When William “Doc” Brenner first walked his now-wife Becki up to his three-story house on Florence Boulevard in the late 1980s, the exterior held the same charm it had when it was built in 1915.
Tall brick archways framed a long porch. The roof was adorned with terracotta tiles. A wide, outward-spilling staircase gave the house a grand approach.
But when Becki walked through the front door, golf clubs were lying about and a chainsaw sat on the floor of the library. Radiators in the winter and window air conditioners in the summer made her sweat. And that hideous kitchen with a “Mediterranean 1970s” theme had to go.
She thought the place looked like a fraternity house.
“I wouldn’t live here unless we remodeled,” she said.
So in November 1988, they started what would become multiple waves of restoration with a $103,000, two-year project.
They replaced the roof, keeping the delicate terracotta tile but replacing the underlying rotted wood. They gutted most of the rooms over the years, fixing water-swollen walls and cracked plaster.
Some walls were added, others removed. One collapsed.
In total, they’ve spent more than $125,000 restoring the home. Their most recent fix-up — finishing the hole-ridden upstairs sunroom — just wrapped up a couple of weeks ago. Now, their home is on display along with seven others in the coming Fall Home Tour of Florence Boulevard.
The event, put on by Restoration Exchange Omaha, runs from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Most of the family’s home will be on display for the tour, save for the storage space in the basement and Doc’s “man cave” — a library and workspace on the third floor — which is the last remnant of the bachelor lifestyle he once lived.
Tourgoers will first see a grand walk-up to the front door, with two stone pieces marking the entrance. The path is lined by dozens of hostas, which lead up the wide stairs onto the porch and into the home. On the left is an area once billed as the “library,” now used as a sitting room. A wall was removed to open the room and the adjoining stairway.
Also on the first floor is a room with a piano and a restored fireplace with deep blue walls and accents. A formal dining room with blue walls and a chandelier is connected to a light canary-colored kitchen, which has been updated to include a stainless steel gas range.
Upstairs, rooms have endured the full force of age and settling. But the Brenners have repaired and restored the rooms, each with its own flair. They’re particularly fond of the recently updated sunroom.
Becki sees the tour as an opportunity to change people’s perception of Florence. The former nonprofit executive said she’s had people decline to come to events in her home because it was in North Omaha, an area of town with a reputation for crime.
“I want people to love this neighborhood as much as we do,” she said. “There’s value down here. There’s kind people, there’s diverse communities.”
And there’s history.
Long before Doc fell in love with the house in the late ’70s, the home belonged to Tom Dennison, Omaha’s notorious political crime boss. Doc said the previous owner, Barb Bishop, told him Dennison likely operated his racketeering ring out of the home and that two murders may have been committed on the property during his three-year stay from 1919 to 1922.
After World War II, the house became a rectory for Blessed Sacrament church until 1962, when the Bishop family — who started the now-nationwide cleaning service The Maids — purchased the home. In 1981, after a couple years of consideration, Brenner bought the home.
Now the longest-tenured owners of the home, the Brenners are trying to leave their own legacy in the form of renovation. They have brought drastic changes, most notably uncovering a previously hidden stairway in the kitchen. By taking out a wall in the sitting room near the entryway, they revived the sunroom, which once had walls riddled with holes from the house settling.
A short stay in London inspired the couple to give the house a name, adopting a popular English trend. Just to the right of the front door is a golden colored sign reading “The Old Rectory.”
Like many of the homes in the tour, The Old Rectory is constantly at odds with Father Time. At 99 years old, there’s always something to mend.
They’ve added two new furnaces and a central air conditioner, restored the fireplace and chimney, tore up and replanted countless plants and trees, and pitched around 40,000 pounds of plaster in remodels along the way. They still need to tuck-point the brick below the first floor.
“An old home owns you, you don’t own it,” Becki said. “It’s something you have to be committed to or it will crumble around you.”
Each time they have a repair or restoration, they call the same folks for help. Gary Grobeck formerly of Grobeck Construction, their longtime contractor, led the charge on the house’s first major restoration and kept coming back until he took a job as a city building inspector.
“That was one of my first bigger projects,” Grobeck said. “I know the house. Basically, (me and the Brenners) have spent so much time together, we’re friends.”
Doc and Becki Brenner know they’ll never get a proper return on investment from The Old Rectory. They never intended to sell anyway. Once they committed to the idea of making it their own, adding color and personalization that would make other homes a nightmare to try and resell, they knew they were in for the long haul.
“We have to die here because we will never get our money out of this,” Becki said with a laugh. “You have to know that going in.”
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