Preservationists organizing to save a 106-year-old landmark house in Florence face an unlikely opponent: a historical foundation dedicated to preserving Florence.
The future of the Keirle House is in question after the Florence Historical Foundation asked the City of Omaha to rescind a landmark designation on the structure at 3017 Mormon St. The group contends that the property and its landmark status have become a financial hardship.
If ultimately approved, dropping the landmark designation would allow a potential new owner to tear down the home.
On Wednesday, the rare request will come before the city's Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission, then face votes in the coming weeks from the Omaha Planning Board and City Council.
In the commission's 31-year history, it has faced such a decision only once before — on a warehouse in Jobbers Canyon whose demolition allowed construction of ConAgra's downtown campus.
Paul Nelson, president of Landmarks Inc., said the decision will have significance for Omaha's 97 other officially designated landmarks.
The historic features of those properties — and their very existence — are protected by the landmark status. If the designation can be so easily rescinded, Nelson said, he questioned what kind of protection the status really offers.
"The house is too nice, and there's too much historic material there to consider tearing it down," he said. "It would just be a complete waste to throw that in the dumpster."
The Florence Historical Foundation took ownership of the home following the 1994 death of Maude Keirle, the last family member of the home's original owners. Keirle was murdered in the home, and she willed the property to the group.
The foundation restored the house, and it earned landmark status in 1997.
The house faces the city park that served as the town square that Mormons migrating west laid out in 1846 for their winter quarters.
According to the commission, the house reflects an eclectic, turn-of-the-century design mix of Queen Anne and classical revival styles.
The house maintains its original interior woodwork.
For 16 years, Uta Halee Girls Village rented the building for offices, which provided income to the historical foundation. But Uta Halee moved out last February, and the historical foundation doesn't have the means to keep up or renovate the property, said Dick Brown, the group's vice president.
Brown said the foundation already faces a financial challenge maintaining six other Florence properties. The organization's leaders thought long and hard before making the tough decision to try to drop the landmark status and attempt to sell the property, he said.
"It's sad, but we have to weigh the financial impact," Brown said.
Rosemary Allen, another foundation officer, said the property is deteriorating, and the landmark status restricts people's options for fixing it up. One potential buyer, she said, pulled out because he didn't want to work within the restrictions.
"We're stuck with this house," she said.
The property's neighbor, St. Philip Neri Catholic Church, has expressed interest in buying the property. Keirle House supporters worry that it would be torn down for parking.
The Rev. Craig Loecker, St. Philip Neri's pastor, said the church would be interested in buying the property, but members haven't talked about specific plans for its use. The church's current parking situation, he said, is OK.
If the church bought the property, it might try to move the house, Loecker said. The church isn't involved in the foundation's request to drop the landmark status.
"It's their decision," he said.
Not everyone involved with the foundation supports its request.
Bruce Hamilton, a board member who has been a caretaker of the property, said the historical foundation is going against its very preservation function. He said the foundation should make further efforts to sell or rent the property.
"I guess they just don't know what they have sometimes," he said.
To gain the support from the Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission, the foundation needs five votes from the nine-member board. Even then, the group's vote is only a recommendation passed on to the Planning Board and City Council.
Doug Bisson, the commission's chairman and an urban planner with HDR Inc., said he wasn't aware of all the details surrounding the request. But he said he expects a number of people to speak in favor of keeping the landmark status.
"Any time you lose a building that's listed, that's a cause for concern," Bisson said.
Landmarks Inc., which formed in 1965 in a failed attempt to save Omaha's historic post office, is working on the issue with Florence residents, business owners and Restore Omaha, a newer organization dedicated to preserving and maintaining the city's older homes.
Nelson, the Landmarks Inc. president who called the property "a perfect house," said he also wants to explore alternatives for the property.
Nelson said he even has a potential buyer lined up.
"If we let this thing go, we've got a lot of trouble," he said. "It's too easy of a project to miss the opportunity."
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