Embellishing the Truth
Aug 26, 2016 06:00PM
By Gary Rosenberg
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.
While 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.
Restoration 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.
“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.
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.
- 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
Visit restorationexchange.org for more information. OmahaHome