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Omaha Magazine

Where The Orchids Bloom

Feb 22, 2024 03:18PM ● By Natalie McGovern
diane hayes spaces home march april 2024

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Finding a space to make your own is an enchanting experience. Even more novel is when that space reflects the personality and history of one of Omaha’s grand Gold Coast mansions. Located in Omaha’s Field Club neighborhood, Diane Hayes’ solarium serves as a sanctuary away from daily routine and has evolved into one of her favorite places to spend time, relax, and enjoy nature. 

Back in its day, the sunroom served as an escape tucked away from the rest of the sprawling 107-year-old, 25-room mansion and offered a serene retreat from the demands of high-class society. Albert Condon, who moved to Nebraska in 1902 and reportedly became the first physician to specialize in general surgery in Omaha, built the Georgian Revival estate in 1916. His daughter, Corinne, became an Olympic swimmer and was dubbed a “human fish” and “the mermaid of Omaha,” prompting rumors that the building housed an indoor swimming pool in the basement. 

Over time, the massive 10,000-square-foot mansion was turned into apartment units. Hayes was lucky enough to rent the one with the solarium, which still offers the same tranquility as it did over a century ago.

“Every morning I come out here with my morning coffee and read the paper,” Hayes remarked. “It’s my zen.” 

Although she enjoys all seasons, Hayes especially cherishes the winter months. During blizzards, the solarium transforms into a tropical wonderland.

“It turns into an oasis in the wintertime,” she shared. “All 30 orchids will probably be in bloom.” 

That kind of horticultural success is due to Hayes’ considerable green thumb as well as the room itself. The solarium is an ideal growing space for delicate flora and foliage that would struggle in most interiors. The double-glazed beveled mirrored window panels stand at an estimated eight feet tall, allowing for the perfect amount of natural light. The flooring is the original terra cotta, which provides temperature control, retaining heat for an ideal growing atmosphere. 

Such period elements appeal to Hayes, who majored in history as a college student. Now retired, she took her penchant for crafting and turned it into a burgeoning career. She runs several businesses on Etsy, including Omaha Orrery, for which she meticulously constructs solar system models that resemble antiques. Hayes’ orreries have caught the attention of prop masters for TV shows and have been featured in "Star Trek, Discovery," "Picard," and "Snowpiercer."

The solarium is dotted with vibrant blooms cascading from an array of tropicals, and Hayes’ eclectic, artistic interests are reflected in perfectly curated décor and furnishings. In one corner sit two leather Henredon chairs, luxury finds she scooped up on Facebook Marketplace. In another, stands a fiddle-leaf fig, splaying majestic, luscious, green foliage. Hayes is particularly proud of a large hibiscus which she nursed back to health, and she also has some experimental carnivorous plants to which she devotedly tends. Her most prized plant, however, is the Prince of Orange, a form of philodendron. When its leaves come in, they turn a bright red that fades to green. 

Wendy, Hayes’ irascible black cat, is a welcome companion and gardening assistant. The American Shorthair has her own reserved space to sleep amid the surrounding blooms. Wendy doesn’t eat the plants or disturb them—as long as Hayes acknowledges her feline presence and  preeminence.

The artist has an especially impressive record of being able to sustain the life of her plants and winterize them successfully each year. Her perennial orchids are a prime example: she brings them inside every winter to protect them from the elements when the temperatures drop below 55 degrees. The amateur botanist is particularly careful not to overwater them.

“Unless you are a commercial grower, it’s not common to be able to command your orchids to go into bloom,” Hayes said. “I can manipulate them to a small degree with grow lights and monitor them a little bit closer, but for the most part, I just let them do their own thing.” 

Mark Maser, a good friend and neighbor, attests to her skill for winterizing. “Plants require both knowledge and patience. She has both in abundance,” he said. “Whether it’s her old apartment in Blackstone or at her new apartment in Field Club, she is the go-to person for plants. She will take plants that are on their way out and will revive them.” 

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Omaha Home magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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