A mansion meets an untimely end. And a community gawks.
It happened this month when the Kush mansion in Gretna was destroyed in a controlled burn. Back in 2009, a two-alarm fire was the beginning of the end for Regency's landmark Witherspoon mansion. In 2008, the fabled Willy Theisen-Terry Watanabe home in Regency was torn down.
The homes were as storied as their owners, with their sheer size, their opulence. And their amenities.
Kush's home, built in 1997, featured an indoor half-basketball court, a three-hole golf course, a Tara-esque double staircase and cathedral ceilings.
The Watanabe home, built by Godfather's Pizza founder Willy Theisen in 1983, had nine bedrooms and twice as many bathrooms, a three-story elevator, indoor and outdoor pools.
Then there was the stately Witherspoon mansion, with its white Georgia marble exterior, built in 1971 by Pamida founder D.J. Witherspoon.
While these mansions made news, others around town largely have remained under the radar, owing to their owners' fierce desire for privacy.
Quietly, Omaha's mansions have crept further west with the city's growth and are now scattered from the Gold Coast to the edges of the county, in developments such as Newport Landing, west of Bennington, or The Sanctuary, south of Elkhorn.
These large homes range from cookie-cutter McMansions built with similar characteristics on small lots to unique, highly customized homes built with high-quality materials on larger-than-average lots.
The definition of a mansion is usually in the eye of the beholder, though local officials have tried to set some parameters. Douglas County created a mansion tax class that applies to any home with 8,000 or more finished square feet (excluding garages and basements).
There are 30 such homes in the county, ranging in tax value from nearly half a million dollars to over $7.2 million. Almost half of the homes have 10,000 square feet or more. Twelve of them were built since the year 2000.
If tax value is a second measure, Douglas County counts more than 250 homes worth $1 million or more. Of the 30 mansions, two are valued under $1 million. The lowest-valued is the Storz mansion at 3708 Farnam St., at $479,600.
Sarpy County does not have nearly as many high-value homes and doesn't distinguish mansions in a separate tax class. Seven single-family homes in Sarpy are valued at $1 million or more for tax purposes, and the largest measures over 8,000 square feet.
Washington County to the north has four single-family homes worth $1 million or more.
But the word “mansion” — as antiquated as it sounds — means different things to different people, said Deb Cizek, an Omaha Realtor who deals in high-end homes.
She sets the bar for a mansion at 10,000 square feet and above. But she said smaller homes with amazing amenities and a certain architectural “wow factor” would also fall into the mansion category.
Few mansion dwellers, especially in newly built homes, are willing to speak about their building choices and experience. Realtors and builders cited privacy as a chief concern. One worker at an extraordinary mansion under construction in The Sanctuary, near 230th Street and West Center Road, said security reasons prevented him from revealing the owner or anything else about the home, which overlooks the Elkhorn River.
“These are all mansions up here,” he said about the luxury development, where the original landscape has been preserved and builders must work around existing trees and hills.
The recession hurt even this portion of the housing market, although builders and Realtors say things appear to be improving.
But what drives buyers at this very upper end, said luxury homebuilder Pat McNeil, isn't budget. It's emotion. A buyer is pulled to a location. And a certain look.
Take the Theisen/Watanabe home, said McNeil. He walked into it right before it was torn down and found the home “in great shape.”
“It had very strong elements and was well-maintained,” he said. “But it just didn't meet the need of the new client who wanted to live there.”
McNeil said home choices are so personal, it's like trying to explain the subjectivity of art.
“Why do some people like one type of art,” he said, “and other people like a different kind of art?”
And for a certain class, buyers often want to put their customized stamp on their home. They like building from scratch for various reasons: expressing their individuality, having that “new house” smell, location and style.
That's what commercial roofing company founder Scott Seaton thought he wanted when he sought to build in the high-demand luxury neighborhood of Linden Estates, home to six of the county's official mansions.
Seaton, president and CEO of Scott Enterprises, figured he'd buy a home in the pricey development nestled north of West Dodge Road along 144th Street, between Burt and Charles, then tear it down, just to get a spot in the neighborhood of his choice.
Then a Linden Estates mansion came to his attention, and Seaton jumped at it. He paid $3 million in June for the former home of Omaha businessman Ken Stinson and his wife, Ann.
The 1996 home was originally priced at $3.9 million. It sits on about 2.8 acres and has six fireplaces, six bedrooms, five garage spaces, a pool, and exercise and media rooms.
What made Seaton reverse course and choose an already-lived-in home?
“It had good bones,” he said.
It was built well. The finishes were high-end, like the extensive cherry hardwood, granite and marble used throughout. Like $300-a-square-foot textured dining room wallpaper. Like the $11,000 stove or the built-in toaster and warming trays in a kitchen island. Like the Nancy Drew hidden passageway that connects his office to his cavernous closet.
Seaton couldn't imagine being able to put such features into a newly built home.
“They did it right,” he said of the Stinsons. “We fell in love with it.”
Seaton said that, so often, custom houses are too customized. That isn't attractive to many new owners who, for the price, might as well just build their own dream home.
“I didn't want to spend market price and turn around and gut (a house),” he said. “Unless it's done in a timeless way and with good taste, it's only good for the people who originally built it, it seems.”
The Stinsons' taste, it turned out, appealed to Seaton and his wife. The home's layout and design were not overly customized. He liked everything from the brick exterior, copper flashings and gutters to the extensive interior woodwork. Most of all, he liked the nearly three-acre lot.
“It's what we would have built, anyway,” he said.
The older a home grows, especially a high-maintenance mansion, the more it requires watch, care and updating.
Take the landmark brick mansion built over a century ago on the northwest corner of 38th and California Streets. This Gold Coast beauty had been painstakingly cared for over the years — documented in a file its recent buyers obtained from the Douglas County Historical Society and from the most recent owner, who provided a list of big updates:
New copper plumbing in 1995, complete kitchen and family room remodel with high-end appliances amd bathroom remodel in 1996, high-efficiency mechanical systems in 2005 and 2010, a new roof and granite countertops in 2010, wood floors resanded and double-paned storm windows replaced in 2011.
This settled a debate between a pair of doctors who had spent a year waiting for the perfect old-new house to pop up.
Dr. Mac McLaughlin wanted old and classic. His wife, Dr. Heather Gomes, wanted modern convenience.
Both wanted enough space to host their extended families from Sutton and Grand Island, Neb.
“He wanted the character,” said Gomes (whose name rhymes with “homes”). “I was unwilling to buy a money pit.”
McLaughlin fell in love with the rich oak and mahogany woodwork, Italian Renaissance architectural style, marble fireplace, grand foyer and staircase, the showplace dining room and conservatory.
Gomes loved that the prior owners had invested in updates. She had said no to a different Gold Coast home two blocks away with no central air conditioning.
Now, at 4,425 square feet, the home doesn't make Douglas County's mansion tax class list. But it has the wow factor, and it is a mansion in the historic sense. And the sale price of $625,000 is on the very high end for homes in that area.
“It's a once-in-a-lifetime sort of purchase,” Gomes said. “It's beautiful. It doesn't need a lot of immediate work. It is move-in ready.”
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