hired a national nonprofit called Urban Land Institute (ULI) to provide advice on developing the riverfront. ULI’s report issued in 2014 emphasized the importance of the two cities working together, including developing more venues for events of different sizes. Seidholz says he has never before seen such a vibrant partnership between the two cities.

(Coincidentally, 2014 was the same year that Google Maps released an April Fools’ prank that eventually inspired American software developer Niantic Labs to launch the Pokemon Go app this year.)

“The fact is the river doesn’t separate us, it binds us together,” says Council Bluffs Mayor Matt Walsh. In an e-mail response to interview requests, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert noted there are many opportunities to develop the waterfront into a vibrant destination—entertainment, special events, recreation and leisure, residential, and commercial.

The focus has been narrowed to four miles of land running along both sides of the Missouri River, starting at the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.

“It is part of our ongoing planning to continue the exciting developments already underway in downtown, including the Capitol District, Kiewit University, and the Civic Auditorium site,” Stothert told Encounter.

The ULI study was funded by local citizens and nonprofit foundations. “In Omaha, we  are fortunate to have a strong philanthropic community that sees the value of public-private partnerships,” commented Stothert. “The ULI  study provided a framework of ideas that can guide our next steps and promote collaboration between Omaha and Council Bluffs and the private partners who share our enthusiasm for this unique space.”

Chairing the ULI panel was Jim Cloar of Tampa, Florida, who has extensive experience with riverfront development, including eight years heading downtown development in St. Louis, a city with many of the riverfront challenges seen in Omaha.

He says some of the ULI recommendations for Omaha-Council Bluffs included dog parks, playgrounds, more pedestrian-friendly paths, and restaurants.

Erin Henderson portrays a Venusaur.

Erin Henderson portrays a Venusaur.

Cloar points out that downtown Council Bluffs sits four miles back from the river, so Iowans had not given developing the riverfront as much thought. “The river has been out of sight and out of mind,” he says.


The city leaders opposite Omaha’s riverfront are making up for lost time. Today Council Bluffs is developing a $140 to $160 million area along the riverfront called River’s Edge, with offices, retail, and condominiums. The land once hosted Playland Park.

“It is the original site of the dog track operated by Meyer Lansky, along with Lucky Luciana,” Walsh says. Mafia gangster Lansky lived in Council Bluffs from 1941 to 1943.

Walsh is looking at more condominiums and a new marina at the riverfront. The city of Council Bluffs is constructing a glass-fronted facility facing the river that will accommodate about 200 people for meetings and social events.

The Council Bluffs Parks Department is adding an interactive water feature for families that includes a water wall and splash pad area. Walsh sees the possibility of  expanding the existing trail system along the river.

The ULI’s 2014 report, “Activating the Missouri Riverfront” recommended that early development begin near the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, where access to both cities is easier. The bridge was part of an earlier development project that broke ground in 2006.

Stothert believes that redevelopment of the riverfront will require better access for all types of transportation: “The north downtown pedestrian connector bridge, sometimes called ‘Baby Bob,’ is already partially funded and is included in our 2018-19 Capital Improvement Plan. It will link the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge to north downtown.”       

In early years, Omaha’s riverfront was heavily industrial, observes Cloar. Railroad yards and the Asarco lead refinery—at one time the world’s largest lead refinery—occupied Omaha’s riverfront, as did four battery companies. Asarco closed in 1997 and the ground was capped.

Historically in the U.S., citizens saw their riverfronts as industrial areas, says David Karem, president of the Louisville Waterfront Development Corp., a nonprofit located in Louisville, Kentucky.

“Throughout the United States, rivers were the highways of the nation, especially along the Missouri, Mississippi, and the Ohio rivers. Steamboats brought commodities into a community for easy unloading. When the steamboat went by the wayside, along came the railroad lines,” says Karem. 

Karem began a redevelopment process in Louisville 27 years ago. The group renovated the land from an industrial area to an 85-acre waterfront park that ULI selected as one of the top 10 urban parks in the U.S.

