A Bronze Bell Shines in Midtown
Aug 28, 2020 11:44AM
By Lisa Lukecart
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
A fictional Gatsby. A real-life Rockefeller. A philanthropist Vanderbilt. Just a few of the early 20th-century magnates that stir in one’s mind upon viewing the bronze-skinned Neoclassical beauty in midtown. The home provides a veritable flashback to grandiose times when Omaha exploded with potential.
The hidden historic gem at 106 S. 36th St.—steps from traffic whizzing by on Dodge Street—
appears today as a lost wallflower in a century of commercialized buildings at this architectural party. Yet the voluptuous structure, built by renowned architect John McDonald, still enriches the neighborhood near Blackstone and Gifford Park.
The artful structure masterfully mixes simplicity with ingenuity. At first glance, it appears a fancy house rather than five condominiums. That’s part of the genius of the symmetrical structure, of the architect. McDonald didn’t just build castles, churches, schools, and museums. McDonald found gold on the streets of Omaha, combining ways to utilize traditional styles in contemporary buildings. He paid attention to private and public roads to craft dramatic urban façades. The Canadian-born engineer most likely never imagined finding a Gold Coast in Nebraska. His talent led him toward the Pacific Coast like many “gold seekers” back in the late 1800s. But, by chance, McDonald stopped to visit relatives in Omaha and hopped into the booming business of building.
In one black-and-white photograph, McDonald appears strict with round glasses, severe cheekbones, and an austere expression that belies his innovative and ornate creations. After venturing out into his own practice, McDonald possessed the architectural Midas touch. The wealthy and prominent flocked to buy his talent, including his friend George Joslyn, who asked him to construct Lynhurst, or as most called it, “the Castle,” due to its immense Scottish Baronial size and style. John’s son, Alan McDonald, joined his practice after graduating from Harvard and went on to create the Joslyn Art Museum.
“You could call his buildings the early 20th-century version of McMansions. He was building really beautiful works of architecture,” said Mark Hinchman, a design historian and professor in the College of Architecture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
McDonald nabbed commissions all over the city, including some houses in a 30-block radius—from north 36th to 40th streets, and from Jones to Cuming Streets—in midtown dubbed the Gold Coast. Soon, apartment buildings and middle-class professionals built alongside the affluent, so McDonald transitioned his thinking. In 1904, a prominent physician, Dr. Paul Grossman, contracted McDonald’s firm to design a two-story brick apartment building on 36th Street for $12,000. The then-named Grossman Apartments, built by P.J. Creedon & Sons in 1904, stretches down the block from 102-108.
Although each residence has a separate entrance, the building is connected by its slightly jutted triplet cornices. Each is tipped with a stamped iron acroterion, a Greek Revival detailing. Centered directly below is an oculus, a circular opening like an eye, surrounded by molded limestone. All of these details convey the illusion that the row houses were a complete unit. The perfectly placed rounded-arch windows further enhance the symmetrical appeal with a lighter colored keystone at the top.
“It’s masonry trying to make it look like fancy architecture. The Joslyn Castle was built of stone, but most couldn’t afford to do that,” Hinchman explained.
The structure’s plain face has been adorned with additions since its designated landmark date in 1979. The crisscrossed pattern of railings on the second-story balconies adds an intricate touch. Unadorned rectangular-shaped windows greet guests as they pass through columned porches. Inside, the home’s oak woodwork and floors remain intact, as do the ceramic fireplaces.
“You want to preserve the integrity of the home. You have to find people that understand that and want to do the work. It’s even more challenging,” said Joe Evans, a Berkshire Hathaway HomeService real estate agent who, as of press time, has one of the condos under contract with a buyer.
Although some might miss it cruising down Dodge, this beautiful belle will live on as a reminder of a bygone era and of an architect who transformed Omaha.
For a virtual tour of the property, visit facebook.com/JoeEvansRealtor/videos/654529861793997/ or view the former listing at zillow.com/homedetails/106-S-36th-St-Omaha-NE-68131/118881779_zpid/?.
This article was printed in the September 2020 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.