Tag Archives: Ponca Hills

Tallgrass Vernacular

August 7, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The day I met Jim Schalles he was busy with a machete. That spring afternoon, we found ourselves in the far corner of City Sprouts’ half-acre lot on the corner of 40th and Franklin streets in near-north Omaha. Schalles’ goal for the day was to prepare the lumber that, once dry, would frame a small roof sheltering an earthen oven he’d been commissioned to build for the community garden. As we talked, Schalles and the machete stripped long ribbons of bark from the pile of freshly cut eastern red cedar stacked beside him. Cleaning a full trunk down to its smooth blonde core, he would hoist the thing with considerable ease over his head, toss it out of the way, and begin again with a new log. His dog, Adobe, curled asleep in a nest of mulch beside him, was little impressed.

Schalles is an Omaha native who grew up in the oak and cottonwood forests of Ponca Hills north of town. Until recently, though, he’d been passing time in southern Oregon, immersing himself in a rather broad range of disciplines in pursuit of his permaculture design certificate with the Aprovecho Sustainability Education Center. Coursework there included roundwood timber framing, earthen concretes, and clay-based stucco construction. “I left feeling like I could certainly build a house,” Schalles says. 

Permaculture design, at its roots, is guided by the patterns and forms observed in nature. Rather than engineering structures, agriculture systems, and societies in opposition to the natural world, the movement seeks to embody a thoughtful reflection of nonhuman systems and the inherent design wisdom found there.   

While it’s hard to imagine a better environment for a natural builder to cut his teeth than the dewy old-growth forests of Oregon, Schalles found himself drawn back to the hills and scrubby oak forests of his youth.

“I really missed the climate and culture and people back here,” he reflects. “If I’d grown up in the Northwest I probably wouldn’t have left. Clean swimming holes and mountains and redwoods and beaches, all that great stuff. But when I was hiking around the redwoods I never really felt at peace. I was almost on edge with awe. There are these giant trees that you’re astounded and kind of bewildered by, but it’s different from the sense of security and peace that I feel walking around these giant cottonwoods and the oak savannah that I grew up in.”

Reacquainting himself with the rhythms of his native landscape, Schalles recognized an opportunity to provide a service that was currently unavailable in the area. From this, Tallgrass Vernacular was born, a full-service construction and design business which serves to bring the principles, ethos, and aesthetic of natural building back to the Missouri River Valley. 

The name, Tallgrass Vernacular, references the vernacular architecture style, which Schalles describes as “building with things from the locality in which the building is being created. It embodies the nature of the area where you build. If I’m building in the Loess Hills, for example, I like mimicking the geography, the rolling hills with steep edges, so the structure not only is built with the things from the area, but it also embodies the essence and the culture and spirit of the place as well.” 

The community oven at City Sprouts exemplifies this precept down to its foundation: an assemblage of broken sidewalk concrete sourced from only a few hundred feet away. The subsoil clay integrated to the concrete was also pulled right from the neighborhood. 

While such a construction may sound renegade, Schalles is quick to note that his practice is firmly rooted in tradition and techniques that have stood the test of time. “As a builder, safety has to be a priority. If I want to make an argument for the value of these traditional practices, it has to come from within the guidelines of the building code. If we’re just building like hippies in our backyards and keeping it off the main radar, we’re not able to spread the real benefits of these techniques and make them more accessible. In some ways, I want to see the codes progress and be made more inclusive, but in the meantime I’m happy to learn them thoroughly and make sure I’m building things in accordance with the law.”

To watch Schalles at work is to see a person very much in their element. With a casual diligence, he appears fully comfortable with both his material and ability. There is, in fact, little to distinguish Jim Schalles’ professional life from his personal. Which is how he prefers it. 

“I think living in conjunction with the seasons that are around you is really similar to the way that I build things or the way that I live my life in general. It’s all of us being on the rhythm of when’s the best time to plant our seeds—whether that’s the metaphorical seed of your idea or your literal can’t-let-the-frost-kill-your-vegetable seed.”

In fall 2016, a chance meeting in a Ponca Hills bar provided Schalles an opportunity to commit himself to honoring this rhythm of the seasons in a more substantial way.

Still fresh from his time in Oregon, Schalles found himself trading rounds with a retired local farmer in need of a hand. Today, in exchange for a few hours of farm labor each week, Schalles and his partner have been allowed to build a home for themselves on a segment of land nestled against the Loess Hills State Forest. 

