Tag Archives: Omaha by Design

Omaha’s First Neighborhood (Forest Hill)

February 21, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Big pine and oak trees, patches of green space, historic mansions, and single-family homes (many of which were built in the late 1800s, not long after Omaha first became a city)—that’s what you’ll find in the area affectionately known as Omaha’s First Neighborhood, located just south of the Old Market between 10th and 13th streets.

You’ll see grand, welcoming porches where neighbors stop to greet each other on picturesque walks; multi-story gables flaunting tall, stained-glass windows; and architectural styles ranging from Victorian to Romanesque.

You can stroll by Bishopthorpe (1240 S. 10th St.), a large Victorian mansion that Bishop George Worthington built as his residence while he served as Episcopal Bishop of Nebraska. Just down the street is the majestic St. Francis Cabrini Church (1248 S. 10th St.), a shining example of Spanish Renaissance Revival style designed by the renowned architect Thomas Kimball. A few blocks down is the Cornish Mansion (1404 S. 10th St.), known as one of the best examples of French Second Empire architecture in Omaha.

“The neighborhood has a lot of character and charm, which is what draws people here,” says Nancy Mammel, who has owned property in the area for several years.

The problem is, over the past several years, the neighborhood has also been drawing more and more new development, some of which residents believe is threatening the area’s origins and integrity.

“Many people who are living in the homes are concerned about the future of these homes and this neighborhood,” says Marie Sedlacek, who moved to the neighborhood in 1985.

02 December 2017- Marie Sedlacek is photographed in front of her home for Omaha Magazine.

In 2015, John E. Johnston & Son Funeral Home on 10th and William streets, formerly the Kountze Mansion, was demolished to make way for William Rows, a cluster of 27 row houses. Grace University’s announcement to halt operations at the end of the 2017-2018 school year has attracted a developer’s proposal for more high-density apartments on some of the property. Omaha Public Schools purchased land at 10th and Pine streets to build a new 600-capacity elementary school, which residents are concerned will take away green space and bring more commuter traffic.

Progress itself isn’t bad. But residents believe progress that changes the historic look and feel of the area—the quaint community vibe and distinguishing architecture that holds an important place in Omaha’s past—isn’t good, either.

“We just want people building and developing in a smart way,” Mammel says.

While it’s colloquially called Omaha’s First Neighborhood, the area’s official name is Forest Hill. The parameters go north to south from Pacific to Bancroft streets, and east to west from Sixth to 13th streets, according to Arnie Breslow, president of the neighborhood association, who owns the Cornish Mansion and other properties.

The residents who live in the area, either as homeowners or renters, are diverse in both age and ethnicity. Sedlacek says her neighbors range in age from 30 to 70 years old, including single people, families with kids, and people who are older or retired. And these neighbors represent many different ethnicities, including Latino, Italian, Czech, and Bohemian.

The neighborhood began to form in the late 1800s. Some of the city’s first businessmen built the first homes in the area because they wanted to live close to their downtown businesses, but not right downtown, to get away from muddy streets, odors, and a general abundance of soot and pollution.

Breslow says about 28 large-to-mid-sized mansions were originally built on the “hill,” and he estimates maybe five remain. As the development of railroads increased commercial development and a need for more workers, immigrants began moving south of downtown, building more modest homes around the parameter of the mansions.

The three things residents love most about the area—what they believe is important to maintaining the neighborhood’s authenticity—are these homes (big and small), the bigger plots of green space, and the walkability around the neighborhood as well as to several popular destinations (a trait that is also attractive to developers).

Depending on which direction you are headed, the Forest Hill neighborhood is roughly a mile’s distance from two of Nebraska’s most popular tourist attractions—the Old Market and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. The Durham Museum and Lauritzen Gardens are also easily accessible. Residents who work downtown can easily walk to work. And everyone who lives in the area can enjoy walks to some of the area’s popular independent businesses, some of which have been around for generations, such as Cascio’s Steakhouse, Sons of Italy, Johnson Hardware Co., and Olsen Bake Shop.