For the Omaha-Council Bluffs redevelopment, ULI brought in eight panelists from around the country and talked to 90 people about a vision for the riverfront. Louisville is seen as a model city that has successfully redeveloped its waterfront.

BobKarem says it takes time to turn a riverfront around: “You’re not going to develop a waterfront in two or three years. It takes 15 to 20 years to make these projects.”

Redevelopment work continues on the Omaha and Council Bluffs riverfronts with coordination by the Missouri River Commons Action Group. The group, organized by the Greater Omaha Chamber, works toward furthering the riverfront vision through fundraising, planning, support of the initiatives of the Omaha and Council Bluffs mayors, and the start of a major riverfront festival.   

Seidholz heads up the group. “Omaha has been the only city this size on a river or water that didn’t have a consistent, well-thought-out development plan,” he says. “Until now.”

What exactly that development plan looks like is still a bit mysterious for the general public. Several high-level developer and philanthropic stakeholders involved with possible future riverfront redevelopment declined interview requests or otherwise refused to comment for this article.

Meanwhile, the dilapidated shell of the Storz Trophy Room offers a reminder of prior development missteps. The brewpub hemorrhaged money from the time of opening in 2013 until the City of Omaha terminated its lease in 2015 for failing to pay rent.

Cyclists, joggers, and passersby continue to utilize the scenic river’s edge outside the failed brewpub (formerly the site of the struggling Rick’s Cafe Boatyard). Pokémon trainers—staring down at their smartphones—have already found a new use for the surrounding scenic landscape: catching virtual monsters. 

For the full ULI report from 2014, visit: uli.org/wp-content/uploads/ULI-Documents/Omaha_PanelReport_Fweb.pdf 


The Sunks

December 18, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

I met Matt Dwyer on the north end of…well, it’s not really a park. It’s technically part of Happy Hollow Boulevard in Dundee, but it’s too wide to be called a median. It’s a three-city-block-long stretch of greenery lined by towering oaks and elms. Many probably know it as the spot where generations of kids (and grown-ups) played touch football and, in winter, went sledding down the slopes or, more recently, skated on the seasonal ice rink.

It’s…well, most people just call it The Sunks.

If difficult to describe today, The Sunks 100 years ago was much more clearly delineated. It was a formal, Parisian-style garden with sculpted, circular beds of flowers, and—possibly, the old photos are pretty grainy—a small pond with a fountain. Far from the industrial hub of Omaha, The Sunks bordered the western edge of Dundee, a newly founded “city set on a hill” that boasted “high, dry, pure, and clear air,” low taxes, sociable people, and homes built for a minimum of $2,500 (as described in a circa-1890s brochure cited in Dundee’s application to the National Register of Historic Places). It was a city designed as a “garden suburb,” and The Sunken Gardens was its defining space. The gardens went to seed around 1929, most likely a victim of the tail-spinning economy.

“It wasn’t real grand, not super opulent,” Dwyer says. “But it was a good start.”

Dwyer is the co-founder of GreenSlate Development, a key force behind the remarkable transformation of the Blackstone District around 40th and Farnam streets. Greenslate has restored six buildings on the strip with another four in the works. Now Dwyer is setting his sights on restoring The Sunks.

Dwyer grew up in one of the stately, red-brick homes that line the old garden. He used The Sunks to play football on the lawn and sneak cigarettes under the trees as a teenager. “It was a huge part of my life,” he says.

It was around 8 a.m. when I met Dwyer at The Sunks. It’s at a busy intersection and cars whizzed by as people headed to work. We walked down the steep hill, our feet slushing through wet grass, to get to the bottom where the ground leveled out. The depth dulls the passing traffic noise and creates a peaceful, secluded feel. Dwyer says the slopes and winter ice rink (neighborhood favorites) will stay. But for the rest, he envisions meandering pathways, benches, and picnic spots…maybe even a water feature, with room to spare for a robust game of football.

Dwyer aims to raise private capital to build the gardens and create an endowment to maintain the space. The Parks Department has promised to help as much as it’s able, but Dwyer knows that the real muscle behind such an initiative will come from the neighborhood itself, one that in 2011 was named to the American Planning Association’s list of Great American Places.

