Midtown mansion could become family home once more amid uptick in sales

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Posted: Friday, April 5, 2013 12:00 am

The nine-bedroom midtown mansion, built in the historic Gold Coast neighborhood where Omaha's wealthy pioneers settled, holds 120 years of stories and intrigue.

There's the basement door to a now-collapsed tunnel that keeps the curious wondering its purpose and past visitors.

There's the third-floor bullet hole that harkens to a sadder time for the original residents, including three little ones.

There are the maids' quarters, the widow's walk, the lion's head fireplace and the Cuban mahogany grand staircase where once pranced a child who would become the namesake of Offutt Air Force Base.

Many other residents and events have shaped the old Offutt House and its neighborhood — and a new chapter is about to unfold.

Now called Cornerstone Mansion, the structure at 140 N. 39th St. has served for nearly three decades as a bed and breakfast inn but today is for sale and being marketed as a single-family residence.

A return to its roots as a family home would mesh with other neighborhood shifts that have more families moving into the popular mansions of yesteryear, restoring luster and stability to an area that in recent decades had been saddled with a high portion of multi-unit conversions and an eyesore Travel Inn that was demolished six years ago.

“With Midtown Crossing developing and everything else you've got happening downtown and in Dundee, the area's on the upswing,” said Jeff Rensch of NP Dodge Real Estate.

Working in the Cornerstone Mansion's favor is a recent uptick in demand for higher-end homes. (The 6,952-square-foot Cornerstone is on the market for $799,000. It joins about 80 other houses $600,000 and above currently listed for sale in Douglas and Sarpy Counties.)

An analysis by appraisal firm Mitchell & Associates shows that sales of residences priced between $600,000 and $2 million in Douglas and Sarpy Counties jumped 46 percent from 2010 to 2012, while overall home sales increased by 25 percent.

To be sure, luxury homes are a small slice of the metro's overall sales, and the past year shows a much steeper climb for lower-priced homes. Still, the rise from about 75 homes sold in 2010 to 110 in 2012 has returned sales activity in that range to what it was in 2007 before the housing market crashed.

CBSHome Real Estate's Cindy Cawley, who specializes in upper-end homes, said that in a 48-hour period last week she had two bids and interest from an out-of-town buyer for a $699,000 home originally listed with a different agent for more than $1 million.

Generally, Cawley said, half of her luxury-range buyers are relocating from cities where real estate is pricier and they feel like local housing is a bargain. But she attributed more of the recent surge in interest to local buyers acting on growing confidence in the economy and property values.

They are shoppers who typically have no problem securing a loan, are eager to take advantage of still-low interest rates, and almost assuredly are snagging a better price than was possible before the housing crash.

According to Mitchell, the median sales price in the past two years rose 12 percent for Omaha-area homes in the $600,000-plus range. But he said that's still a ways from the peak years of the mid-2000s, which were followed by a price plunge of 30 percent to 35 percent.

In some ways, the old mansions of the Gold Coast are in their own category, real estate agents and homeowners say.

They attract buyers who place a premium on history, architectural detail, diversity of cultures and housing stock — and who aren't afraid of maintenance required of older homes. The Cornerstone Mansion, across the street from the stately Joslyn Castle, is on the higher end of sales prices in that area.

“It's a totally different vibe if you get east of 72nd Street,” said Marnie Corsaro, who lives with her husband and their two teenagers on the same street as the Cornerstone Mansion. “You have to love an area where you could have an $800,000 house next to an $80,000 house.”

Marnie and Rob Corsaro moved into their turn-of-the-century, Georgian Revival-style house two years ago. Known as the Havens-Page Mansion, it's also listed on the National Register of Historic places.

It's had its ups and downs. One earlier owner's plan for a bed and breakfast flopped, and the property went into foreclosure. A college sorority's plan to move to the home with a signature wrap-around porch was fended off by neighbors. Over time, the Havens-Page structure suffered.

