Tag Archives: St. Cecilia Cathedral

Embellishing the Truth

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Distinctive elements of a residence in the Aksarben neighborhood attracted architects Eric and Trina Westman when they were house hunting.

Since purchasing the home in 2006, the Westmans have been both fascinated and puzzled by the architectural embellishments of their 742-square-foot brick house. Those features—including brown sandstone trim around the front door and decorative plaster crown moldings in the foyer, living room, and dining room—seemed out of place for a small dwelling.

Maag2While the couple sat in their living room, they would look up at the plaster cornices and contemplate.

“I sat here staring at the walls a lot,” says Eric, a project architect at Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture. Trina adds, “We literally stared at it for 10 years, thinking, ‘Why? Where? Who?’” Visiting friends and colleagues were equally mystified. Why would a house of this size, in this neighborhood, have such grand features?

After the Westmans agreed to include their home on Restoration Exchange Omaha’s Fall Neighborhood Tour, they started piecing together the answers.

Maag1Restoration Exchange Omaha (REO) rewards those who open up their homes with a portfolio containing information and newspaper clips about the home’s architecture, history, and occupants. Last fall, University of Nebraska at Omaha honors students conducted research on the homes in the Aksarben neighborhood as part of a service-learning project for REO. UNO junior Justin Korth prepared the research for the Westman home.

Korth’s research detailed the history of the original residents who lived at 1310 S. 63rd St. Edwin and Regina James built the home in 1939 and lived there for 25 years. Edwin was an assistant dean at Omaha University. His father, W. Gilbert James, was twice the acting president of the university and its first dean of the School of Fine Arts.

Regina James was a librarian at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine. Her parents were Freida Maag and her husband, master craftsman Jacob Maag.

Trina read the report, which included an extensive obituary of Jacob, and began a quest to find out more about him. “I started reading a little more and went down to the library that same week. They had a file on him, a couple of articles and some pictures of him carving,” she says. She also ran across a document called “Mallet and Chisel: A Fifty Year Saga of Architectural Sculpture by Jacob Maag.” Primarily a transcript of a 1962 interview with Maag by members of the Greater Omaha Historical Society (now the Douglas County Historical Society), the document includes an in-depth interview with Maag and listings of his stone carving and ornamental plaster work.

Maag4“I think now we have an answer, and it makes sense,” says Trina, who works for the City of Omaha Planning Department. “His daughter, her first home— she was building it in 1938 and that’s when he was doing this kind of work. ‘Sure, your little 742-square-foot house, I’ll put up some fancy plaster work and stone trim,’” she imagines Maag saying.

Maag held impressive credentials. His training included a four-year apprenticeship in Baden, Switzerland, where he earned top marks in his class. Maag then attended the Art Academy in Milan, Italy, and worked for sculptor Angelo Magnioni. He returned to Switzerland and then came to Omaha at the urging of his uncle, John B. Kuony, one of Omaha’s earliest pioneers.

Maag left his mark on some of Nebraska’s most impressive and enduring buildings. He created stone carvings for St. Cecilia Cathedral, Central High School, the University of Nebraska Stadium, the Scottish Rite Cathedral, and dozens of others. He created ornamental plaster moldings for Union Station (now Durham Museum), the State Capitol, and Burlington Station, among many others. He could carve wood and inscribe metal. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a material Maag could not manipulate into some artistic statement. A true Renaissance man, he even wrote poetry.

Maag moved to Albion, Michigan, in 1961 to live with his younger daughter, Jacqueline. He continued to fashion works, mostly in alabaster and marble, in his retirement. He died at age 98 in 1980.

To date, no documentation of the archway or plaster cornices at the Westman home has been found. There is mention in “Mallet and Chisel” of a cast cement fireplace in the home, one of many Maag fashioned. The fireplace is no longer there, though the Westmans see evidence of where it once stood on the north wall of their living room. They speculate that Edwin and Regina James took it with them when they moved to Texas in 1965.

The Westmans plan to build an addition in the next few years and may include a stone fireplace on the far wall.

Maag railed against modern architecture and its “straight up and down” look. He called the new buildings of the day “crackerboxes with holes.” He told the Omaha World-Herald in 1961, “I believe a person should remember the arch over the door he enters.”