The strongest asset at his disposal could very well be the Dundee-Memorial Park Neighborhood Association, perhaps the city’s gold standard for such community groups and one known for its ambitious vision, can-do spirit, and dedicated volunteer base.

“Great cities have great public spaces,” Dwyer says. “And I think we’re a great city.”

Visit dundee-memorialpark.org to learn more.


Ghost Host

July 17, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in July/August 60-Plus.

Visitors from Omaha and the spirit realm are welcome at the Squirrel Cage Jail Museum in Council Bluffs.

Carla Borgaila says she has met several of the resident ghosts. She remembers her hat being pulled from her head as she frantically tried to hold it on. “I could feel the fingers on my head,” she remembers. “But no one was there.” Another time, “a guy came into my office and just stood there.”

Despite her personal experiences with ghosts, Borgaila is a realist. “Ninety percent is overactive imagination. Nine percent we can’t explain, but it’s not paranormal. But then there’s that one percent.”

Although a ghost has not spoken to her, she has heard her name called. But she never feels scared or threatened. “They’re like Casper the Friendly Ghost. There’s no reason to be fearful.”

Borgaila, museum coordinator for the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County, is responsible for arranging paranormal, as well as regular, tours of the quirky Squirrel Cage Jail. Built in 1885, the jail on a turntable is now a museum.

Adults who want to spend 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. asking questions of alleged ghosts can call for an appointment. But plan ahead. Overnight paranormal investigation groups are already booked two months out. The outing costs a minimum of $175, which covers the first seven people; additional people are $25 each.  Youths age 16 and 17 are not allowed without a guardian; only people age 21 and older can schedule an appointment.

Some of the people who died in the building may be lingering.  “One is an inmate who hung himself. I firmly believe he’s still there.  People describe him to a tee.”  Several ghostly jailers also hang around. “People see them.”

Groups spending the night at the Squirrel Cage Jail sometime pick up electronic voice phenomena. “You don’t hear it then, but it shows up in the background when later listening to the audio recording,’ says Borgaila.

Ghost hunting is not the only activity in the historical building. Regular tours are available for individual visitors and groups of 15 or more. Borgaila also has scheduled bridal showers and birthday parties.

Even if ghost-less, the building’s architecture is worth a visit. Originally, prisoners in pie-shaped cells got in and out when a hand crank turned to line the cell up with a single door on each of the three floors. Because the cage rotated and jailers could view all the cells from one place, fewer jailers were needed.

The jail was built to be escape-proof, but 60 inmates escaped over the years. Inmates also had to be careful to avoid getting an arm or leg crushed by the rotating jail.

The county jail was used from 1885 to 1969. Inmates still reside close by. “I run into them all the time,” she says. “It’s a badge of honor. They’re proud they were in one of the most unique buildings in the United States.”

One of three remaining Lazy Susan jails, it is on the National Register of Historic Places.  The Council Bluffs jail is the largest of the 18 built.

Check It Out:

Squirrel Cage Jail

226 Pearl St. in Council Bluffs.

Open daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.  Closed Mondays,  major holidays, and
the month of January.

Tours are available year-round.



January 15, 2015 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
The spare lines of General Crook’s frontier military home at Fort Omaha (Metro Community College) don’t quite do justice to the Italianate form. The most regal Italianate homes in Nebraska’s early days were built to send a message: It’s possible to thrive in the “Great American Desert” and, dangit, we’re here to stay.

The list of Nebraska homes on the National Register of Historic Places is peppered with these tall, stately boxes with flat roofs topped with square cupolas. Most famous, perhaps, are the Butler, Gillespie, and Kennard houses near the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln. In photos from around 1870, the three homes tower over empty prairie and a mostly paper town. “They were built by promoters of Lincoln to say to people, ‘We have confidence in this new town, you should, too,’” says Jim Potter, author and senior research historian for the Nebraska State Historical Society. “All across the state, you see town boosters using that big, bold style to send a message about their town.”

