Historic Brandeis MansionDec 24, 2014 08:00AM ● By Lindsey Anne Baker
Mark Maser starts with sound advice for any home decorator: “Buy what you like and find a way to make it work in your space.”
And when the holidays come around, he says, “everything stays.” It’s an approach that makes sense for a lot of homeowners, but especially so for a family that owns a turn-of-the-century Omaha mansion that’s also got a lot working in its space—a Jacobethan Revival exterior with brick walls, a red tile roof, and stucco and half-timber work; an interior main staircase with Colonial Revival-style columns flanking the main staircase inside; a sitting room ceiling with exposed beams recalling the Arts and Crafts period; a neo-classical music room; a Georgian Revival dining room. The design—the early-1900s work of architect Albert Kahn—blended several interior design revival styles to make it feel like an English manor house updated through the years, Maser said.
Department-store mogul Arthur Brandeis commissioned the house, situated at 500 S. 38th St., in 1904; Maser’s parents purchased the house in 2008 after it had served as commercial and private residential spaces for years and, by the end of the early aughts, had been through nearly a decade of restoration. Maser and his partner, who’d lived around the corner in another Gold Coast home, moved in.
“We were attracted to the house because of its traditional nature,” Maser says. “I’ve always liked old stuff. We thought if we could park our collections inside an older home, it’d be a perfect fit.”
The question, then? How to make the house feel comfortable, Maser says, how to make it feel like a place people could sit around without feeling constricted in a small antique chair—how to make it feel like the things inside had always been there.
Maser mixed modern upholstered items amid antiques. In a nod to Britain’s Victorian and Edwardian periods—when, Maser says, families were proud to display collectibles purchased in far-off lands by relatives with foreign business concerns—he placed chinoiserie and other items from across the globe throughout rooms.
“The rule I have is ‘be true to the space,’” Maser explains. “[The house] has a sense of collection.”
And that is the sense that, at the holidays, stays.
“We don’t want to lose the flavor of the stuff,” he says. “That way it looks like Christmas is more organic.”
Maser says he works with the help of a decorator (this year, Voila! Flowers’ Ann Etienne is helping with the mansion’s holiday transformation) to find what he and his partner like and make it work with the house.
“We buy Christmas things that are not 100 years old but are inspired by them,” he says. “We put something together that feels right for a period house.”
It’s a blend of Christopher Radko ornaments, clip-on glass birds, peacocks in blue and green and teal and white, some rooms that are more red than green. With the home’s limited floor space, a shorter 4- or 5-foot tree goes in a large Chinese fishbowl on a table in one room, atop a piano in another.
“It gives the sense of the tree being important and tall,” Maser said, “but without eating up floor space or having to move out furniture.”
And when guests are coming to call—at the mansion, it could be family members or nonprofit groups and organizations (Maser is president of the Opera Omaha Guild, which hosts events in the mansion) or, more recently, private parties by reservation—Maser says the primary concern is to make sure they have a good time.
He doesn’t set a particular theme to events and leaves a lot of creative decision-making to the people he says have the specialized skills for it—florists and photographers and caterers (he consistently works with Attitude on Food).
His does prepare one holiday dish, however, frequently requested by his guests: egg mousse.
He makes the mousse and arranges it in the shape of a tree on a platter. He tops it with parsley flakes and tomato ornaments and olive tapenade garland.
“Every time I have a party, people ask for egg mousse,” he boasts. “I’ve served it millions of times. People think it’s just dandy.”
It’s what people like. It works in the space.
It’s comfy. Merry.“When Christmas goes up and the music goes on and the lights are twinkling,” Maser says, “it’s a happy feeling.”