This cozy residence in Omaha’s historic Dundee neighborhood might seem an unlikely place to find one of the world’s leading experts on Afghan geopolitics.
Yet it is here that Tom Gouttierre (and wife Marylu) have made their home for almost 44 years.
A sign of the homeowners’ international lifestyle hangs overhead in their entryway. The sign once hung outside their former home in Kabul, Afghanistan. It reads Sulhistan: Khaaneh Gouttierre in Persian script, which translates to “A Place of Peace: The House of Gouttierre.” (Tragically, their friend who scrawled the calligraphy was killed during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.)
The Gouttierres’ residence is a showcase of their world travels, influenced heavily by their years in Afghanistan. Intricate, hand-woven rugs of all sizes cover the floors; there are more than two dozen on the first floor (with more than 50 throughout the house).
“Here is one carpet we always like to show off,” Gouttierre says, pointing to one red beauty on the floor of the solarium adjacent to their main living room. “This is probably a couple hundred years old. The thinner, the more valuable because they are so tightly woven—they will never wear out.”
Each rug holds a special memory. Smaller rugs were purchased when the newlyweds were poor Peace Corps teachers (1965-1967) and Gouttierre was a Fulbright scholar in Afghanistan (1969-1970). The larger and more expensive rugs came during Gouttierre’s tenure managing the Fulbright Program in Afghanistan (1971-1974).
All of the rugs are hand-woven treasures—some are now worth more than $10,0000—purchased for a fraction of their current value at neighborhood bazaars in the years preceding the Soviet occupation.
There are paintings of Kabul streetscapes on the wall that were gifts from Gouttierre’s Afghan students. Traditional wooden privacy screens hang on the white walls and provide additional decorative accents from the country.
Other mementos displayed throughout the house reference the scholar’s role in advising global political leaders: A bowl with the U.S. presidential seal hints at the time when Gouttierre advised the Reagan administration on American policy during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (and translated for visiting diplomats).
There is also a small collection of deep-blue lapis lazuli that came as gifts from the former king of Afghanistan and Hamid Karzai (the president of Afghanistan following the U.S. overthrow of Taliban rule until 2014). Karzai—Gouttierre’s friend from his years in Afghanistan—even stayed at their Omaha home when he made a special trip to Nebraska while visiting the U.S. on a diplomatic visit in 2005.
Then there is Marylu’s mortar and pestle collection displayed in the dining room and kitchen. Mortar and pestle utensils are common in cultures worldwide, and she sought them out during their frequent globetrotting excursions.
“When we went to Vietnam, I couldn’t speak Vietnamese, but I went [with her hand, she mimics the grinding of a mortar and pestle], and they go, “Aha!” and take me to find them,” she says, noting that her collection includes examples from remote Afghan villages, Iraq, Thailand, India, China, and beyond.
The couple came to Omaha in July 1974 straight from Afghanistan when Gouttierre was hired to initiate the Office of International Studies and assume leadership of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He held the dual dean-director roles until his retirement in 2015.
“We looked at around 30 houses in three days,” Marylu says of their initial rush to find a home upon first arriving in Omaha. Gouttierre remembers being advised to find a house west of 72nd Street. But he dreaded driving into the sunrise every morning and returning home with the sunset blazing in his eyes.
Built in 1923, the clinker-brick home (a now-uncommon style of brick home that uses overcooked, misshapen, or refuse bricks from kilns) was perfect for their needs. Walking distance from UNO campus, the residence is situated on a winding street uphill from Elmwood Park. Gouttierre thought it would be an easy walk to work, he loved the solarium with tile fountain and koi pond, and knew the original plaster-and-lath archways inside would fit with their Afghan décor.
But it was a fixer-upper decades in the making. Gouttierre’s first project was removing the green-colored heavy drapes and shag carpet. A horrific paint job also had to go. Pea-green paint covered the walls and caked the functional wood-burning fireplace.
“Pea green was the fourth color at least,” Gouttierre says. “As I recall, the layers went: canary yellow, Alice blue, shocking pink or rose, and then the pea green.”
His next project was removing the wall of the master bedroom closet so that they could have expanded storage in the second-floor hallway. Other projects included renovating the kitchen and finishing the basement (complete with a Detroit Tigers baseball-themed bathroom, sitting area, storage room, and laundry room).
Since retiring from UNO, Gouttierre has devoted his boundless energy to continued home improvements. A new project is always hovering on the horizon. “This is what I enjoy doing in my retirement,” he says.
Windows have been Gouttierre’s obsession for the past few years. Lambrecht Glass replaced 92 panes of leaded glass in a group of three street-facing windows while Joe Harwood Woodwork restored the original woodwork. Mark Lambrecht of Lambrecht Glass also crafted a custom leaded-glass window with green on bottom (for grass), blue on top (for sky), red on the right (for sunset), and yellow on the left (for sunrise).
Meanwhile, Marvin Windows faithfully replicated the home’s 46 multi-pane windows with new, all-wood interior mullions separating new panes of double-glazed glass. The lower portions of the window frames are stationary, while the upper portions open with the crank of a lever (instead of the traditional double-hung windows that lift up or down). To finish off the window upgrade, an aluminum cladding perfectly matched the dark brickwork and protects the new windows. The window upgrade alone cost more than they originally paid for the home.
In early spring, they put the finishing touches on a new deck above the solarium (accessible from their bedroom). Steps to the deck feature hidden drawers to replace lost storage. The deck opens to a spectacular view of sunsets, UNO’s clocktower, Elmwood Park, and Memorial Park’s Fourth of July fireworks.
New projects on his to-do list: adding a fleur-de-lis to a crest on the fireplace, reworking the solarium fountain’s filtration system to keep fish indoors, and renovating the third floor with an updated bathroom and dormer that opens the home’s top level with more west-facing windows.
In the years since their three sons left home, there have been other changes. Despite Gouttierre’s strong personal connection to the sport of basketball—he had coached the Afghan national team during his stints overseas—the family basketball hoop disappeared from the driveway.
A few years before his retirement, the family’s grown children learned that their parents had put a downpayment on a townhouse near Westroads. “We just about had a revolution on our hands,” Marylu recalls with a laugh. “You can’t sell the house!” one of the boys protested over the phone, threatening to come back to Omaha to buy it. “Mom and Dad, have you really considered the pros and cons?” another son diplomatically questioned.
In the end, neither parent could part with their sentimental attachment to the home. It’s the sort of attachment shared by at least one of its previous residents.
“The original person who built this was named Bill [the architect] and Queenie Drake. They built it and went bankrupt. Never having lived in it, they sold to a family by the name of Summers. We met the Summers’ daughter and her sons on her 80th birthday in 1998. All she wanted to do was to come back and see her house where she lived from 1924 to ’44.”
After three subsequent homeowners with varying durations of occupancy, the property came to the Gouttierres.
“When we first got here, If you had asked me if we would have stayed in Omaha so long, the answer would have been, ‘No.’ But I loved my job and Omaha has just gotten better, ” he says.
Gouttierre could have easily missed his life’s international calling had he followed in his family bakery business in Maumee, Ohio. He had even gained master baker credentials by age 18—before the travel bug bit and he joined the Peace Corps.
In his Omaha home, family heirlooms tucked throughout the foreign mementos make it seem like generations of the Gouttierre family have lived in this place. There’s the chair from his Belgian-immigrant grandfather (also a baker). There are the fireplace tools and the mantle mirror that belonged to his parents, and more surprises in every nook and cranny.
“We’ve had no designers in here,” Gouttierre says. “Everything in here is a reflection of something we did, something that was given to us, or someplace we’ve been.”
This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of OmahaHome.