Of course, the Schalles home is no conventional affair. The main living quarters are an elevated yurt supported by reclaimed lumber and local cedar. The home is warmed by a wood-burning masonry heater, also designed by Schalles.  

“To have this been the first winter I spent in the yurt, in something I built, in the Midwestern winter, was really cool. To know that we survived, but to look at it in hindsight now that we’re past the worst of the winter and wonder, okay how do we make this more habitable for next winter.”  

It’s in hard-earned conditions like these that the seeds of utopia are sown. A solar shower, a wood-fired bathtub under the stars, a straw bale sauna—Schalles’ plans for the future are as ambitious as they are enviable.

“If you’re committed to keeping your costs low, you can afford to work a full-time job in your garden growing food,” he says. “And what more do you need? When you’ve got your shelter and food taken care of, your mind starts to go wild with these ideas.”

Like many great optimists, though, Schalles’ bright visions of the future are held against a vivid recognition of the dark places we now find ourselves in, culturally, ecologically, and architecturally. 

“We’re in this crisis right now in the way that we build things. The bottom’s going to fall out sooner or later, and hopefully it’s not detrimental when it does. Hopefully we’ve figured out enough ways to mitigate it and to do things better. Rather than just trying to engineer our way out of these problems I think that we can look toward the past to move into the future with sensible solutions.” 

It’s this recognition of the limitations of modern conventional architecture, and a sincere passion for creating structures that are at once functional, economical, and sustainable that propels Tallgrass Vernacular. 

For Schalles, these principles find their clearest expressions in fire appliances like the community oven at City Sprouts. 

“Fire was the origin of a lot of things. Probably the origin of language,” he says. “The act of us coming together around heat and a communal source of cooking our nutrients opened the door to a lot of things culturally. We’ve lost that. And putting fire appliances in central places like parks and community gardens can help bring that back.”

Learn more about Tallgrass Vernacular and its natural building and permaculture services at tallgrassvernacular.com. 

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of OmahaHome. 

Such Great Heights

September 3, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The first thing you notice about Wyman Heights is the beautiful view facilitated by the storied neighborhood’s riverside, hilltop perch. The petite enclave, situated on the cusp of Florence and Ponca Hills, spoons with a deep bend in the Missouri River where views of the adjacent waterway and nearby city provide an entirely unique perspective.

Speaking of perspective, Jody duRand has an interesting one, having grown up in Wyman Heights in the ’60s and ’70s, and returning to live there in 2010 when she and husband Roger duRand bought their dream home. 

“Most people don’t know it’s there—this little gold mine in the hills,” she says of Wyman Heights.

Her parents left the neighborhood in 1991, and the self-described “North O girl at heart” lived for a time in a Florence home designed by her father, Del Boyer of Boyer & Biskup Architects.

The duRands nearly closed on a house in the Memorial Park area when her favorite Wyman Heights home—the one she’d admired since childhood, the proverbial belle of the neighborhood real estate ball—came up for sale. 

Cathy Katzenberger

“I loved this house more than anything in the world,” duRand says of her 1933 home. “When we got the chance to buy it, it was day one, full offer, we’re taking it as is. It’s a really special, beautiful house with so much charm and a view you just can’t get anywhere else in the city. Plus, this [neighborhood] is my home.”

Kristine Gerber, executive director at Restoration Exchange Omaha, agrees that Wyman Heights is a “hidden gem.”

“Very few know where it is,” Gerber says. “Its views of the Missouri River to the east and downtown Omaha to the south are incredible. Neighbors love that it’s this quiet oasis, yet in minutes they can be on I-680 to get to wherever they need to go.”

In 1905, Omaha real estate agent/banker Henry Wyman took a shine to the hills north of Florence—then known as Florence Heights and Valley View Heights. Wyman envisioned the area, with its breathtaking views, as the perfect spot for “an idyllic retreat for Omaha’s elite,” according to research gathered by Restoration Exchange Omaha in preparation for the organization’s 2017 neighborhood tour. Wyman spent two decades gathering land, planting trees, and grading and paving North 29th and 30th streets before the neighborhood was replatted and rechristened “Wyman Heights” in 1925.    

Tudor Revival homes populated the area from the late 1920s into the 1940s, when World War II and a national housing shortage slowed development. But by the mid-1960s, Wyman Heights was fully developed, with midcentury modern homes filling in the gaps. 

“I always have to explain that the house numbers are totally out of order,” says resident Cathy Katzenberger, who loves the area’s peace and quiet, perfect views, and combination of seclusion and accessibility. “It’s because the neighborhood started with great big lots. Then, through the years as people sold off parts of their lots, new numbers were put in.”