Just to the west of Omaha, on a hill southeast of Ashland not far from Mahoney State Park, sits a long-silent relic of the early days of statehood. The Bettison Mansion, built in 1874 from limestone quarried near South Bend, Neb., has been in decline for decades and abandoned since the late 1990s. Still, preservationists continue to hope that someone will buy and restore the fortress-like structure. “It’s a special place, not one that anyone would want to see lost,” Potter says.

(For more information on the house, visit ashlandhistoricalsociety.org.)

An Italianate field Guide

  • Low-pitched or flat roof
  • Balanced, symmetrical rectangular shape
  • Tall appearance, with two, three, or four stories
  • Wide, overhanging eaves with brackets and cornices
  • Square cupola
  • Porch topped with balustraded balconies
  • Tall, narrow, double-paned windows with hood moldings
  • Side bay window
  • Heavily molded double doors
  • Roman or segmented arches above windows and doors

The Italianate style began in England in the 1840s. For the previous two centuries, English homes tended to be formal and classical in style. Builders began to mimic the more fanciful design elements of Italian Renaissance villas. Like Queen Anne and other architecture styles, when the Italianate movement came to the United States, it was reinterpreted again to create a uniquely American style.

Italianate forms were fading from fashion along the coasts of the United States by the early 1870s. But, styles tended to arrive and stay later on the frontier. Italianate houses were being built in Nebraska well into the 1880s.


Crystal and Corned Beef

May 28, 2014 by
Photography by KMTV 3 / Bostwick-Frohardt Collection at the Durham Museum

High-stakes meetings and stylish parties were held on the hotel’s top floor ballroom.  Lush rooftop gardens looked out over bustling Midtown Omaha. The elegant Blackstone Hotel towered over Midtown, even casting its name onto the surrounding neighborhood.

It was a short stroll from where I worked at WOWT to the hotel’s front door. The Blackstone was a second home to those of us who wanted to grab an after-work drink at the Cottonwood Room—a fun hangout with a whimsical décor and air. How could it not be an enjoyable place? In the center of the bar stood an elaborate replica of a cottonwood tree densely festooned in leaves.

Upstairs, the hotel’s Orleans Room was reserved for special-occasion dining. Presiding as maître d’hôtel was a tall, distinguished-looking black man who was always seen wearing a tuxedo. Called by diners the “Governor,” he looked like an ambassador and was just as charming.

If you had dined at the Orleans Room before, the Governor remembered your name, your preferred drink and where you wanted to be seated. Meals were always prepared tableside. It was the type of personal service rarely seen anymore.

The room attracted visiting celebrities over the years. A hallway was lined with photos of stars who had dined at the Orleans Room. Mark Schimmel remembers spending time in the coffee shop with comedian Jack Benny. The self-described “miser” would allow Mark to pay for his coffee.

Mark’s father, Edward Schimmel, was the hotel’s general manager for many years. Now living in Wentzville, Mo., Mark was the manager when the family-owned hotel was sold to Radisson in 1968. He stayed on.

A busy Golden Spur coffee shop in the hotel was good for a quick lunch. Each of the seven walls displayed a different decor, according to Mark, with whom I recently traded fond memories of the Blackstone days. “It was like going into a museum.” he said, Spurs hanging from one wall explained the room’s name. In earlier days, the room was called the Plush Horse.

The Golden Spur is where I tasted my first Reuben sandwich. For countless Omahans and Blackstone guests, this was also the first place they tasted the famed Reuben.

But, was it the first place? The big question for posterity: Was I eating a Reuben from the actual birthplace of the now-iconic sandwich? While the Blackstone is most often mentioned as the home of the Reuben, others outside Omaha have tried to stake claim.

Debate no more. The case is closed. The Reuben was invented at the Blackstone.
Mary Bernstein—the granddaughter of Blackstone owner Charles Schimmel—got the story firsthand.

“Here’s the scoop,” she says. “My father, Bernard Schimmel, had just returned from school in Switzerland where he trained to be a chef.  His father, Charles, held a weekly poker game at the Blackstone Sunday nights.  He said to my dad, ‘Reuben wants you to make some sandwiches with corned beef and sauerkraut.’

