A Row of HopeOct 21, 2023 06:05PM ● By Lisa Lukecart
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
Compared to the unadorned structures surrounding it on Park Avenue, the Georgia Row house sits like proud royalty, showing off her flamboyant façade. The Queen Anne exterior charms with squat columns, parapets, and arches. Age weathers the exterior, but rich red brick breathes hints of bygone days of residences built to last. The bones, at almost 133 years old, creak from time to time, but solid masonry materials caught the eye of Christian Gray.
“It’s beautiful and interesting. It stops you in your tracks,” the co-executive director of inCOMMON Community Development said.
Gray, a resident of the same neighborhood, walks almost daily past the regal southeast hexagonal and northeast rounded towers containing stem-like motifs and metal cornices. inCOMMON decided to transform the alluring building into apartments for residents who could no longer afford high rent prices. Despite a gutted and deteriorated interior, the nonprofit entity saw an opportunity to restore a nationally-registered historic house, an effort that would also bring people together.
The revitalization maintains the outer shell of its past despite the updated contemporary interior. Row houses typically exhibit a similar exterior but could stand alone despite appearing attached The style, a hallmark of the 16th century, inspires a uniform front with mutual walls and rooflines.
In 1890 architecture firm Findley and Shields designed the three units for J. Herbert Van Closter, president of the Nebraska Mortgage and Loan Company. The first occupants worked for various insurance and investment companies; thus, the families may have shared a certain camaraderie.
Unlike other booming urban areas, Omaha rarely built row houses, so the unusual construction along the street stands relatively alone in the city. The Georgia Row, which took its name from Georgia Avenue before it changed to South 29th Street, converted to a boarding house that lodged 48 people at the time of the 1900 census.
“We spent a great deal of time and resources to preserve the exterior,” Gray said.
The sides and back body focus on functionality, while the front face dresses up the neighborhood with its frilly pavilions, graceful transoms, and stately moldings. Rough limestone worn down over the years needed an update. Fish-scale shaped tiles on the turret glow under reconstruction after workers placed them back on top a weatherproof membrane. New double-pane glass in the windows creates a soundproof barrier. The shells remain so that sunlight can stream into the tripartite, round-arched, and Palladian window arrangements.
A disintegrated wall necessitated installing modern material in the rear of the residence, although the brown stucco comes close to mirroring the previous appearance. Steel fire escapes replace rickety rails and wooden stairs, serving a dual purpose in both safety and connection: they lead the way to the Hanscom Spanish Colonial Revival dwellings, built in 1921, that inCOMMON acquired in 2015 for more space. The following year, it purchased Georgia Row.
Hanscom adds 64 studios or one-bedrooms compared to Georgia Row’s 11 two-and three-bedroom units, although the benefits of a larger square footage can’t be beat for families. The collective amenities across the alley in Hanscom provide a fitness area, bike storage, and community room. A few blocks away, inCOMMON waits for occupants to take advantage of adult education programs, leadership development, and block parties.
“We are excited for our tenants not just to enjoy well-constructed buildings but also engage in the broader vibrancy of the neighborhood,” Gray said.
The 850-square-foot and 1,100-square-foot apartments cost about $900 to $1,200 for families under 60% of the area median income. The primarily Latino population, who might otherwise be forced to move due to rising rent prices, can now live in the area and stay to raise another generation under the three-story roof and turrets.
Mainly, the noble Queen Anne represents hope.
“Our perception on real estate development is that if you put pride into the finished product, it carries over to the tenants,” Gray explained. “They will be appreciative of the building.”