In an effort to be proactive about the neighborhood’s future, Breslow, along with a group of several neighbors, worked with an architect to draft a plan to revitalize South 10th Street with more gardens and green space, new streetlights, and sculptures. The plan for “District 108” was approved by City Council about 10 years ago and even won Omaha by Design’s Neighborhood Leaf Award in 2009. Unfortunately, funds have not yet been made available to move significantly forward.

“Part of our plan is to do some things to try to slow the traffic down,” Breslow says. “People don’t like to walk down a street where a car is driving 50 miles per hour.”

Several aspects of the neighborhood’s future remain uncertain, and some are out of the homeowners’ control. However, Sedlacek, Breslow, and Mammel love this neighborhood. They love its history, its vibe, and how it has evolved since it was founded more than 100 years ago. And they will continue to do what they can to preserve it.

“We just really want our neighborhood to be sparkly,” Sedlacek says. “We have the kind of details people don’t realize we have until they are gone.”

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Home.

Teresa Gleason

March 29, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Naming your public relations business after a close relative of the weasel family is a dicey
move for a startup. But not if you know the backstory.

Teresa Gleason and her husband, Tim McMahan (creator of the long-running music blog Lazy-i), were driving around Benson trying to figure out a name for her new PR company. McMahan suggested Polecat, the beloved, defunct Omaha band. The name stuck.

“Public relations people, a lot of times, are thought of as weasels,” Gleason says. (Polecat, incidentally, is also another term for a skunk.)

“But both weasels and public relations people are necessary to keep the world going around. I kind of like the symmetry of that.”

Wearing a grey knit stocking cap and a camouflage Lutmer Construction hoodie on an inhumanely cold Saturday in January, Gleason surveyed her Benson office. It didn’t take long.

“I’m literally in an 11 by 14 box,” Gleason says.

As Gleason spoke, a calm stream of water came out through a pipe, and flowed to a drain near her office couch.

“Every time someone runs the kitchen faucet, it drains there,” Gleason observes.

“It’s just all part of the quirky charm of Benson.”

Gleason described Polecat as a “one-shingle communications agency” that focuses on content creation and promotion for small businesses and non-profit companies. Her office is also home to her art gallery.

After graduating from Iowa State with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in journalism and mass communications, Gleason worked for small daily and alt-weekly newspapers in Iowa. Like most start-up employees, Gleason had to fit many roles as a reporter—covering sports one day, then covering city council and board meetings the next.

Gleason moved to Omaha in 1995. Her original plan was to live here for a year, then move on. She got a job as a writer and editor for the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Three years later, she joined the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she later became director of communications.

In 2006, she joined the non-profit organization Omaha by Design, where she was communications manager. In addition to writing grants and generating media releases, Gleason organized grassroots projects. Connie Spellman, former executive director of Omaha by Design, says Gleason’s defining project was her work with the $2 million sidewalk expansion project in Benson.

“Her general ability to communicate has always been something I admired and respected,” Spellman says.

Spellman retired in June 2015. Gleason says Spellman’s retirement played role in her decision to start her own business.

Gleason was drawn to Benson for its wealth of creative-minded neighbors and business owners.

“People up here are interesting, quirky, out-there…they’re not afraid to try stuff on their own,” Gleason says.

Gleason opened an art gallery within her business to give local artists a venue to display their work. In March, artist Jennifer Radil will present “You Are Here: Paintings on Paper and Wood.” Radil’s work draws heavy inspiration from landscapes, topographical maps, and wildlife.

“I really love artists,” Gleason says. “The way they think, and the way they process things, and the way they’re just not afraid.”

Visit polecatcommunications.com to learn more about the company and the gallery.


Controlled Chaos

August 4, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in Summer 2015 B2B.

Jeff Day will not apologize for his messy studio.

It was expected it would boast cutting-edge horizontal and vertical features, or perhaps make some sort of interesting artistic statement. Instead, it is rather cold with chipped white walls. But to Day, it is the perfect place to take a client so he or she is right in the mix of things.

His studio is an open, creative space, waiting to be filled, which symbolizes the artistic philosophy of his architectural firm Min|Day. Plus, he loves the way the client can interact with the designers as the process unfolds.