The Corsaros restored it, became active neighborhood leaders and love the short drive to downtown activities and their midtown worksites. While Marnie talked, bagpipe music could be heard from Joslyn Castle.

“It's eclectic. It's exciting,” she said.

Maggie Jones, who has lived in the area 30 years, remembers a different era when her real estate agent discouraged her from buying in the “unsafe” area.

Jones, however, could not resist the grand old houses and has marveled at changes in her neighborhood. Streets where children three decades ago could be counted on one hand, she said, now are busy with dog walkers, strollers and bicycles.

“It's become much more popular to move into these neighborhoods,” said Jones, a teacher. “Twenty years ago, a house could be on the market for years and years. Today they sell much faster.”

Cayle and Erin Cox are among those who searched for a huge old house with character — and that computer search led them immediately to 40th and Davenport Streets. Two years ago they moved their four kids into the 6,600-square-foot house once occupied by a medical fraternity, a religious cult and, more recently, eight female students.

So far the Coxes have sunk $100,000 into the property they bought for about $190,000. There's rarely a dull moment, Cayle Cox said, as they discover things about past tenants, including wealthy families who helped build Omaha.

He recalled the medical doctor who stopped by and, after a spirited conversation, offered to have the Cox family out to California where he now lives. Another passer-by recounted how his dad proposed to his mom in the house's sun room.

“A lot of people like the suburbs,” said Cayle. “But for those of us who are willing to risk it, the return is outstanding. You can't ever replicate this house or those situations.”

Julie Mierau, who owns the Cornerstone Mansion along with Mark O'Leary, said they're trying to sell their around-the-clock business so they can do something different. Both live on site.

“Thirteen years, 365 days a year,” Mierau said with a smile. “It's time.”

But the decision did not come easy or without bittersweet emotions. Mierau and O'Leary have hosted movie stars, including Ellen Burstyn, entertained journalists from around the country and put up a houseful of Olympic swim hopefuls.

Once, two female guests who arrived as strangers left realizing that they were cousins.

Reflecting on such occasions, Mierau sees the value in retaining the mansion as a bed and breakfast. For long-term stability of the neighborhood, however, she sees the positive in returning to a single-family residence.

The mansion was built in 1894 by Casper and Anna Yost for their only daughter's wedding gift. Yost was president of the three telephone companies that joined to form Northwestern Bell Telephone Co.

Bertha, the Yosts' daughter, married Charles Offutt, an Omaha lawyer who had been speaker of the House in Kentucky. The couple had three children.

O'Leary said the newlyweds' structure cost $15,000 to build 120 years ago, and estimated that it could cost up to $10 million to replicate today.

Original elements include an inlaid tile floor and oversized doors at the entrance, tiger-striped oak wood, an original foyer chandelier and leaded glass windows at the main staircase landing.

A broad staircase winds up to the nine bedrooms on the second and third floors; one features a Royal Doulton tile fireplace. The Charles Suite, named for the lord of the house, was Offutt's study. It is there, historical documents say, that he ended his life “in a season of mental aberration.”

That was only four years after his marriage to Bertha, who never remarried but lived in the house into the mid-1940s. The couple's children were Jarvis, Casper and Virginia.

Jarvis, a Yale graduate and high hurdler, became the first Omaha airman to die in World War I, which led to the airfield being named in his honor.

The residence became a bed and breakfast and events center in 1985, and was sold in 2000 to its current owners, who have tried to retain historical aspects. O'Leary even replaced some original wall sconces that he spotted at an estate sale.

Rensch, the listing agent, said there's been interest in the property as a bed and breakfast business, but he also foresees it returning to a residence.

Neighbors like Cayle Cox are hoping for more families. Cox said he's pleased with the energy and investment he has seen in the few years since he bought his home.

“It shouldn't be a surprise when you stop and think about it,” he said. “This is the Gold Coast.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1224, cindy.gonzalez@owh.com

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