Katzenberger has lived in the neighborhood for 27 years, in two different houses. She grew up in nearby Minne Lusa and was always determined that someday she would live “up on the hill.” Her current abode is informally known as the Hayden House (not to be confused with the welcome center on UNO’s campus), named for Dave Hayden, proprietor of Omaha restaurants from days of yore, such as the Birchwood Club and Silver Lining Restaurant.

“This [neighborhood] originally started off as the weekend country retreat for people who lived in central Omaha—now we’re talking back in the old days,” says Katzenberger, who recalls the hill being home to “all the fancy people.”

Between the stunning views and architectural diversity, Wyman Heights was indeed a magnet for Omaha’s interesting and elite, just as Wyman envisioned. According to Restoration Exchange Omaha, the neighborhood was home to many a local movers and shakers, including Claude Reed, owner of Reed’s Ice Cream; William Sealock, president of the Municipal University of Omaha, originally located at 24th and Pratt streets and now known as University of Nebraska at Omaha; Harry Shackelford, Nebraska State District Attorney; and Genevieve Detwiler, prominent socialite and local proponent of the Girl Scouts. 

Roger and Jody duRand

Wyman Heights retained its allure into the ’60s, attracting prominent residents like mayor Gene Leahy and artist Tom Palmerton.     

“[The neighborhood] was filled with successful, smart, interesting people,” duRand recalls.

While the neighborhood has become more economically diverse, duRand says Wyman Heights hasn’t changed too much—still offering its lovely views and solid, neighborly network. 

“If you can find a house up here, you’re lucky. It’s a safe neighborhood and the neighbors are wonderful,” duRand says. “It’s nice to be able to look back all these years and see how it’s changed yet how it’s stayed the same.”

Katzenberger is pleased to see traditions like the annual neighborhood party endure, while several young families have moved into the neighborhood and livened it up with a new generation of kids at play.

“We’ve got very good neighbors. People are connected here,” says Katzenberger, noting that despite the lack of through traffic, children’s lemonade stands always do very well, as the neighbors all make a point to stop for a glass.

Katzenberger and duRand appreciate the unique blend of pastoral respite and urban access that comes with living in Wyman Heights.   

“We’re so close to everything, yet we can sit outside and hear nothing but birds…see a fox running through the yard, or deer walking up the middle of the street,” duRand says. “It’s the best of both worlds.”

Despite Wyman Heights’ affluent roots, duRand says there’s no pretension here.   

“People here are really just being themselves—and we all are very different,” she says. “It’s classy, but very eclectic. We all have love for the neighborhood and that’s what stabilizes us. If one person has a tree fall in their yard, all of us are there to help; we’re all watching out for each other.”

Restoration Exchange Omaha’s Wyman Heights neighborhood tour takes place Oct. 1 from noon to 5 p.m. Visit facebook.com/restorationexchange for more details.

This article appeared in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

Ponca Hills

October 12, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It’s a rural neighborhood with a small-town feel, full of rolling hills, large trees, wildlife, and huge plots of land.

This same area is just minutes from downtown Omaha, which gives residents a short drive to performances, restaurants, and everything else the city has to offer. Residents of the old neighborhood would call Ponca Hills the best of all possible worlds for its convenience.

“It’s just beautiful,” says Sara McClure, who moved to the area from Albuquerque, New Mexico, with her husband, Dave, 11 years ago. “The drive home, no matter what time of year, is spectacular. And the wildlife and the proximity to the rest of Omaha is amazing.”


Parameters of Ponca Hills are flexible depending on whom you talk to. McClure says the neighborhood extends west to 72nd Street, east to the Missouri River, north to Fort Calhoun, and south to Interstate 680; however, the heart of the Ponca Hills seems to be east of Highway 75 to the river, and just north of the Douglas County line.

The history of how the area got its name is equally ambiguous. The name “Ponca Hills” sounds like it was named after something, says Clare Duda, a Douglas County Commissioner and third-generation Ponca Hills resident. But that’s not the case, he says.

“Somebody just picked the name. I don’t know who, when, or why, but it wasn’t because the Ponca Indians were here,” Duda says. “It would be more correct to call it the Otoe Hills because the Otoe Indians were here as well as the Omaha Indians.”

ponca-hills4While the area’s historical connection to the Ponca tribe is uncertain, the hills remain packed with history from local families. Duda says at least some Ponca Hills residents are descendants of the area’s original homesteaders. The Dudas have kept farms or land in the area for several generations. Other families have no specific tie to the land other than they could not imagine living anywhere else.