Thanks to Jacob Maag, the Westmans can remember the arch over their door and other impressions he left behind. 

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Restoration Exchange Omaha’s 2016 Fall Tour: The Aksarben Neighborhood

Date: Sunday, Oct. 2
Time: Noon-5 p.m.

Eric and Trina Westman’s home is one of 11 sites on the tour, which features a variety of residences in the Aksarben neighborhood (between Leavenworth and Center streets, running from 50th to 72nd streets). Styles include Tudor revival, bungalow, Spanish colonial, and foursquare. The starting point, Mount Calvary Lutheran Church, is also featured.

Tour sites:

  • 5525 Leavenworth St., Mount Calvary Lutheran Church
  • 5501 Leavenworth St., owned by Jennifer Bauer
  • 1301 S. 52nd St., owned by Sarah Cavanagh
  • 5848 Hickory St., owned by Scott Swanson
  • 5844 Pine St., owned by Royce Cannerley
  • 1310 S. 63rd St., owned by Eric and Trina Westman
  • 6239 Poppleton Ave., owned by Kim Riege
  • 6024 Poppleton Ave., owned by Katie Blesener and John Royster
  • 5611 Leavenworth St., owned by Rebecca Anderson
  • 5522 Marcy St., owned by Steven and Amy Thompson
  • 5542 Marcy St., owned by Russell Hollendieck

Tickets are $15 apiece or two for $25, with a discount available for Restoration Exchange Omaha members. Tickets can be purchased the day of the tour at Mount Calvary. They include a tour booklet with the histories of the tour sites and a history of the neighborhood. The route is 2.6 miles and accessible by walking, bicycling, or driving. A free shuttle to the locations will also be provided.

Visit restorationexchange.org for more information. OmahaHome

The Burlington Building

November 19, 2015 by

The Fourth of July 1898 was quite a day for Omaha. The Trans-Mississippi Exposition opened its doors about a month earlier, and it would continue until November. Omaha’s own World’s Fair drew 2.6 million people to the city while attempting to tell the story of the taming of the American west. The legendary event attracted presidents and criminals alike: William McKinley traveled from Washington, D.C., while the iconic Everleigh Sisters set up a brothel across from the festival, allowing them to raise enough money to relocate to Chicago, where they became the city’s most notorious madams.

This July 4 was special, and not simply because it was Independence Day—although the town celebrated with patriotic events, such as a large parade featuring a menagerie of wild animals, including a float with a seated lion at the front and a snake charmer at the rear; and a Devil’s Dance concession, featuring a marcher dressed as “His Satanic Majesty,” chased by a group of angels.

The day also marked the opening of one of Omaha’s grandest buildings, one that has been empty until very recently: The Burlington Train Station at 1001 South 10th St. The building boasts one of Omaha’s best-known architects: Thomas Kimball, who also conceptualized St. Cecilia Cathedral, the Omaha Public Library building on Harney, and the Burlington Headquarters Building that stands at one corner of the Gene Leahy Mall.

The station was built for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, whose passengers bestowed on it an impressively brief nickname: The Q. In Nebraska, the rail line carried mail and farm equipment as well as transporting passengers and freight. The Burlington Station awed its visitors, featuring an enormous lobby and a circular staircase descending to the tracks, where a canopy protected soon-to-be passengers.

While the original building exhibited a restrained, elegant Italianate style borrowing from the design vocabulary of the Renaissance, the Burlington later found itself in competition with a flashier building: The Union Station, a ziggurat immediately declared a masterpiece of the then-fashionable Art Deco style.

Union Station opened in 1931 opposite the Burlington, and, as a result, the older building underwent extensive remodeling, making the structure both simpler and bolder. Workers removed 24 columns. (They reappeared in Lincoln standing between Memorial Stadium and the Coliseum, where they can be seen to this day.) Gilded medallions bordered the walls while massive lanterns, each weighing one ton, hung inside the building.

The Burlington continued on for decades, much of it marked by a long, slow decline as passengers abandoned rail travel. In 1971, riders were moved to a nearby Amtrak station—small and functional, decidedly lacking in the ambition and grandeur of the nearby glamour-huts.

Union Station reveled in a second life in 1973, when the Durham Museum (then the Western Heritage Museum) took control, but the Burlington labored on for decades, finding occasional use for one-off events (it housed several plays and seasonal haunted houses) along with infrequent and doomed redevelopment plans.

