- Johnny Carson hosting a show on WOW-TV in 1950 called The Squirrel’s Nest. The Omaha show was the television debut for the Nebraska native who went on to national stardom as a late-night TV host. Remember when Carson took a microphone onto the ledge of the county courthouse to interview the pigeons? He wanted to give their side of the controversy surrounding pigeon’s loitering on the ledges.
- You followed your nose to South Omaha. The neighborhood was malodorous because of nearby stockyards. Some neighbors referred to it as “the smell of money.” Nicknamed “The Magic City” in the 1890s, South Omaha is an historical and culturally diverse area with eclectic neighborhoods like Little Italy and Little Bohemia. Each year Cinco De Mayo adds fun and music to the streets.
- The Omar Baking Company near 43rd and Nicholas streets filled the neighborhood with sniff-worthy aroma by delivering bread door to door. You may remember the jingle: “I’m the Omar man, (tap, tap, tap). Knocking at your door (rappa tap tap). When you taste my bread (mmmm boy!), you’re gonna want more (rappa tap tap).” The building is now used for offices and events.
- Perhaps your brush with fame was graduating from Westside High School in 1959 with actor Nick Nolte, eventually named People Magazine’s 1992 Sexiest Man Alive. Or living nearby when Jane and Peter Fonda resided with their aunt on Izard Street. You may have gone to UNO with Peter or cruised Dodge Street with Jane.
- You might have tasted the world’s first TV dinner (98 cents each) in the 1950s, introduced by Omaha brothers Gilbert and W. Clarke Swanson. The package was designed to look like a TV set at a time when only 20 percent of American homes had a television. The TV dinner’s aluminum tray ended up in the Smithsonian Institute in 1986 as an American cultural milestone.The Swanson name lives on in Omaha on W. Clarke Swanson Public Library, Swanson Elementary School, Creighton’s W. Clarke Swanson Hall, and Durham Museum’s Swanson Gallery.
- The Orpheum, a movie theater built in 1927 as a burlesque theater, closed in 1971. Maybe you were there in January 17, 1975, for the renovated theater’s grand reopening. We know you weren’t there in 1971 for the last movie shown; the theater was empty.
- The Indian Hills movie theater built in 1961 near 84th and Dodge streets was called “the hat box” because of its shape. Perhaps you were among the people who tried to save the wide-screen Super-Cinerama theater building before it was torn down in 2001.
- The Cooper theater near 15th and Douglas streets, a former “bastion of bump” (burlesque) when its name was The Moon, was a place to see movies until it was demolished in 1975.
In post-World War II America, a contemporary design style borne of the modernist movement and emphasizing a balance of form and function came to the attention of visionary Omaha developers and architects. The resulting homes and buildings completed in that style made for some distinctive neighborhoods that endure as models of aesthetics and utility and that continue to fascinate owners and onlookers alike.
What became known as Mid-Century Modern is seeing a resurgence in interest today among preservationists and restorers, thanks in part to television shows like Mad Men and their celebration of vintage culture. That interest was never more evident than during a October Mid-Century Modern tour sponsored by Restore Omaha and Omaha 2020 that drew a record 850 participants.
Restore Omaha President Kristine Gerber says it was the organization’s first tour to focus on an architectural style, and the Indian Hills neighborhood offered “the best collection” of Mid-Century Modern. A 2010 Omaha Historic Building Survey of Mid-Century Modern neighborhoods by Leo A. Daly architects Christina Jansen and Jennifer Honebrink offered a blueprint or map for the tour.
For tour participants, it meant getting inside homes they may have long-admired from afar or been curious to see for themselves the various ways in which these structures bring the outdoors “in.”
Mid-Century Modern homeowners like Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill love their residences. “We both feel we have lived here forever and plan no move now or later,” says Manhart.
Gerber says there’s growing appreciation for the style’s ahead-of-its-time characteristics of flat roofs, open floor plans, floor-to-ceiling windows, ample natural light, and green design-construction elements.
There’s motivation, too, in obtaining National Register of Historic Places status for select Mid-Century Modern structures and neighborhoods that qualify.
Mid-Century Modern can be found in other metro neighborhoods besides Indian Hills, but some intentional decisions made it the prime site for it to flower here.
Food manufacturer brothers Gilbert and W. Clarke Swanson, along with architect Leo A. Daly, saw potential to develop a modern, upscale suburban neighborhood taking its name from the old Indian Hills Golf Course. Commercial structures, such as Christ the King Church and the Leo A. Daly company headquarters, became shining examples of this modernist-inspired architectural style.
But it was left up to a pair of edgy young architects, Don Polsky and Stanley J. How, Sr., to design dozens of residential homes in this new development featuring the attributes, values, and principles of Mid-Century Modern. How also designed one of Omaha’s most distinctive luxury apartment buildings, the sleek Swanson Towers, in Indian Hills. The building has since been converted to condominiums.
Together, the Swansons, Daly, How, and Polksy transformed the “built Omaha.”
“They were young tigers and weren’t necessarily rooted in doing the same old thing, and I think they saw an opportunity to do some things that were really unique and new,” says Stan How, president of Stanley J. How Architects, the company his late father founded. He says his father was “a cutting-edge guy.”
Polsky apprenticed with superstar modernist architect Richard Neutra in Los Angeles and borrowed concepts from his mentor and others for the work he did in Omaha. He says Mid-Century Modern’s appeal all these years later makes sense because its forward-thinking approaches and emphasis on clean lines, simplicity, and efficient use of space are what many homebuyers look for today.
“We were green before its time, we put in a lot of insulation, we shaded our windows, we oriented things towards light, and brought light into the home. We used insulating glass, we planted trees to give us shade, we broke the wind from the north, and we worked with the client’s budget on the configuration of the sight,” Polsky says. Passive solar features and energy-efficient systems were rarities then.
Stan How says his father began practicing architecture for Leo A. Daly right as the modernist movement caught on. “He started his career at a perfect time to absorb all these new things going on. When he went out on his own, he had some clients who had the guts, he’d always say, to explore some of these ideas and let him toy around with that.” Mike Ford became a key early client.
“Mike was a young guy who wanted to do something really new, so my dad floated out the contemporary style or what we now call Mid-Century Modern, and Mike loved it. But he also didn’t want to be the only one on the street with a house like that, so he bought four lots and said, ‘Let’s do four spec houses,’ and that’s what they did.”
One of those Stanley How-designed homes, built in 1963, was later purchased by Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill. Homebuyers like Ford were the exception, however, not the rule, as Mid-Century found relatively few takers.
“We’re a pretty conservative [town], Omaha. It’s not Los Angeles. I thought you’d just show a few things and they’d be beating a path to your door, but it didn’t turn out that way,” says Polsky. “There’s still a limited supply of buyers for this type of architecture but you do what you can, you carry the torch.”
Polsky marveled though at the huge turnout to see his homes and those of his old colleague, Stanley How, Sr. “It’s amazing how many people showed up,” he says.
Stan How says designs by his father and Polsky are the antithesis of the overblown, oversized McMansions many homeowners reject today. “I think people are coming back to simplicity.” Indeed, Mark Manhart says, “the clean lines and classic simplicity” of his home are major attraction points for he and his wife and the many inquirers who call on them.
The only regret How has is that his father wasn’t around to see all the love his homes are getting today. “He would have absolutely reveled in it. He would have loved it.”
The March 1-2 Restore Omaha Conference will once again offer a strong lineup of expert preservation and restoration presenters, says Gerber, who promises a dynamic host site that gives attendees an insider’s glimpse at some landmark. For more information, visit restoreomaha.org.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.