•Photo Showcase: Witherspoon mansion fire
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Curiosity was piqued in and outside the prestigious Regency neighborhood when bulldozers knocked down two of Nebraska's most iconic mansions. The initial shroud of secrecy over the new property owners stirred interest more.
And now that the two contemporary, flat-roofed replacements are up, many in this otherwise traditionally designed residential area again are atwitter.
"I must say, it has been controversial," said Gene Pace, president of the Regency Homes Association. "They're different — a sign of the times."
To be sure, the sheer square footage, famous occupants and storied pasts made the original properties the subject of citywide intrigue for decades. They're in a league of their own in Omaha.
Then, overlapping construction projects in an area where there hadn't been a built-from-scratch house in perhaps 10 years has made for even more attention.
But much of the fresh conflict over the new mansions of Omaha businessmen Todd Simon and Jeff Gordman comes down to taste. Some find their industrial look awesome and architecturally trendy. Others call them underwhelming and inconsistent with the predominantly brick, Tudor and wood shake-shingled homes in Regency, a neighborhood south of Westroads Mall where the median sales price for the past five years has been $500,000.
In the case of the one-story, sprawling Simon residence, a few neighbors think it resembles an elementary school.
A point of dismay to some is that the two high-profile mansions, one of which was fire-damaged, were razed to make way for the new structures.
Divergent opinions aside, most agree on this: Under the new metal, glass and concrete exteriors, the giant single-family homes represent hefty investments in an aging neighborhood built in phases starting in the late 1960s.
Pace, one of the earliest of the area's homeowners, said that landlocked, upscale neighborhoods such as Regency might have to prepare for more nontraditional homes, whether renovations or teardown-rebuilds, if they want to remain vibrant and active. "We have to be able to deal with that," he said, adding that young families with children such as the Simons and Gordmans are helping to keep Regency current.
Neither Todd Simon, senior vice president of Omaha Steaks, nor Jeff Gordman, of the Gordmans chain of apparel and home decor stores, would comment for the story. Representatives handled each purchase, so their names didn't emerge in early public records. Architects — Jeff Dolezal of TACKarchitects for Simon and Avant Architects for Gordman — said confidentiality agreements prohibited them from speaking publicly.
But Regency neighbors know the identities of the families.
And city records show that the 9,595-square-foot house built for the Gordmans on the former Witherspoon property at 9909 Fieldcrest Drive was officially finished in August. The family has moved into the two-story, five-bedroom home equipped with a kid's playroom and stucco swimming pool area.
Corrugated metal and precast concrete panels give the house — visible on its perch to motorists along Pacific Street — an urban industrial look, said Omaha's chief building inspector, Jay Davis.
"This one's not going to burn," quipped Davis, referring to its predecessor, heavily damaged by fire in January 2009.
Then owned by Tom and Norma Hilt, the burned property was donated to an Omaha church and nonprofit agency called Flatland Group. Later, Flatland sold it for $1.025 million to a trustee acting on behalf of Gordman.
But the property's roots go back to 1969, when D.J. Witherspoon, founder of the Pamida stores, had the original opulent, 13,000-square-foot mansion built for his first wife, Hillois, who was dying of cancer. Contractors worked around the clock, escalating construction costs, so that the family could move in on Christmas Day 1970. Hillois died the following May at age 56.
The Simon residence at 9800 Harney Parkway South is on the site of the mansion built originally for Willy Theisen and later bought by Terry Watanabe. It remains under construction, with plans calling for five bedrooms and a six-car garage.
Building materials include vertical prefinished cedar siding and glass. Zinc panels similar to those covering the Holland Performing Arts Center help create an updated mid-century modern style.
Among the unusual elements are a master spa about twice the size of the adjoining master bedroom and an art gallery on the lower level. The main floor contains nearly 12,000 square feet; much of the nearly 6,000-square-foot basement is devoted to mechanical systems.
"That's one big house," said Davis, a veteran reviewer of construction plans. "Not the most unusual I've seen, but big."
Pace, who lives across the street from the Simon property, said he watched as Theisen built the original mansion on that land in 1983. Pace's four kids were awed by the helicopter that used to transport the Godfather's Pizza founder. The whole neighborhood was fascinated by famous guests who came and went, including singer Willie Nelson. And Santa Claus was among the VIPs that Theisen brought in for the neighbor kids to visit.
Watanabe, former owner of Oriental Trading Co., later purchased the mansion and carried on legendary Halloween treat giveaways that drew carloads of little goblins into Regency.
The Simon and Gordman properties were split into two parcels each, but records indicate that neither of the secondary properties has been sold.
Both also have flat roofs, making them stand out among a sea of peaks with wooden shingles. Jeff Schrier of Schrier Automotive is among Regency homeowners who appreciate the show of individuality.
"I think they're cool, classy-looking homes," said Schrier, who was forced two years ago to replace a roof the homeowners association said violated covenants. "If somebody works hard and has the wherewithal to build that kind of home, more power to them."
Ron Quinn, a business executive who lives in Regency, offered another perspective. "Perhaps they're beautiful in their own right, but they don't particularly fit in well with the neighborhood as a whole."
Quinn said some were disappointed that the intact Theisen-Watanabe mansion was torn down in the first place. The site had been sold to a Simon representative for $2.66 million. And it's been two years that neighbors of the home have endured bulldozer beeps and construction clatter.
The length of construction time on the Simon house has "created an issue," said Nick Harlow, a member of the Regency Homes Association's three-person architectural control committee. He said that concern has been addressed, although he declined to elaborate.
Construction materials and the roofs are in line with the covenants and were approved by the committee, Harlow said. Style is not governed specifically by covenants, said Harlow and other board members.
Simon is a member of the homeowners board. Harlow said that had no influence on the approval process.
"They both have state-of-the-art building products in those homes," Harlow said, along with energy-saving geothermal heating and cooling systems. "They put a lot of money into these things."
Marty Shukert of RDG Planning & Design, a former city planning director, said he leans toward preservation when it makes sense. But he called the design of the new mansions interesting, clean, modern.
"They're going to be conversation pieces, without a doubt," Shukert said. "They're different than the architecture that surrounds them. But they are honest buildings in terms of reflecting the era in which they're built."
To those irked over the demise of the famed mansions that stood before them, Shukert said: "That's life. These become their own iconic mansions."
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