“And my dad put together this concoction of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing and dark rye bread and grilled them, then took them to the poker players. After it later received such wide acclaim, they decided to put it on the menu at the Schimmel hotels and call it the Reuben sandwich, because Reuben Kulakofsky had requested it.”

The exact date is lost in family history. But it would have to be after Bernard returned in 1928 from Switzerland. The first menu the family has uncovered that lists the Reuben sandwich was from the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln in 1934, according to Judy Weil of San Francisco, the family historian.
Because the Reuben sandwich apparently first appeared on a menu at the Cornhusker, it is sometime mistakenly assumed that the sandwich was created there.

Charles Schimmel added the Blackstone to his stable of hotels in 1920. The building became an Omaha Landmark in 1983 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
He trained his four sons in the hotel business. They along with other family members each ran one of the seven Schimmel hotels. In Omaha, the hotels were the Blackstone and Indian Hills Inn. In Lincoln, Schimmel owned the Cornhusker.

The Schimmel family’s sandwich story has been repeated throughout the nation.  Bernard’s granddaughter Elizabeth Weil wrote about her family’s appetizing creation in the New York Times.
Bernstein still advocates for the Reuben sandwich, but admits she no longer eats the corned beef and sauerkraut concoction.  She’s now a vegetarian.

Good Vibes at the Tibet Hotel

May 22, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Driveway basketball games all over the city provide a staccato soundtrack as spring awakenings draw people outdoors to enjoy the weather. But simple pickup games at a certain Gold Coast address on North 38th Street are anything but simple. They have a look and feel that is distinctly their own.

Where else would you find Tibetan monks in bright orange robes setting picks and draining threes?
The monks who visit the city to create elaborate sand paintings at the Old Market’s OM Center have been frequent guests of Deirdre and Steven Evans over the years.

“We call it the Tibet Hotel,” Deirdre says of the home built in 1921 that is on the National Register of Historic Places. “It’s just a huge amount of good vibes to have them here. And the neighbors, I think, get a kick out of seeing them playing basketball, sitting on the terrace, or walking up and down the street in their robes.”

“Monks are known for their compassion,” Steven adds, “but they are in-your-face aggressive and competitive when it comes to a game of hoops.”

Just as with the anomaly of monk sightings in Midtown, the home’s décor is anything but the expected.

A lava lamp is juxtaposed against Victorian tchotchkes. The graceful lines of Chippendale and Queen Anne furniture compete for attention positioned beside the ornate carvings of Asian pieces. A stuffed dummy in the solarium is positioned as if it were engrossed in a tome of illuminated manuscripts. Menacing gargoyles face off against whimsical, bobble-head clowns. Buddha figurines are found at every turn.

It’s one of the more crazily convoluted decorating themes ever featured in this publication, but it all seems to just somehow…work.

“A little of this,” Deirdre shrugs with a winking grin, “and a little of that.”

Steven bought the home almost sight unseen in 1975 after a nine-month negotiation process. It was a rental property at the time divvied up between 16 occupants.

“I had only seen the place from the foyer,” he says of the home in which he and Deirdre would be married in 1992. “It wasn’t even for sale. The neighborhood was threatened with extinction for a lot of different reasons at the time and I ended up buying it for a song. People thought I was crazy.”
Successive waves of “progress” had long threatened to forever change the neighborhood. A plan dating back to the 1950s envisioned an east-west freeway that would parallel Dodge through the Gold Coast and out to Dundee. Remember that odd “cloverleaf to nowhere” on I-480 at the 30th Street exit near Creighton University that was only recently reconfigured? That was to be the source spur of the project that would have decimated what are now considered to be two of the city’s most historic neighborhoods.

Like many Gold Coast homeowners, the Evans’ feel a responsibility to preserve and protect the area that is an Omaha treasure.

The battle last year over the idea of an ultra-modern, flat-roofed home being built nearby on 38th Street sent the couple once again into activist mode.

“The home would have been more than a little incongruent with the surrounding neighborhood,” Steven says. “Imagine if such a famous architect as, say, I.M. Pei himself had somehow been behind the design. World-class, award-winning design. How exciting! But the price would have too high in terms of maintaining the integrity of this street. Historic district designations mean something. They are not just an accolade. They have teeth.”