A little bit beautiful and frightening all at the same time. “I like being here,” he says. “I have no energy to find a new place.”

He is a busy guy, to put it mildly. Day can’t even count the number of hours he works each week. Whether it is running Min|Day, directing the architecture program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, or working on his MOD furniture company, Day has a lot of creative balls in the air all at once. Just the way he likes it.

One major project on his untidy design table: the Blue Barn Theater.


Day, ever somber, perks up when discussing the new body that will soon inhabit eager theater-goers. He rarely glances anywhere but at his model encased in glass. Along with partner E.B. Min, who is based out of their San Francisco office, it is their creation and beauty.

“Our strategy was to design a building that can evolve with users,” Day says.

It will include such things as steel that, with time, will look like rusty metal, salvaged timber to adorn walls, and maybe even some artificial turf on the gray roof.

Day graduated from Harvard magna cum laude with an A.B. in visual and environmental studies. He received his master’s in architecture from the University of California-Berkeley.

His art interests led to commissioning four local and regional artists (Chris Kemp, Michael Morgan, Daniel Toberer, and John Woodfill) to develop components of the Blue Barn.

Day likes to steal his ideas from the environment around him. The Blue Barn will include sustainability aspects such as salvaged trees for squares on either side of the aisles in the theater.

Day wanted this to be a creative venture to develop an “open space…to treat it as a test case as a public/private space.” Flexibility, such as creating inside/outside performance areas, was essential.

This will include Green in the City, a simplistic outdoor area in which to produce the cutting-edge work the Blue Barn is known for, or even just a place for the public to hang out. The designs of El Dorado (a Kansas City architectural firm) and Urban Rain Design from Portland were selected out of 60 entries in a national contest sponsored by Omaha by Design to create this community space.

Day believes Omaha has not seen a lot of risk-taking or innovative architecture. Even with a limited budget, he hopes the Blue Barn will appeal to a broader audience.

“It is not mainstream, Pollyanna theater, but edgy and provoking,” states Nancy Mammel, the program director of the Mammel Foundation, which helped fund the project. Blue Barn launched a seven million dollar campaign to raise donations and this fundraising venture will continue even when the building is complete.

Day has been passionate about building since he was young. He recalls one condo project he worked on while he was a high school intern in Maine when he realized something important about the design and construction of buildings.


“The vision isn’t just from a single person, but a collaborative effort,” Day says. Even now, he makes sure this joint effort is a positive experience. Hence, the cluttered office spaces so clients are in the trenches as the designers create.

Day also takes this theory into his classrooms as a professor at UNL. When a young student “gets it and understands what it means to be a designer” is Day’s best part of the day. He realizes it is frustrating and there is not always one right answer for anything.

Day runs FACT—which stands for fabrication and construction team—where students problem-solve real world issues, not just work on hypothetical projects. This even meant visiting a medium-security prison to develop code for a computer-controlled milling machine.

“It is a mixture of humor and fear,” Day says of this actual hands-on approach. He budgets actual projects with student mistakes in mind, but believes it is necessary for students to “figure out how to get this built.”

Day knows the risks of construction, something that makes him nervous because things do not always go exactly as planned.

When a client walks into his studio, Day will draw out real personal discussions with his client. He prefers to make buildings out of experiences rather than style. If he is renovating a barn, Day will see it through the farmer’s eyes and view it as a piece of machinery.

If it is built out of something honest, someone will want it. Just like the studio scattered with work Day has built over the years.


Jay Noddle

November 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“When people are relying on you, you better be prepared to show up with suggestions and a solution and go the extra mile. Leadership is about how you do when things are tough, not when they are easy.”

Tough was the word for 2008, adds real estate developer Jay Noddle. “I was wondering if every decision I made would turn out to be wrong when the economy crashed. We were working in a time of change. Suddenly, there were no experts in our industry…No one to ask because business hadn’t faced extreme economic challenges like those.”

Commitments were met and business improved, says Noddle, who believes his strength is strategic planning.

“Leadership is about how you do when things are tough, not when they are easy.”

