Tag Archives: Switzerland

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

Sitting Down, Slowing Down

October 15, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The vibe of Market House restaurant hits customers in the face upon walking in the door—almost literally. The dark interior doors of former tenant Vivace have become a lime hue that projects the type of restaurant diners are about to experience—fresh, green, and interesting.

Such is the same with the chefs at the helm. Executive Chef Matt Moser, formerly of Plank, and Chef de Cuisine Ben Maides, formerly of Avoli Osteria, take pride in crafting their own menu, and restaurant, from start to finish.

The pair, however, originally turned down the gig.

“Nick (Bartholomew) originally approached me to be the chef,” Maides says. “I had no intention of leaving Avoli.”

“And I had an opportunity elsewhere,” Moser adds. “But that didn’t pan out.”

The pair eventually ended up recognizing they wanted to run a restaurant.

“We hadn’t not known each other very long,” Moser says. “I met Ben through a mutual friend when they came into Plank.”

They discovered they share a similar approach to cooking, eating, and running a restaurant.

Moser graduated in 2002 from Millard North, and in 2005 from Le Cordon Blue in Portland, Oregon. He came back to Omaha to work at the French Cafe, then traveled to California, where he cooked in Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach. He bounced back to Omaha to V. Mertz, and spent five years with Flagship restaurant group, helping to open Blue Sushi Sake Grills in Denver and Fort Worth.

“For the first time in my career, it’s modern American cuisine,” he said of Market House. “We can do whatever we want.”

While Moser discovered the fresh, local approach to eating so prevalent in his casual-contemporary gig on the West Coast, Maides’ slow-down method of cooking and eating comes from international travel. He was born in Switzerland and moved to Omaha at age 9. He graduated in 2004 from Westside and in 2006 from Metropolitan Community College. Among his passport stamps is San Cascino in Northern Italy, where he worked at a five-star restaurant and learned the style of cooking owner and executive chef Dario Schicke sought for Avoli.

The third note in the triad is Sous Chef Chase Thomsen, who, unlike Maides, Moser knew well.

“I’ve known him since middle school,” Moser says. “He came to Plank and worked for me then moved on to Taxi’s. When I came here I knew he was looking. I know his work ethic, I know his talent, we’re lucky to have him here.”

Moser and Maides agree, and collaborate, on cooking methods and ingredients. They love to cook in their off-hours—Moser with his wife, Cathryn; Maides with his girlfriend. They own dogs. They also like to eat at restaurants in similar ways.

Moser says, “We discovered we both like to order three or four things and just pass them around the table.”

“Let’s stop, let’s sit down, and let’s eat,” Maides says. “We’re going from surviving
to enjoying.”

That idea of not just eating, but communal dining, inspired Market House. The seasonal menu contains eight passable small plates and five shared sides, along with soups, a salad, and six larger entree-sized plates.

“We like to go to the starter menu, the smaller plates,” Moser reiterates.

The chefs want their customers to experience their love of food in the same way.

“Ben and I get excited when we see Nancy (Crews) of Swallows Nest come through the door with new vegetables,” says Moser, who himself gardens avidly. “That excitement extends to the front of the house and out to the guests.”

The staff at Market House don’t just tell you that roasted grapes with chèvre is on the menu, they tell you where the grapes and the goat cheese came from. They tell you the story of why they love the farmer who makes the cheese. The process of ordering at Market House, like the process of eating, causes patrons to ease their pace.

Slowing down doesn’t mean the restaurant isn’t busy. Several people occupy tables at 2 p.m. on a Monday, lingering over plates of food, and, in a couple of cases, glasses of wine. That makes Moser and Maides happy.

“We’re cooking food we love, and we hope everyone else does, too,” Maides says.

“Yes, we work long hours, but my favorite part of the day is when we get to sit down and talk about what we did, and what we can do better,” Moser adds.

Sitting down, slowing down—a typical day at Market House.

MoserMaides

Old-School Craftsmanship

April 3, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally published in March/April 60+ in Omaha

These are things that happen in the working life of 78-year-old woodcraftsman Joe Privitera: Someone is missing chairs that match their 17th Century table, can Joe make new chairs? Done. There is this beautiful dining room table in Chicago but the darned thing is too big for this Omaha family’s dining room. Can Joe make a smaller, replica table? Well, just to be sure, the family sent Joe to Chicago for a look. Then he made a dead ringer of a knock-off.

Joe Privitera is old-school—oh heck, he’s old world—a master craftsman who began learning how to make wood bend, shape, and shine inside his father’s Sicily workshop starting when he was 13. He learned the craft under his father’s watch and later worked in Geneva, Switzerland, before coming to Omaha four decades ago.

Privitera’s shop, Italian Craftsman, at 4510 Leavenworth, hides in a nondescript building. The interior is just what you’d expect—the rich smell of wood and sawdust, all types and shapes of wood scattered asunder. Pinned to the walls are photos of friends and grandchildren alongside sketches of tables or chairs that Privitera has created. Of course there are some machines, but not that many; just a few of the necessities.

“I need very little of the machines,” he says while pulling one of many pencils from his apron with a thick hand—white and dusty from the morning’s work. “My father, he was top of the line, he had tools and machines too, but not too many.”

The apple didn’t fall far. Privitera’s skills are renowned. His clients include some of Omaha’s most prominent families. And his services aren’t cheap. The table he was sent to Chicago to replicate cost $18,000.

“I’ve seen furniture he’s made that would blow your mind,” says Dr. Mike O’Neil, an orthopedic surgeon and friend. “He is a dear guy and a real craftsman, this is a lost art.”

O’Neil sought out Privitera about 20 years ago after the doctor started making furniture as a hobby. O’Neil says he made three nestle tables out of cherry wood and needed help finishing them. He’s been a fixture at Privitera’s shop ever since. The two meet every Tuesday at neighboring La Casa (who’s owners are Privtera’s cousins) to share a pizza.

O’Neil says Privitera, who talks with a thick Italian accent and often sings opera while he works, is also extremely generous with his knowledge. “He has taught me everything I know, he’s been my mentor,” O’Neil says.

Privitera says people aren’t as particular about their furniture any more. It makes him sad there isn’t as much pride in passing down beautiful pieces through the generations. But he’ll still fix and build those pieces that are a little more special.

“Sometimes they have to just trust me, I’m the first one that has to be happy with the job. If I’m unhappy, you, the customer, will be unhappy,” he says. And later, when talking about wood’s fickleness: “Wood is not like metal, wood talks back,” he says.

He has no plans on slowing down. He has too many customers who need his expertise, like the friend who complained that his table kept tipping over on him because he put both elbows on the table’s edge when digging into his meal. “You know, us men, we really get in there,” he says.

So he helped his friend by redoing the base and making it much heavier. Problem solved. These are the things that come up in Joe Privitera’s working day.

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