The Evans’ also enjoy keeping the neighborhood connected in ways that are meant to be pure fun. Deirdre started an annual Ladies’ Neighborhood Tea 20 years ago and it is still going strong. A monthly Girls’ Night Out that she launched a decade ago started out as a hyper-local affair, but has since evolved to include friends who are within walking distance and beyond. Their zanily colorful spooks-and-spirits Halloween Party has become the stuff of legend.

To Deirdre, the social life of North 38th Street also serves to build community in a way that bolsters the spirit of preservation. Too many landmarks, she says, have been lost.

“Don’t you ever look at old pictures of scenes around Omaha and say, ‘Oh, I remember that! I wish that could still be here?’ You can walk up and down this street and be transported back in time. We have met walkers from other neighborhoods who actually drive here and park just to make it a part of their regular routine.”

Rising from the Ashes

May 19, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For several decades, Plattsmouth’s downtown oozed a distinctly river-rat vibe. The city’s main street, once Victorian glorious thanks to vibrant river and railroad trade, was faded, mostly abandoned, adorned with kitsch and mismatched storefronts, and, at times, just plain scary due to the cavalcade of 18-wheelers on old U.S. Highway 34.

If you haven’t been to Plattsmouth’s main street in a few years, the transformation here will likely astound. Simply put: You’ll feel like you’re somewhere else: a lively, interesting, historic retreat with good food and, on some summer evenings, good music and fun.

The transformation of this Omaha bedroom community comes thanks to an aggressive push by Plattsmouth businesses and more than $10 million in public and private dollars. Main Street was torn up as part of a major project to improve the city’s infrastructure, and then rebuilt with businesses access and pedestrians in mind. Charming Victorian street lamps were installed. Music is now piped continuously into the streets thanks to more than 60 speakers suspended along four blocks.

There is even a new outdoor plaza where, for the last two years, numerous events have been held, including a summer concert series.

Then, disaster. On a recent day, charred bricks littered the plaza. Park benches sat buckled under the weight of fallen rubble. Chain link fencing surrounded the area, protecting pedestrians from a two-story wall rendered precarious by a massive fire last winter.


The roofless shell of the 132-year-old Waterman Opera House, which housed three businesses, will have to be demolished.

“It’s heartbreaking, of course,” says Charles Jones, executive director of the Plattsmouth Main Street Association and a longtime businessman in town. “It’s a roadblock, to be sure. But it’s not an end by any means.”

Plattsmouth has more than 40 structures on the National Register of Historic Places still standing. The city still has the substantial 19th century architecture and ambience that goes with it. But the razing of the building has been slowed by the technicalities of legally removing a historic building, leaving the broad eyesore of the condemned site and useless plaza in the center of the still-emerging business district.

“Business is down for those around the (Opera House) site,” Jones says, pointing toward several storefronts on the street. “It does impact things. For one: I’m going to have to figure out how to keep some of the concerts going. It’s sad because you don’t want to lose any of the energy we’ve built.”
Erv Portis, the city administrator behind much of the downtown push, shares the concern about the effect of any pause of the city’s progress. But, like Jones, he believes the redevelopment is far too large to be upended by the death of one building. A plaza expansion with a permanent stage is already planned for the soon-to-be empty lot. Many of the second floors of downtown buildings are being converted to loft space.

“This was a very tired street and now . . . well, it still amazes me seeing it,” Portis says. “It’s just the beginning. The potential is all there.”

The impact of the Opera House fire doesn’t worry the owner of the newest business in town, Sisters Café. On a recent day, Sisters, which, interestingly, serves both German and Thai food, was full of customers enjoying a surprisingly upscale but affordable lunch.

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of customers, and that’s been through some weather that’s not great,” says co-owner Jit Kunkel. “We have high hopes for the future here.”
“We’re kind of at a ‘too-big-to-fail’ point here,” Jones says as he looks over the charred Opera House. “This is very sad. No doubt. But Plattsmouth will beat this.”

The Minne Lusa Ladies

March 26, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

We started this with no idea of what it would become,” says Sharon Olson of the home at 2737 Mary St. that later became The Minne Lusa House.

