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Omaha Magazine

Architecture: Omaha Heritage Home in Good Hands

May 27, 2022 02:47PM ● By Leo Adam Biga
country style home from drone shot

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

The Gifford House reflects the discerning tastes of the patrician Omaha family that built it in 1923. 

The grand Tudor Revival at 3636 Burt St. was originally the home of society-civic leaders Dr. Harold Gifford and his wife, Mary Louise. He was an ophthalmologist, educator, amateur naturalist, hotel developer, and philanthropist. She reportedly designed the home, whose big open rooms, crown molding, coffered ceilings, leaded glass windows, and other finely crafted details lend it “a timeless look,” said Omaha real estate broker Tim Reeder, who specializes in buying and selling old and historic homes. He’s long admired its stately beauty and unfussy “fancy, high style.”

“It was a very substantial home in its day and it’s still a very substantial home now," Reeder said. “It’s a large, extremely well-built house on an almost full acre lot.”

The three-story, 4,500-plus square-foot brick, wood frame, and stucco residence features steeply pitched roof lines and the decorative half-timbering aesthetic of the Tudor style. Indoors, there's five bedrooms and four bathrooms, as well as a sun room on the ground level and a sitting room off the second-floor primary suite. 

It’s among several vintage properties in the Gifford Park neighborhood, whose green space bears the family name because Dr. Gifford donated the land to the City of Omaha. The couple supported many causes and organizations. 

Their son, Harold “Hal” Gifford Jr., became a prominent ophthalmologist and educator himself. His wife, Mary Elizabeth "Emmy" was an artist, set decorator, and co-founder of the Omaha Junior Theatre, which became the Emmy Gifford Children’s (now Rose) Theater. Hal and Emmy took over the house after marrying. 

The grounds featured extensive rose gardens and sculptures mirroring Emmy's aesthetic interests. A barn was converted into a garage. The Giffords enjoyed entertaining. So do current owners John and Carol Higgins, who purchased the home in 2009 knowing some of its heritage. By then, no Giffords had lived there for years. The residence went through several owners until the Higginses acquired it. As the couple learned more, their sense of stewardship over that gilded dwelling  has deepened.

“The way we see it is we don’t really own the home, we’re its caretakers,” Carol said. “It’s always going to be the Gifford home. We’re trying to not only maintain the beauty but the happiness that apparently Emmy brought to the home.”

“We’ve done extensive work on the entire property,” John said, “but we haven’t changed a thing about the historical character. It still looks like the house from 100 years ago.”

The Higginses redid the entire third floor, as well as the kitchen, which features new appliances and amenities. Outside, the couple added an in-ground pool and well-outfitted pool house.

“They’ve just done a beautiful job,” Reeder said.

Carol covets a wine cellar in the unfinished basement someday.

The landmark house attracts art, history, and culture buffs, the homeowners said, with some of them asking to look inside. Tour groups often stop in front to ogle it. 

The established neighborhood it is nestled in adds to the allure with charming, classic single-family homes, mature trees, and walkable streets. The couple appreciate how generations of families live on in Gifford Park. Many of the homes are restored. 

Reeder said “it’s a win for our history” when owners like the Higginses do right by an historic home. They just want to leave it better than they found it for the next owners.

“When we’re gone and done with the house, we hope whoever buys it does the same thing we’ve done–keeps it in its glory,” John said.  

This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Omaha Home. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.