The neighborhood is at the start of a revival, and, so, too, is the Burlington. Hearst Television purchased the building in 2013, and the structure is now home to KETV (Channel 7). The idea of placing a television station next to a railroad track is rather extraordinary, and it may be impossible to muffle the sounds of the passing trains. Then why mute them? Omaha is a rail town, and it seems somehow appropriate to get our news with the whistles and rumble of trains calling out in the background.

BURLINGTON TIMELINE

1870: The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad first enters Omaha.

1890: A temporary station is erected at 1001 S. 10th Street.

1898: The temporary station is replaced with the current Burlington Station, designed by Omaha architect Thomas R. Kimball.

1908: The Chicago Record declares the Burlington Station to be “The handsomest railway station ever seen.”

1929-1930: The station is extensively remodeled to compete with the new Art Deco Union Station, which would open in 1931.

1954: The station is remodeled again to add a parking plaza.

1971: Passenger service is moved to Amtrak, which will build its own station in 1974 and cease passenger operations at the Burlington.

1985: The building is gutted by an architectural salvager, who removes all interior fittings.

2004: The building is purchased by investors planning to transform the space into private residences. A downturn in the economy halts these plans.

2013: Hearst Television announces a plan to renovate the building for use as the broadcast facility for KETV.

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Year of the Startup

November 17, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The emerging startup accelerator scene supports creative-minded risk-takers looking for an edge to follow their passion and bring their ideas to fruition.

Sebastian Hunt, 25, is passionate about giving entrepreneurs like himself a nurturing space to test out their concepts. The University of Nebraska at Omaha economics graduate interned with various local employers and surveyed the area startup community when an idea struck him for a by-application, curriculum-based residency program serving new entrepreneurs. That inspiration turned into Year of the Startup.

Launched in 2014, the program operates out of a humble house at 4036 Burt Street in the St. Cecilia Cathedral neighborhood. Hunt and co-founder Jason Feldman, 28, room there with young residency fellows whose startup ventures range from making bio-fuels to providing night owl shuttle services. They are a millennial bunch who favor sneakers and sandals. They take informal meetings to nearby CaliCommons and Lisa’s Radial Cafe. They variously hunch over laptops or tablets and carry smartphones as appendages.

This communal work-live space model for business mavericks is new to Omaha. The usual startup accelerator is a concentrated, 90-day, off-site program. Omaha has a few of these, notably Straight Shot. Hunt saw a need for a program that invites a broader range of people into the accelerator fold and supports them much nearer to the start of their dream than other programs.

“We feel like we can take people at very early stages because we are four times as long as the average program,” says Hunt, who adds that Year of the Startup is also not tech-centric like many programs tend to be. “In our model we substitute intensity for duration. I think a lot of the learning here comes through unstructured, serendipitous interactions we have that is not curriculum-based, it’s just happenstance.

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“With a house there are so many different ways you can bring ideas and people together. I think that’s maybe that critical binding agent and sense of place that helps accomplish things.”

He says in this intimate environment “there’s no other choice but to immerse yourself in the setting,” adding, “We’re always hanging out in the living room or out back talking about startup stuff—monetization strategies, capitalization tables, vested equity entity structures.”

“It’s this immersive experience of camaraderie, of these natural flows and idea generation,” Feldman says.

Hunt says, “This is very difficult to get bored with because there’s always somebody whose business is either in crisis or growth stage or some interesting part of the curve.”

“How could we get bored when we’re creating a platform with four startups and all we get to do is ideation,” Feldman says. “It’s a constant buzz we get from interacting with these startup founders and helping them build their ideas.”

Built into the program are activities that encourage fellows to break out of their comfort zone and to offer honest criticism of each other’s ideas.

Hunt compiles multiple data points on the startups.

“We’re developing really deep insight about how do people start successful businesses.”

The program utilizes mentors from the entrepreneurial community.

“We bring in people who are experts in specific areas to talk on those topics,” Feldman says.

“They get ideas flowing,” Hunt says of the mentors.

Feldman says he regularly covers with fellows “the major components of what you need to look at to start your business,” and then mentors like Mike Kolker, owner of graphic design firm Simplify, teach lessons about operational efficiency and “how to simplify running a business.”