“We mostly wanted a way for neighbors to get to know one another again,” adds Beth Richards, the other half of the duo now known colloquially as The Minne Lusa Ladies.

They bought the repossessed property in 2010 for a mere $20,000, and the tan stucco home built in 1918 is now the epicenter of a resurgent Minne Lusa neighborhood, which is located just north of Miller Park.

Canning marathons, fried green tomatoes, and cookies may have been the inspiration behind the earliest Minne Lusa House events, but the cozy place has since grown to host nonprofit and other events. It hums with activity whenever Santa makes a visit and is one of the main bases for Halloween activity when the annual Trick-or-Treat on the Boolevard fright-fest sends goblins scurrying up and down Minne Lusa Boulevard one block to the east. Police chiefs and precinct captains have listened to neighborhood voices here, as has Ben Gray, the area’s representative on the City Council.

Their weekly Saturday Morning Coffee started local and small, but word of the meet-ups quickly spread. Now Saturday’s draw people from all over the metro area. One Minne Lusa native who now lives in Florida stumbled upon the home’s Facebook page during a nostalgic bout of Minne Lusa-themed web surfing. Struck by the happenings there, she had custom Minne Lusa House coffee mugs made and presented them to
the home.

“Sometimes it’s so crowded here on a Saturday morning that there’s no wiggle room,” says Richards.

“When things first started to take off,” adds Olson, “I remember thinking, ‘Who are all these people?’”

Richards, a retired telephone company employee, has lived five houses down from The Minne Lusa House for the last eight years and has been in the neighborhood for 15. Olson, a retired mail carrier, lives around the corner in the house in which she grew up.

It was at that moment that Rosalind Moore, president of the Miller Park Minne Lusa Neighborhood Association just happened to pop in—as is the wont of many neighbors—to discuss an effort to start a neighborhood newsletter. The women are also part of an effort to have the neighborhood, whose name is Siouxian for “clear water,” listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We want people to know that this is a great neighborhood,” Moore says. Too many people, she says, know the area and other parts of North Omaha only from crime reports. “The neighborhood association, The Minne Lusa Ladies, and so many others here work to make sure that people know that our neighborhood makes a positive impact on the community.”

Community, The Minne Lusa Ladies believe, is built on conversations.

“Neighborhoods are destroyed from within,” says Olson. “It begins when people stop talking. We aim to do something about that.”

Visit The Minne Lisa House on Facebook and the neighborhood association at millerparkminnelusa.org.


Mid-Century Modern

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann, Kristine Gerber

In post-World War II America, a contemporary design style borne of the modernist movement and emphasizing a balance of form and function came to the attention of visionary Omaha developers and architects. The resulting homes and buildings completed in that style made for some distinctive neighborhoods that endure as models of aesthetics and utility and that continue to fascinate owners and onlookers alike.

What became known as Mid-Century Modern is seeing a resurgence in interest today among preservationists and restorers, thanks in part to television shows like Mad Men and their celebration of vintage culture. That interest was never more evident than during a October Mid-Century Modern tour sponsored by Restore Omaha and Omaha 2020 that drew a record 850 participants.

elevation drawing 106 s 89th crop copy

Sketch drawn by architect Donald Polsky

Restore Omaha President Kristine Gerber says it was the organization’s first tour to focus on an architectural style, and the Indian Hills neighborhood offered “the best collection” of Mid-Century Modern. A 2010 Omaha Historic Building Survey of Mid-Century Modern neighborhoods by Leo A. Daly architects Christina Jansen and Jennifer Honebrink offered a blueprint or map for the tour.

For tour participants, it meant getting inside homes they may have long-admired from afar or been curious to see for themselves the various ways in which these structures bring the outdoors “in.”

Mid-Century Modern homeowners like Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill love their residences. “We both feel we have lived here forever and plan no move now or later,” says Manhart.

Gerber says there’s growing appreciation for the style’s ahead-of-its-time characteristics of flat roofs, open floor plans, floor-to-ceiling windows, ample natural light, and green design-construction elements.

