Is it a piece of history worth preserving, or a run-down roadblock to progress that should be razed?
A rare battle is brewing to determine which fate will befall a landmark residential property — the Clarinda and Page complex — that for 100 years has occupied a midtown corner at 30th and Farnam Streets.
Leading the charge on one side is iconic Mutual of Omaha, which has a broad plan to demolish a swath of buildings east of its Midtown Crossing campus to make way for a Class A office park. Mutual already has bought several structures and lots around the Clarinda-Page in the hope of attracting a developer to rebuild the site.
Pushing from the other side are preservation advocates such as Restoration Exchange Omaha, which argues that the Georgian Revival style property represents the type of luxury apartments that sprouted along the city's burgeoning boulevard system in the early 1900s.
Because of a 1981 designation as an Omaha landmark, the pair of buildings can't be torn down without a reversal of the same process that named them a protected landmark. That calls for a public airing before the Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission as well as the Omaha City Council.
Mutual representatives have applied for a rescission, to be presented at the nine-member Landmarks board meeting on Feb. 12.
The issue, both camps agree, boils down to whether historic value outweighs demolishing the property for development.
To Ken Cook, president of Mutual's East Campus Realty, the answer is as clear as the pigeon poop and crumbling walls that fill the southern half of the complex, the Page.
“This is a wreck of a building,” he said. “A lost cause.”
City records show that since 2006, the Page, which faces Turner Boulevard, has been deemed unfit for human habitation. Birds and other small animals are the only residents in that part of the property. Bringing the Page's seven units back to rentable conditions would be cost-prohibitive, Cook said.
Connected by a walkway to the Page is the Clarinda building, which faces Farnam Street. Its 16 units, now condominiums, underwent a major renovation in 2007.
Clarinda condo owners have sided with Mutual, which has agreements to buy all the Clarinda units pending cancellation of the landmark designation, Cook said.
Condo owner Jack Henry said he can't wait to get out.
“I know I won't get the location or character elsewhere for the same price,” he said. “But I am tired of the headache — and of that pile of bricks behind me.”
Henry, who said he was one of two condo owners who live in their units, bought his before renovations on the Clarinda were complete. He said it seemed like a great investment as Midtown Crossing was about to be built on the adjacent corner.
But the collapse of the housing market stymied the Clarinda-Page development. A homeowners association does not exist, said Henry, and maintenance problems with the roofs and foundations linger. He said the developer got saddled with units.
“We're sitting on a time bomb,” Henry said.
Developer Ryan Barry, listed with the Nebraska secretary of state as representative of Clarinda Condos LLC, did not return phone calls. Henry said condo owners also deal with First State Bank, which referred questions to Barry.
Kristine Gerber of Restoration Exchange Omaha was not swayed by the property's condition, saying that major updates are to be expected for structures of that age.
“These are solid, well-built buildings,” she said. “They can be restored, period.”
Gerber hearkened to the most recent battle to repeal a landmark designation. In 2011, the Florence Historical Foundation sought to nullify the protected status of the Keirle House, saying it couldn't afford to maintain the century-old home.
Preservationist group Landmarks Inc. stepped in and helped connect the owner with a buyer. Gerber said a family now lives there.
Since 1978, there have been only four other requests to revoke a local landmark status, said Michael Leonard, administrator of the Landmarks Commission. Of those, he said, two resulted in demolition: the Monmouth Park Elementary School and the Fairbanks Morse building.
The Fairbanks Morse building was a warehouse in Jobbers Canyon, and its demolition allowed construction of ConAgra Foods' downtown campus.
Currently there are about 105 structures that have the protected local landmark status.
Some also are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The national designation, with a few exceptions, offers no specific protection from demolition.
In the landmark application 34 years ago, then-owner Douglas Hiner said the Clarinda-Page represented a distinct stage in Omaha's apartment construction. Tied to the new parks and boulevard system, where elite homes were rising, the Clarinda and Page were among the first apartments built “without regard to streetcar accessibility.”
The Clarinda, built in 1909, and the Page, built in 1914, were named after the hometown and county of William W. Welch, who the application said served as architect, builder and owner.
Even if renovation funds were to surface, Omaha architect Tim Holland said the Clarinda-Page is a “weak” example of the Georgian Revival style, with disproportionate Doric columns and quirky elements.
“Basically this is an asymmetrical design of haphazard proportions,” said Holland, who worked on the adjacent Midtown Crossing.
He said there are other purer examples of Georgian Revival in the city, including the First Unitarian Church across the street and the Flatiron and Keeline Buildings.
Paul Nelson, an Omaha architect who is president of Restoration Exchange, said the Clarinda-Page contributes a sense of diversity to the Midtown Crossing and Turner Park neighborhood and erasing it would be a “huge mistake.”
“We are concerned the community will be shocked by this proposal and react negatively to what has been accomplished in midtown,” he added.
Gerber said their preference was for a developer to work the Clarinda-Page into the design of a new office and retail park.
Cook said that the Clarinda-Page buildings already have become an impediment. An East Coast developer he declined to name went as far as to create floor plate designs, but weeks ago pulled its interest. In part, Cook said, the developer didn't want to be associated with a “contentious public debate.”
Cook said he anticipates some political resistance because there is no specific deal on the table that hinges on the outcome of the rescission request.
Mayor Jean Stothert's office is “aware and monitoring the situation” but hasn't taken a position, said Cassie Seagren, deputy chief of staff for economic development.
Meanwhile, East Campus Realty continues its push to clear land along Farnam, generally from Turner Boulevard to Interstate 480. Cook said one more Farnam Street property owner, a tattoo shop, has tentatively agreed to sell, and conversations are ongoing with another.
Demolition of buildings that share a block with the Clarinda-Page, including structures that housed Godfather's Pizza, Little King and Casablanca restaurants, could begin in late spring, he said.