Ages and demographics of the Ponca Hills’ approximately 1,000 residents are all over the map. Duda, who has served as an active member of the area’s volunteer fire department for the past 40 years, says he still sees a great number of young families, many who move to the area to be closer to older generations. Meanwhile, a fair number of residents are older or retired folks who have lived in Ponca Hills their entire lives—and have no intention of moving. 

Why is Ponca Hills such a draw? Why do families not only decide to move there, but end up staying for the rest of their lives? And what motivates their children to follow in their footsteps, deciding to build their lives in the same area as their parents and grandparents?

The main attractions are the sense of community among residents, the beauty of the land, and the wildlife.

Neighbors get together for several community gatherings throughout the year, including the Ponca Hills Volunteer Fire Department’s annual barbecue, which draws approximately 2,000 people, including residents and their friends.

“It does raise money for the fire department, but really in my mind, the better reason for having it is that it is a community celebration,” Duda says. “The whole community is together.”

Other events throughout the year include the Ponca Hills Preservation Association’s annual chili feed, a steak cookout at Ponca Hills Farm stables, and smaller events like dinners and potlucks.


While events bring everyone together, what really keeps people in Ponca Hills is the relationships developed through shared commitment to helping one another. When a neighbor is sick, you bring him a meal. When a neighbor gets stuck in the snow, you help pull him out. It’s just what you do.

“We’re a very caring community,” Duda says. “The people are the best asset we’ve got, but the natural environment we’ve been blessed with is right up there, too.”

Deer, foxes, raccoons, possums, skunks, groundhogs, and coyotes, along with turkeys, geese, and many other birds inhabit the area. This is in addition to other animals that neighbors keep on their land, including dogs, cats, chickens, horses, and goats.

“My wife and I travel a lot on the motorcycle,” Duda says. “We can go across the country and will see more wildlife on the three miles near our home than we will on our entire trip.”

For an animal and nature lover like McClure, living in the midst of it all, while still being able to drive to her job in downtown Omaha in less than 20 minutes, is a dream come true.

The extra land is more work. And the older homes mean more to repair and more to update, McClure says. “But the benefit of being so close to Omaha, yet so far from the city, is really worth it.”

Visit poncahills.org for more information. OmahaHome


Keeping it Real

April 15, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Pounding sounds greet me as I walk into the Tudor Revival-style home of Kristine and Jared Gerber. The upstairs powder room was being noisily remodeled.

Perhaps you know the homeowner’s name. Kristine Gerber is the founding executive director of Restoration Exchange. The nonprofit offers walking tours, information, and meetings about Omaha’s older buildings and neighborhoods.

“We have been Omaha’s preservation voice. We educate, advocate, and motivate,” she says.

Which is part of the reason why the remodeling job in her own home is minimal. The house has changed little since it was built in 1931 in the Country Club Historic District of Omaha. This remodel will maintain its 1930s charm with the installation of historically accurate tile, and any remodeling during the home’s 75 years has maintained its original character.

“It’s important to us that our home have character and the original décor,” says Kristine.

Standing in the immaculately preserved house with oodles of charm is like being in a pristine dollhouse. And that’s OK with Kristine. “I like small, cozy places. We’ve loved old
houses forever.”

Until last year, Kristine and Jared lived in a raised ranch home built in the 1950s near 93rd and Leavenworth streets. With District 66 schools and one-half acre of lawn, it was a perfect place to raise their two sons.

Then their sons left home. Creighton is now an archaeologist in Sioux Falls, and Drew is a sophomore at Carleton College.

“We began looking for a home east of 60th Street,” says Kristine. “A home not remodeled, not gutted, with original fixtures and tiles. We looked for a year and a half from Ponca Hills to Plattsmouth.” 

They came across their Country Club-area home one day while volunteering at the historic Mercer mansion.

“Jared was gone for an hour. When he came back, he said, ‘You need to get to that house and make an offer’,” Kristine says.

Within hours, their offer was accepted. They moved in on Labor Day 2015.

Like the Gerbers’ home, most houses in the historic district are Tudor Revival style with steeply gabled roofs and half-timbered framing. The style was popular in the early 20th century. Brickwork is tapered, while arched windows display leaded glass and complement the doorways.