There’s motivation, too, in obtaining National Register of Historic Places status for select Mid-Century Modern structures and neighborhoods that qualify.

Mid-Century Modern can be found in other metro neighborhoods besides Indian Hills, but some intentional decisions made it the prime site for it to flower here.

Food manufacturer brothers Gilbert and W. Clarke Swanson, along with architect Leo A. Daly, saw potential to develop a modern, upscale suburban neighborhood taking its name from the old Indian Hills Golf Course. Commercial structures, such as Christ the King Church and the Leo A. Daly company headquarters, became shining examples of this modernist-inspired architectural style.

Leo A. Daly company headquarters.

Leo A. Daly company headquarters is a shining model of modernist-inspired architecture.

But it was left up to a pair of edgy young architects, Don Polsky and Stanley J. How, Sr., to design dozens of residential homes in this new development featuring the attributes, values, and principles of Mid-Century Modern. How also designed one of Omaha’s most distinctive luxury apartment buildings, the sleek Swanson Towers, in Indian Hills. The building has since been converted to condominiums.

Together, the Swansons, Daly, How, and Polksy transformed the “built Omaha.”

“They were young tigers and weren’t necessarily rooted in doing the same old thing, and I think they saw an opportunity to do some things that were really unique and new,” says Stan How, president of Stanley J. How Architects, the company his late father founded. He says his father was “a cutting-edge guy.”

Polsky apprenticed with superstar modernist architect Richard Neutra in Los Angeles and borrowed concepts from his mentor and others for the work he did in Omaha. He says Mid-Century Modern’s appeal all these years later makes sense because its forward-thinking approaches and emphasis on clean lines, simplicity, and efficient use of space are what many homebuyers look for today.

“We were green before its time, we put in a lot of insulation, we shaded our windows, we oriented things towards light, and brought light into the home. We used insulating glass, we planted trees to give us shade, we broke the wind from the north, and we worked with the client’s budget on the configuration of the sight,” Polsky says. Passive solar features and energy-efficient systems were rarities then.

Stan How says his father began practicing architecture for Leo A. Daly right as the modernist movement caught on. “He started his career at a perfect time to absorb all these new things going on. When he went out on his own, he had some clients who had the guts, he’d always say, to explore some of these ideas and let him toy around with that.” Mike Ford became a key early client.

Stan How, Sr., turned his business over to his son in 1990 but still came into the office every day until his death in December 2011.

Stan How, Sr., turned his business over to his son in 1990 but still came into the office every day until his death in December 2011.

“Mike was a young guy who wanted to do something really new, so my dad floated out the contemporary style or what we now call Mid-Century Modern, and Mike loved it. But he also didn’t want to be the only one on the street with a house like that, so he bought four lots and said, ‘Let’s do four spec houses,’ and that’s what they did.”

One of those Stanley How-designed homes, built in 1963, was later purchased by Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill. Homebuyers like Ford were the exception, however, not the rule, as Mid-Century found relatively few takers.

“We’re a pretty conservative [town], Omaha. It’s not Los Angeles. I thought you’d just show a few things and they’d be beating a path to your door, but it didn’t turn out that way,” says Polsky. “There’s still a limited supply of buyers for this type of architecture but you do what you can, you carry the torch.”

Polsky marveled though at the huge turnout to see his homes and those of his old colleague, Stanley How, Sr. “It’s amazing how many people showed up,” he says.

Don Polsky at his drafting desk.

Don Polsky at his drafting desk, circa 1979.

Stan How says designs by his father and Polsky are the antithesis of the overblown, oversized McMansions many homeowners reject today. “I think people are coming back to simplicity.” Indeed, Mark Manhart says, “the clean lines and classic simplicity” of his home are major attraction points for he and his wife and the many inquirers who call on them.

The only regret How has is that his father wasn’t around to see all the love his homes are getting today. “He would have absolutely reveled in it. He would have loved it.”

The March 1-2 Restore Omaha Conference will once again offer a strong lineup of expert preservation and restoration presenters, says Gerber, who promises a dynamic host site that gives attendees an insider’s glimpse at some landmark. For more information, visit restoreomaha.org.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.