In the words of American author and poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “A weed is but an unloved flower.”
Bob Benzel and Gerry Sullivan saw exactly that in a 1920s St. Louis-style duplex near 33rd and Dodge Streets back in 2010. The dwelling — owned by an absentee landlord with neglectful tenants — had the curb appeal of a noxious weed.
“We’re gentrifiers,” Bob says of rescuing and restoring the Georgian brick eyesore with the care of a bird building its nest, step by step, twig by twig. Today, it’s an oasis for relaxation and casual entertaining.
“It’s wonderfully strange, don’t you think?” Bob asks rhetorically as he and Gerry offer a tour of their “very, very urban home.” Every inch, inside and out, is a reflection of the art-loving couple’s delightfully quirky personal style.
“People who come here for parties are blown away because it’s so different,” Gerry offers. “It’s funky and unique and very ‘Bob.’ He’s an artist, and this is just a continuation of his art.”
A quick-witted retired art and humanities instructor at Ralston High School, Bob shrugs and smiles at the compliment. “Gerry said to me, ‘We don’t need any flowers in the yard, just greenery.’ OK, no flowers, I said. And then, petal by petal, I snuck them in.”
Pragmatic Gerry explains, “I was thinking low maintenance. In our old house near 39th and Chicago, we had a very big yard and were watering all the time.”
But there was a bigger lifestyle consideration.
“We were looking for a house that we could adapt for old age,” explains Bob.
Criteria No. 1: A floor plan that would allow for a bedroom and bathroom on the first floor – a scarce commodity in midtown Omaha.
Criteria No. 2: A lot big enough for a garage and driveway that could double as a party area. That’s another tough-to-find amenity in the neighborhood.
When the stacked duplex came up for sale, “We mulled it over,” recalls Bob. “The location had in the recent past some problems with crime, and the house needed a lot of work.”
Midtown Crossing, rising just two blocks to the south, was an undeniable lure.
“We wanted to be closer to Midtown Crossing because we thought things were going to start happening down here,” Gerry recalls. A grocery, bus stop and hospital within walking distance already were ideal amenities for aging in place.
The couple took possession that October, and Bob launched into civilizing the front yard while tenants moved out. A long autumn allowed for reconstruction of the stoop and the stairs, plus construction of a Chicago Gold Coast-inspired courtyard patio with hedges, ornamental trees, flowering perennials and other dense plantings for privacy.
“The yard was a barren wasteland. Nothing was growing,” he reflects. The side yard, where the driveway would go, was a mudhole. “We knew we were going to have a lot of concrete,” he says of the driveway. To soften the look, grass and concrete alternate in a checkerboard pattern for half the length.
A three-car garage addition remains true to the style of the boxy duplex. “We spent a lot of money to build the garage to look old,” Gerry confides. Vintage green tile, found by the roofer at a salvage yard, matches the tile trim on the front of the duplex.
Privacy fencing provides a backdrop for sun-loving ornamentals and three-dimensional art by Iggy Sumnik and Sidney Buchanan.
The homeowners refer to the front patio as their living room and the back patio as their dining room and sitting area. But the latter also is their main entrance. “Whenever people come over, we tell them, ‘come to the front,’ which is actually the back door,” Bob says.
The outdoor room – a “lean-to” of sorts with rafters – is furnished with “wonderful, strange, strange stuff” (in Bob’s words), much of it acquired at Collector’s Choice estate sales. In summer, cascading vines and other greenery form natural walls and keep the space comfortable on the hottest of days. Heat lamps extend the homeowners’ enjoyment of the outdoor room well into fall.
Inside the home, Mother Nature’s warm, earthy tones flow from room to room. While the outside garden spaces are cultivated with wild abandon, the interior living spaces are meticulously arranged. “We have a lot of art, obviously,”
Flashback to January 2011.
“The place was in shambles,” he says. “There was just about no choice but to rip out everything.”
He and Gerry lived on the upper floor for about a year while Bob redid the main level with an eye toward the future. “We added insulation, replaced windows, updated plumbing, etc., knowing the first floor someday would be our main living area,” Bob said.
The homeowners have been together for 15 years. They met at a party in Omaha. Gerry had recently transferred with Union Pacific’s real estate department from San Francisco, and Bob was guest bartending for the host, a mutual friend. Bob retired from teaching 16 years ago to concentrate on his rental properties and artistic pursuits. Gerry retired in 2013. In December 2015, they were married.
The couple have a wide circle of friends and generally have someone over for dinner a couple of times a week. Political fundraisers, wedding rehearsal dinners and art soirees are common occurrences year-round. Last July, they hosted a garden party for 200 in celebration of their own nuptials. “We took the garage and turned it into a junior-senior prom,” Bob quips, alluding to the hand-painted murals, twinkle lights and tissue paper flowers that decorated the space. The menu included pulled pork sandwiches, coleslaw, brownies and lemon bars. And the affair found its way onto the pages of The World-Herald’s Wedding Essentials magazine.
“We never hire caterers,” Bob says. He does the cooking and the baking; Gerry handles arrangements and setup. Day of the event, servers manage the food and beverage stations while the hosts mingle.
The Arts & Crafts interior is as unpretentious and welcoming as the homeowners themselves.
A small staircase from the back patio leads to a cheery galley kitchen (with a unique touch in the backsplash: hand-painted 1880s Belgium tiles purchased at a street market in Buenos Aries). But you won’t find much cooking here. This two-person space primarily serves as a beverage station and food prep area when the couple entertains. The full-size kitchen is on the second floor.
A combination dining room-living room features a terracotta stone hearth, oak woodwork, hardwood floors with tapestry rugs, and a handsome blend of traditional, Arts & Crafts and Midcentury furnishings. The standout room, however, may be the sunroom-turned-den with its intricately tiled floor. A Bob Benzel original, the pattern is comprised of 1x1 inch granite and quartz tiles to disguise the fact that the walls are not square.
Another charmer: An art room, with a puppet theater in progress for a friend’s grandkids.
A luggage storage area under the back staircase conveniently holds 45 folding chairs and other frequently used party items.
Upstairs, original floorplans of two bedrooms were modified to accommodate a master suite and a guest room, both with full baths.
And then there’s the kitchen, also enlarged for efficiency when the couple entertains.
Tour complete, Bob and Gerry are eager to return to the lean-to, where glasses of wine are poured and the conversation returns to the joys of landscape gardening.
“A lot of people in the Midwest just think of their yards in the summer season,” Bob says. “I’ve strived to have a year-round garden. In September, the ivy wall turns bright orange. It’s stunning. And after a snowfall, the potted plants look like winter bouquets.”
He pauses to survey their oasis. “You really feel like you’re somewhere else.”