Old architecture suits them. Kristine has written and/or edited 32 books focused on the history of Omaha and Council Bluffs. Jared is an architect who has worked with owners to add to or remodel older homes.

The couple begin my tour of their historical home at the entryway with glass knobs on the front door and the original light fixture and tile.

The traditional beauty of quarter sawn oak floors covers the main level. “They are one and one-half inch wide instead of today’s standard two and one-quarter inch,” says Jared. “You can tell they are the originals by the width.”

Kristine says she loves the coved ceilings that have no square corners and make the room appear taller. The home’s original fireplace in the living area, once a main source of heat, has been converted to gas.

The kitchen has been modernized while retaining a 1930s feel. A bead-board ceiling and subway tile showcase the look of the era. A family room with a second fireplace sits in the basement.

Windows in the dining room overlook nearby Metcalfe Park.

Tucked off the living room is Jared’s small office, once a formal den. The room’s heavy wood doors with glass panes are original and elegant.

Kristine leads us to what she calls her “favorite room.”  A striking master bath with the original tiles and a basket-weave style floor is striking in black, white, and gold. A pedestal sink has been replaced with a look-alike to preserve the era.

Also on the first floor is the master bedroom. Two more bedrooms are on the second floor.

A staircase curves provocatively off the living area around a corner to the upper level. “There’s kind of an elegance to that,” muses Kristine.

The Gerbers give credit to former owners for maintaining the spirit of the home and avoiding renovations that would have taken away its historical ambiance. Their long search for the perfect house took them to homes poorly remodeled by their owners, says Kristine. They search no more. OmahaHome

Visit historiccountryclub.com to learn more


Self-Made, Self-Taught, Self-Assured

December 11, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

An interior designer would have to possess an abundance of chutzpah to place a Paul Bunyan-sized silver chalice vase filled with giant sprays of faux white flowers in the middle of a hotel lobby. Eric James not only pulled it off, he pulled everything together inside Omaha’s Hotel Deco XV.


Taking his cue from the name of the historic boutique hotel at 15th and Harney streets, James created a wonderland of Art Deco décor that transports a visitor to a time synonymous with elegance and a post-World War I “anything goes” mentality. “It’s early 1930s glam and glitz, one of the highlights of my career so far,” says James, 40.

Clean lines, geometric patterns, bold accessories, and lots of mirrors surrounded by a sea of black and white, chrome and crystal, offer a stunning look into the past with a decidedly modern twist. Small crystal beads that cover one wall, a sheath of tufted velvet on another wall, and sofa pillows in hues of gray with raised fabric designs reveal James’ eye for a variety of textures.

The designer’s balancing act is evident in the accessories and sculpted art pieces found on tables, stairwell ledges, and window sills: white beside black, tall beside small, round beside square.


“As I’ve developed my business, I’ve become very good at fabrics and florals, two of the hardest things to do,” James says. “To get a style to flow with fabrics and flowers is difficult, but for some reason it comes naturally to me.”

Born Eric James Seymour in the Ponca Hills/Florence section of Omaha, the boy who toyed with the idea of becoming a marine biologist found he had a knack for taking his mother’s old decorations to create a unique, functional space in his bedroom. Pretty soon, family and friends started asking for his help with their houses.

“I’m a self-taught person, very hands-on. I imagine the whole space and then just do it,” he says. “It’s my passion.”

After spending two years in management and sales at the now-closed Z Gallerie at Village Pointe, James 10 years ago started his own business, Interiors by Eric James, and dove in headfirst.


Traditional? Sure. Contemporary? Absolutely. Funky? Why not? Rustic? No prob.

“I’m working on a farmhouse in rural Iowa that started as a kitchen remodel and has turned into a whole house remodel,” James says. “We built an all-season room with raw wood flooring—knots and cracks and all. The room has exposed beams throughout, a wall of jagged stone, two oil-rubbed bronze chandeliers, and high-back wing chairs of cowhide. Very unique.”

One of James’ greatest assets involves the ability to listen to a client.

“I asked him to style our house and his ability to interpret our wishes and bring them to fruition was awesome,” raves Chris Hamilton, a hair stylist. She says James preferred to work while they were out of the house, “so when we walked in, the transformation was just incredible.”

James’ upbeat, positive personality, his willingness to please a client (“I never argue with people,” he says), his eclectic designer palette, and “reasonable prices” keep new and repeat customers calling.

“I’ve never had an unhappy client,” he says. “If I did, I couldn’t sleep at night.”  OmahaHome

Visit interiorsbyericjames.com to learn more.