“We ask, ‘What do you believe you need? Why do you feel that way? What are the differences between your wants and needs?’ We’re focused on helping organizations think through those decisions and develop a vision and a strategy that will help achieve that vision.”

After returning to his hometown of Omaha in 1987 following 10 years in Denver where he attended college and worked, he founded Pacific Realty. The company turned into Grubb & Ellis/Pacific Realty in 1997 when it became an independent affiliate of the national company. In 2003, he succeeded his father, Harlan Noddle, as president and CEO of Noddle Companies. The company has been involved in 125 office and retail projects coast to coast.

“All we have is our reputation built on what we accomplished,” Noddle says. “We make sure we work within our capabilities.”

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Think Big

Jay Noddle takes on the big jobs. The First National Tower that stretches 40 stories high. One Pacific Place. Gallup headquarters. But his most ambitious project sits in the middle of an historical Omaha neighborhood.

“Aksarben Village is probably as good of an example of collaboration and teamwork as I’ve seen in my career,” says Noddle. “City, county, state, university, neighborhood associations, and bankers came together and said, ‘Let’s do this.’”

The 70-acre property near 67th and Center streets had been transferred by Douglas County to the nonprofit Aksarben Future Trust for development. Noddle was selected as the developer.

Omahans have an affection for the area that goes back to 1921, when the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben moved its racetrack and colosseum there. The finish line of the racetrack is now the lobby of the Courtyard by Marriott.

“Today, we have a vibrant, popular place woven into the community,” says Noddle, who looks out his office window and sees people walking, biking, and running.

The close vicinity of University of Nebraska-Omaha and College of Saint Mary encourages businesses to locate in the Village, he says. “The schools produce the workforce of the future.  Business and industry are always looking for the best and the brightest. Aksarben Village has opened a whole new world for UNO, which is aspiring to grow to 20,000 students by 2020.”

More development is underway in the Village.

  • Gordmans’ corporate offices will move into a new building near 67th and Frances streets during the first quarter of 2014. The retail chain is another example of why location near the university is a good match for business: Gordmans is active in the design of the UNO College of Business curriculum.
  • Courtyard by Marriott developers will open a Residence Inn in the Village in early 2014.
  • The first opportunity to own housing at Aksarben Village will happen in Summer 2014 at Residences in the Village.
  • More apartments—200—are joining the 400 already at the Village.
  • D.J.’s Dugout will have its own new building in March.
  • Waitt Company will relocate its headquarters to the newly built Aksarben Corporate Center, a joint venture with Waitt and the Noddle Companies.

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Jay at Play

When you look at what Noddle has accomplished, you ask, “When does he have time for a life?” As it turns out, he makes plenty of time for family and fun.

His youngest, Aaron, 13, attends eighth grade. Sam, 19, attends the University of Miami.  Rebecca, 21, is studying social work at UNO.

“I’m a soccer dad. And I like to cook.” Noddle also enjoys golfing, scuba diving, and running and describes himself as “a big car guy.”

With a busier schedule, the Husker fan has had to subdue his Big Red fever. “I was a road warrior for the Huskers…Never missed a game, home or away.”

“When we work creating places and activities, whether a park or a ballpark, people will come out of their buildings and interact.”

His wife, Kim, started a new business this year—The Art Room in Rockbrook Village. The former District 66 art teacher offers classes and workshops. “It’s been a dream of hers as long as I’ve known her. She’s loving it,” says her proud husband.

Noddle joins volunteer organizations by looking for a connection to his interests.

He serves on the UNMC board of advisors and supports the Eppley Cancer Center (“My father had cancer”). He has been president-elect and president of the Jewish Federation of Omaha (“That is our culture”) and is a trustee of the University of Nebraska Foundation.

Omaha by Design is a special interest. “People think of sustainability as a liberal thing. But it’s not just recycling and green buildings. Sustainability promotes healthy living…Promotes interaction between people. When we work creating places and activities, whether a park or a ballpark, people will come out of their buildings and interact.”

“We work around the country, and Omaha is a special place,” says Noddle. “Unless you get beyond our borders, you don’t realize that.”