Hunt is a newcomer to all this and goes by instinct as much as research to support his vision.

“I just had an irrational confidence, market insights, and a great theoretical background thanks to primary research I completed and to lessons I learned from Phillip Phillips, Michael O’Hara, and Art Diamond in UNO’s economics department. I read constantly about who the players were in the startup world, so I was fairly prepared.”

Even though he directs a startup program, he only started participating in one himself (Venture School). He acknowledges Year of the Startup is a by-the-seat-of-your-pants experiment.

“Coming out of college I had student loans and not a ton of money. I’ve held two jobs to finance the project. Now the project is financed by a combination of me working and renting out one room. One-hundred percent of the money our entrepreneurs pay in rent will be returned in full and so everybody has a strong incentive to follow through with the program. That may be what makes us sustainable.”

He’s working on securing corporate sponsorship for the program. Meanwhile, he wants to help get participating startups to the next level.

“We’re functioning like a pre-accelerator at this point. We want to get our startups profitable and then refer them to the Straight Shots, so they can focus on growth in a pure accelerator program.”

As Year of the Startup moved into a larger house in Omaha’s Little Italy district on July 1 and a new class of fellows arrives, Hunt says there are “interesting talks happening right now to bring this to other cities.” He and Feldman say economic development agencies are willing to pay a license fee for them to do startup houses in other cities. The partners are having proprietary software developed that will enable new startup houses to replicate their branded Omaha model.

They look forward to engaging with the emerging 10th Street cultural district but may keep the midtown house to accommodate growth.

Hunt and Feldman believe they’re catching the wave, or tipping point, of a big new startup rush and they’re betting their model is poised to be a niche player in this wild frontier of entrepreneurial prospecting.

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The Mary Kimball House

March 17, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

You may not know of Mary Kimball, but if you’re an aficionado of historic Omaha, you know her son, Thomas Kimball, very well. The architect behind St. Cecelia Cathedral, the Burlington Station, and the famed structures of the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition, among so many others in Omaha, was a major figure in America’s architectural community for several decades before and after the turn of the last century.

While Kimball is most known for commercial and civic structures, he also designed homes for well-to-do Omaha residents. Many of those have fallen victim to Omaha’s oft-blind march of progress. A few remain. One, clearly built with loving attention to detail, still towers over St. Mary’s Avenue between 22nd and 23rd streets and is widely considered Kimball’s residential masterpiece.

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In the successful 1996 application to place the home on the National Registry of Historic Places, the home Kimball built for his mother and sister is broadly categorized as Dutch Colonial. Among myriad other details, the exterior boasts five parapets on the masonry box structure that help create a dramatic verticality—a hallmark of Kimball’s work.

Inside, the 108-year-old house becomes more of a stylistic mash-up. Greek Revival details and clean, practical Arts and Crafts features (chosen mainly to foster ease-of-living for Kimball’s beloved mother and sister) are accented throughout with mahogany, quarter-sawn oak, and tiger maple woodwork.

Even though the house has long been in disrepair as a multi-unit apartment, the vast majority of original features remain. The bad news: The house is unoccupied and in need of a major renovation.

Thankfully, respected Omaha sculptor John Labja, who purchased the house six years ago, has been working to restore the home with great attention to Kimball’s original plan. A recent tour of the home suggests that Labja’s plan to move into the house in “one or two years” may be optimistic, but, whenever the completion date, the results should be stunning.

“This house is a masterpiece built by an amazing man out of love for his mother,” Labja says. “It deserves respect. Everything I’m doing here is intended to be very sensitive to the house and the vision.”

The house is a shamble of small projects in motion—restoration of exterior doors, returning long-carpeted floors to their original oak, stripping out everything in the kitchen or bathrooms that aren’t true to the period. Labja says he was thrilled to find many missing parts—tile, hinges, original fixtures—hidden away, forgotten, in basement recesses. In a year, or perhaps a few more, the Mary Kimball House should return to being one of Omaha’s most prized residential structures.

“As I do this work, I’m trying to let the house tell me what it wants,” Labja says. “The work has to be timeless, like the house itself. When this is finished, I hope we’ve shown it the respect and attention to detail a structure like this deserves.”