By Rhonda Stansberry | World-Herald Staff Writer
A home with Formica countertops, shag carpeting and a built-in cooktop might seem to be a fixer-upper in this era of stainless steel and granite.
But this midcentury modern home was one couple's dream.
Dr. Linda Sing, a radiologist, and Travis Sing, an author and Omaha historian, offered full price for the largely untouched, 1960s-era home at 106 S. 89th St. in 2005.
Omaha architect Donald Polsky built the home. By the mid-1960s, he and others were exploring the design style now known as midcentury modern, as were their counterparts in furniture and fashion design.
Bright colors, bold patterns and new uses for metal and wood are hallmarks of the style. Midcentury modern homes featured groundbreaking post and beam architectural design that eliminated bulky support walls. The layouts were open. Architects and builders pushed vertical and horizontal lines. There were no curlicues or other fussy elements of the popular Victorian style. Instead, these designers emphasized usefulness for busy families.
Many buildings in the Indian Hills neighborhood — built in the early to mid-1960s — are midcentury modern, a style that even then was a bit radical for Omaha. On Sunday, Omahans will have a chance to see numerous examples in the neighborhood on the ReStore Omaha Mid-Century Modern Restoration and Preservation Tour.
Though many buyers would have been itching to get rid of outdated features, the Sings were thrilled to find them. They even reversed some of the changes from a previous owner.
Polsky built the home for his family, completing it in 1966.
An award-winning architect, Polsky had worked with Richard Neutra, known for the “California House” style of modern architecture. Neutra had trained with Frank Lloyd Wright. Polsky has won many prestigious awards for his work, including the Harry F. Cunningham Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects for architectural excellence in Nebraska.
Although Polsky, now 84, said his Omaha home isn't a California House, it has some of those elements, such as bringing nature in through walls of windows. And it fits into its neighborhood.
The area bounded by Dodge, Harney, 84th and 90th Streets had been developed as the 18-hole Indian Hills Golf Course in the 1940s. By the mid-1950s, the golf course land was sold for development of modern businesses, apartments and high-end homes. The Leo A. Daly Co., an architectural firm, planned the new development, which included 63 acres of residential sites. The Daly company was among the first buildings in this new development in 1959 and it remains there today.
More than 80 percent of the homes were built with an attached two-car garage at a time when the notion of owning two cars was still new to many Americans.
Polsky plans to be at the 89th Street home to answer questions during the tour.
The home is true to the design principles Polsky had followed after he graduated in 1951 from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In 1952, he attended Officer Communcations and Cryptographic School with the U.S. Air Force and was sent to French Morocco, where his job captain was Neutra. Polsky's job was building a radar installation — made of plywood and canvas — in the Moroccan desert. That influenced his later design work. After leaving the military, Polsky joined Neutra's design studio in California and later, in 1958, formed his owned architectural firm there. He came to Omaha to work on the Milder House project (modeled after an Asian pagoda) at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
And he began his own home.
Staying true to the modern design roots that he nourished in California, Polsky was building his family's home in the Indian Hills neighborhood by 1964. His modern construction fit the neighborhood, but he said it wasn't exactly catching on with others in the city.
“Let's just say they didn't come in droves,” he said.
The ranch-style house — built on dirt excavated during construction — faces eastward. Morning sun pours in through floor-to-ceiling living room windows.
It has a flat roof and a partially below-ground basement. Unlike earlier homes that had a single bathroom for the entire family, the Polsky home has four bathrooms.
The rooms feel open, flowing one to the other. A hallway flanked by closets, front to back, separates living and dining areas from private areas, including the master bedroom and bath. Walls are white and there are no moldings. Polsky calls it flush framing, now a standard in modern design.
Windows run the length of the kitchen for a panoramic view of the backyard, which features a lofty spruce tree. One of the Polskys' children planted it more than 40 years ago. Original built-in appliances, including a stove and wall oven, work as when new. St. Charles cabinets, top of the line at the time, are metal with a factory finish in turquoise. Formica covers countertops. A built-in serving cart rolls out for use.
Where he didn't have glass windows as walls, he built brick cavity walls, which were both insulating and decorative. On the north wall, for example, there are two walls of brick, one facing the interior and one facing the exterior. They are separated by 2 inches of air. That air gap insulates, Polsky said. And brick that shows on the interior wall never needs painting or papering.
The Sings like the low maintenance, the convenience and the thoughtfulness of the architect in his design choices.
Numerous closets, custom shelving and storage are inconspicuous. Lightweight and translucent Shoji screens hide as pocket doors inside walls except when they're needed to close off a room.
Linda Sing said the family joke is that the house is a shell built around closets.
The Sings have immersed themselves in the era, shopping for vintage-modern pieces online and at sales. They found period pieces like the Sunbeam wall clock with radiating beams for the kitchen and a high-fidelity stereo for the living room. They stripped and restored the St. Charles kitchen cabinets to their original finish.
They purchased some mid-century modern furniture and, going by an old newspaper clipping from the 1960s, have even mimicked the way the Polskys had arranged their living room furniture.
“It was a layout that made sense, so we copied it,” she said.
With their purchase, the Sings received the architect's drawings. They keep the oversized pages in a room-dividing dining room serving counter that Polsky topped with marble.
The Formica is in the kitchen. The surface probably will be replaced, but there's no hurry. The finish has held up well.
MID-CENTURY MODERN TOUR
What: 1960s-era homes and other buildings
Where: Omaha's Indian Hills neighborhood
When: Noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 7
Tickets: $10 each or two for $15. Available online at www.restoreomaha.org or on the day of the tour at Leo A. Daly Co., 8600 Indian Hills Drive.
The Daly building will be the first stop on the tour. Also on the tour, which is walkable from the Daly building, to most addresses:
- 8405 Indian Hills Drive, Swanson Towers (condominiums), lobby, other community areas
- 113 S. 87th St., street view
- 8700 Douglas St., street view
- 8639 Douglas St.
- 8704 Douglas St.
- 8743 Harney St.
- 8807 Harney St.
- 8813 Harney St.
- 205 S. 89th St.
- 106 S. 89th St.
- W. Clarke Swanson Library, 9101 West Dodge Road
- Christ the King Catholic Church, 654 S. 86th St., open from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
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