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Omaha Magazine

A Painted Lady in Omaha: Old Queen Anne in Bemis Still a Looker

May 27, 2020 10:49AM ● By Lisa Lukecart

Two tall trees stand sentry, guarding the entryway. The long limbs of the tree creak and accentuate an ornate house, dead center, further up the beaten concrete steps. The vacant windows peer down at the barren yard. The Queen Anne residence, located at 3524 Hawthorne Ave., intimidates despite being dressed in bold colors. The timeless beauty of the Edgar Zabriskie Home, though, isn’t lost on those who cruise down the curvy streets of the Bemis Park Landmark Heritage District. It’s a black and white photograph fixed up as a glossy, colorful modern-day print. The ornate skin and bones of the structure showcase its historical significance. Zabriskie, a Civil War veteran, built it in 1889 during the building boom. A dusty-looking photo, taken by a photographer from a ladder with a large-format camera, freezes the original model of the Victorian era. Horses are pulling a sod-like contraption and the trees are just saplings. The 14-room home, designed by the architectural firm of Fowler and Beindorff, sat regally alone for almost a decade, anticipating the development of the Bemis Park suburbs in the new century.

“I loved that it was the first house here, on top of the hill, just waiting for the city to build around it,” real estate agent Tim Reeder said. Reeder specializes in marketing old and historic homes at Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate. 

The Queen Anne model, popular with wealthy American industrialists, typically borrowed from a wide range of stylistic traditions. This becomes evident looking at Zabriskie’s three-story dwelling with a multi-gabled roof, which added pointed peaks similar to those in neo-Gothic architecture. 
The asymmetrical wooden construction promoted the ideas of English architect Richard Norman Shaw, who inspired the movement. A bell-shaped roof (later ripped off in the Easter tornado of 1913) rounded out a turret on the southwest corner. The Eastlake porch caught the eye with exterior spindle and lattice embellishments. A band of shingles divided the first and second story. Zabriskie utilized technological advancements in the interior, adding a coal furnace with a hand-cranked conveyor belt and a clock spring thermostat. Gas light fixtures blazed on stormy nights, since it was built without electricity. 

It remained a Zabriskie legacy for 79 years until his son died of a stroke sitting on the front porch. With no relatives left to inherit, the historic belongings inside sold to the highest bidder in an auction. Even the carriage house, where Zabriskie Jr. and his wife lived for a short time, was moved and sold off. The Victorian residence, for the first time, became available to the public. 

Jim Bechtel gazed at what he remembers was a hideous pale-yellow exterior, painted that color for the sale in 1972. The original color remains a mystery. 

“I’m sure most people took one look and left, but we [he and his then-wife] were young and in love,” Bechtel recalled. 

Bechtel purchased a slice of history for $20,000, and in a sense, inherited a money pit. The disrepair and neglect meant making improvements. Soot covered shredded wallpaper. Original wooden fish-scale roof shingles and front porch spindles were rotted. Brick replaced wooden posts, along with the railing on the front steps. Bechtel gave the house a facelift, painting it in classical pastels of pink, lilac, and orchid. The trim became adorned in turquoise and crème. He worked closely with the historic preservation society to ensure any changes met the standards. 

Most of the exterior and interior are original. The woodwork of the mantelpieces, the staircase, and wainscoting on the first floor remain intact. Grille-work, gingerbread, and fretwork add detailed touches. Oak pocket doors hide out of sight. Even the servant call system functions. Ceramic tiles of the fireplace, depicting Renaissance musicians, were likely imported from Italy. The mirror, from France, possibly contains real silver. A single-paned window of the turret on the first floor of the tower has curved glass so smoothly polished it feels like being outside. The second floor is massive with five bedrooms and two bathrooms. The third floor probably housed servants back in the day, with three rooms and an attic. 

Bechtel lived there with his family until he sold it in 2017. When Vanessa Jewell saw a small for sale sign in the window, she had to see it.

“I just love old homes. It’s not cookie-cutter,” Jewell explained. 

The Jewell family purchased it after seeing only the first floor, which blew them away. Fresh cedar siding meant she could paint it in all her family’s favorite colors of blue, red, black, and white. Along with a new roof and gutters, the porch woodwork has been replaced. The house is back up for sale for $385,000.

And it has been reported to be haunted. Reeder told a tale about how a Zabriskie sister-in-law died in the upstairs room. Her dress caught on fire, engulfing her in flames. And thus, the rumor of her tortured spirit walking the halls was born. 

Electricity had been added years before, but the gas/electric chandeliers still work in most areas of the home. Bechtel’s Halloween parties became notorious because of the glow cast by those gas flames. Party-goers enjoyed “a particular weed” in the 1970s. Guests seated in the dining room claimed to see a ghost. Bechtel believes it could have been the drugs at work, or possibly the street lights or branches which cast moving shadows on the glass pane doors. But others think it is the ghost of old Zabriskie himself…still sitting on the porch. 

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