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Omaha Magazine

Lady in Waiting: Historic Cornish Mansion Reborn from the Ashes

Apr 26, 2023 04:32PM ● By Kim Carpenter
cornish mansion

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

It’s known as the Cornish Mansion. Sometimes, the “Lady Cornish.” Maybe even affectionately as the “Addams’ Family House.” But the full name for the French Second Empire residence situated at 1404 South 10th Street on the edge of Little Italy is officially the “Joel N. Cornish House,” and it’s one of Omaha’s grandest, most historic, and readily recognizable homes. It’s also one that has experienced significant change, weathered an almost cataclysmic fire, and is once again welcoming new residents inside its historic walls.

Built in 1866 for the Cornish family, whence the three-and-a-half story structure takes its name, the brick residence is distinctive for its strikingly sloped slate Mansard roof, crowning cupola, and arched windows. Born in 1828, patriarch Joel Northrup Cornish was a lawyer, who became a colonel in the Iowa Cavalry and saw action during the Civil War. He arrived in Omaha in 1866 and served as the city’s first park commissioner. His family included his wife, Virginia, and four children: Ada, Anna, Albert, and Edward.

Such a large family, coupled with the Cornish’s prominent social standing, necessitated a “proper” residence. The Cornish mansion, with its distinctive French architecture, met that need with its impressive 13,838-square-foot sprawling layout that included 15 rooms, wooden parquet floors, 13-foot ceilings, and four fireplaces. Each family member enjoyed private sitting rooms adjacent to their sleeping quarters, a true marker of upper-class status. According to legend, the ballroom on the third floor hosted parties that included guests such as Omaha-born actor Henry Fonda.

While the majestic home owed a debt to the French, it also had clear American influences in terms of residential architecture; most notably, its veranda. Cornish was born in Oneida, New York, and it’s no coincidence his upbringing there influenced his architectural taste.

“We’re not the East Coast, where you see more architecture like this,” said Tim Reeder, a realtor specializing in old homes who is co-owner/co-broker of Better Homes & Gardens and The Good Life Group. He also serves as president of Restoration Exchange Omaha, an organization dedicated to preserving cultural and historic architecture. “Omaha only has three homes like this, and the Cornish Mansion is the most grand. It’s just so stately.”

Throughout the 20th century, the Cornish Mansion saw its share of changes. Colonel Cornish died in 1908, and the house was made into apartments in 1911. During subsequent decades, additions were tacked on; so, too, were architectural flourishes removed. The mansion stayed within the Cornish family until 1956 when it was sold. It changed hands again two years later, when Grace University purchased it for campus housing. While Reeder said he prefers to see such residences remain intact, the change most likely saved the structure. 

“It very likely would have been destroyed,” he explained. “As an income property, the money maintains it.”

Today, the Cornish Mansion is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and in 2017, was designated an Omaha Local Landmark. In February 2021, though, an accidental fire occurred when a maintenance worker attempted to defrost frozen pipes. A propane heater ignited nearby items and, despite the worker’s efforts to put out the fire using an extinguisher, he was unable to contain it. The nine-unit building sustained an estimated $579,000 worth of damage, which included significant destruction to the third and fourth floors. No tenants were injured in the blaze.

The current property owner, Gina Basile of B & B properties, didn’t hesitate to undertake a painstaking restoration of the property, which Reeder helped chronicle online. 

“I give big accolades to Gina,” he said. “She has been aconsummate owner and steward of that home. She’s passionate about it.”

As of March 2023, the Cornish Mansion is once again accepting tenant applications. 

“It’s special,” said Reeder. “It’s one of Omaha’s oldest and most historic homes. I’m so happy it’s going to be around a little longer.”  

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This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Omaha Home magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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