George Haecker's Design for Living
Apr 25, 2019 06:20PM
By Leo Adam Biga
Don't look for ostentatious displays in the work of award-winning Omaha architect George Haecker. He's a form-follows-function man, whether designing residential, commercial, or civic projects. Above all, his organic approach tries “to avoid cliches,” he says.
“The architectural world is just inundated with cliches,” he says. “I think architecture is way too important as a physical presence in our world, city, and neighborhoods to be trendy. I think the manifestation of it needs to be mature and careful and, hopefully, timeless. It's public sculpture, whether you like it or not.”
Haecker strives for subdued, not showy, answers to whatever a project's needs are.
“The thing I bring is, ultimately, an originality to the solution but not an artificial imposition of a style or a big statement,” he says. “I don't look for the finished product to show off in any way. It might subtly, but you kind of have to look at it twice to say, 'Well, that's something different.’ I don't like to shout and yell and just grab your attention. I want it to be more comfortable and, of course, livable.”
Haecker communes with the unborn structure by “trying to understand what a building wants to be.”
“Every project has a context, a location, an owner, a program, and a need, and the architect's thought is to try to meld, digest, and mix that all together,” he says. “All kinds of factors influence the result, including budget.”
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate, whose brother Foster Woods Haecker and son Alex Haecker are also architects, broadened his own vision working for firms in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas Virgin Islands, and New York.
“I didn't leave Nebraska to leave Nebraska,” he says. “I like it here very much for many reasons. But, in your youth, you have an itch to look at different things, and that variety of geography and mentors was extremely valuable.”
A job offer from Dana Larson Roubal & Associates (DLR) lured him back to Nebraska in 1968. By the early 1970s, he became a founder of the Omaha office of BVH Architecture. During his nearly half-century run as a principal and part-owner, leading architectural periodicals published his work, he earned numerous awards from the American Institute of Architects, and he received The Harry F. Cunningham Gold Medal from AIA Nebraska in 2006 (the highest honor that AIA Nebraska bestows upon an individual).
He took a hand in such signature public projects as the Gene Leahy Mall and the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.
Historic renovation work is a big segment of BVH's portfolio, and he was part of teams that repurposed Omaha’s Union Station and Union Pacific’s Harriman building.
An activist in the preservation community for many years, he successfully campaigned to save the Omaha Building downtown. He also wrote the preface for the 1977 book Omaha City Architecture.
His enduring residential works include private homes in and out of Nebraska. Perhaps his personal favorite is the Woods Cottage in Madeline Island, Wisconsin.
“It's a traditional lake-shore cottage with low-pitched shingle roofs, big overhangs, a big screened-in porch,” Haecker says. “All the siding and windows are real wood with real mullions. There's no drywall in it. It's all natural materials inside and out, so it has a real warmth to it. It fits into its environment.”
Another out-of-state favorite is the Keene residence in Crested Butte, Colorado.
“That was a very special challenge,” he says. “That historic town has strict design guidelines for roof pitches, proportions, and windows. My objective was to design a house that fit into that historic environment with the articulation of the floor plan, the pitches of the roofs and the selection of materials. The Keene house is, really, pretty contemporary when you stand back and look at it, but you don't see it as an intrusion when you drive down the street or you're inside it.”
Back home in the Omaha metro, the Matthews residence in Elkhorn's Skyline Ranches presented the challenge of a new house in a new development.
“It's a bigger house—pretty grand really in scale and square footage with a big dining room, great room, and game room,” he says. “The topography there was very much a part of it. It's on a very steep site, so the house steps down the hill with the living levels. It's somewhat dramatic but not glaring in its forms and colors and materials.”
Then there's the Liakos residence in southwest Omaha. He didn't touch the street facade of this house inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School. But in the back living quarters, he designed a new family kitchen, a new dining room, and a new master bedroom.
“The way the old morphs into the new is what's kind of fun with that house,” he says. “It's got big clerestory windows with a lot of light shining in. I like a lot of light, so I use clerestory windows to reach up into the sky and bring light inside.”
He also designed a screened-in porch and deck for the property.
Whatever the project, it's the architect's intuitive, interpretive expression of the client's program.
“Sometimes all the pieces come together with the owner and the site and the budget, and it's just a joyful passage, and sometimes it doesn't work at all,” Haecker says. “They're hiring you, in the end, to bring your perspective and talent and aesthetic into a compatible solution that they're comfortable with. If you just blindly do what the client wants, you're just going to end up with, probably, a mediocre solution.”
It’s a delicate dance. “Without being overt about it, the architect needs to gently influence the client to do this or that,” he says.
After working most of his career in his own firm, he's now in independent practice.
Like a lot of architecture shops, he says, BVH “started out loosely organized with unspoken philosophies. Then, as we got bigger, more structure crept in and it morphed from a spiritual camaraderie to a business with a board, policy manuals, schedules, payrolls, insurance. That happens to every firm. I just didn't fit anymore with the structure of the thing. It was just time to step away from that.”
Today, he enjoys his well-earned autonomy working from a home studio in the 1929 Memorial Park Tudor he shares with wife, Judy. It's the only home the couple has ever owned. The studio, which he added on, is filled with overhead windows that stream in light. A large drafting table is its centerpiece.
“I still draw by hand,” Haecker says. “A few of us do, but it's a dying breed.”
He also writes and paints in his sanctuary of a studio space that's filled with books, maquettes, and artwork.
The three-story home has undergone several other tweaks by his design, including adding bay windows in the living room and a study and sunroom in the back.
Haecker is a collaborating architect with The Architectural Offices in Omaha. He works up conceptual designs for the practice. He also partners on projects with his son, Alex.
In a career spanning six decades, Haecker's pretty much done it all in terms of architectural types.
“It's happened that way, and happily so,” he says. “I do like the variety—everything from a bridge to a lake cottage—that I've done and been involved with.”
Visit georgehaecker.com for more information.This article was printed in the May 2019 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.