Bill Johnston-funeral home owner

“It’s too nice to have somebody ’doze it,” said Bill Johnston, 79, a third-generation mortician and the owner and operator of John E. Johnston & Son Funeral Home.

Want to buy a funeral home?

You could make 1234 S. 10th St. your home, sans the funerals. Owner Bill Johnston is selling the property, which includes the 16-room mansion, a large carriage house and a slice of history. At least one prominent Omaha family once lived there.

The idea isn’t as big a stretch as it sounds.

For years, families have marched up the front steps, crossed the tile porch, entered through the wide front door, sat around the magnificent dining room, tromped to the kitchen for coffee and otherwise made themselves at home.

This was always the idea. The three families who ran mortuaries here wanted their funeral home to be exactly that: a home for the grieving. And for two of the three, this mansion was home. They lived in the 6,400-square-foot home’s upper two levels and ran the business on the main floor.

Now Bill Johnston, who has owned the property since 1972, is ready to retire. He is selling the 1880s home with its steel siding on the outside and pristine woodwork on the inside.

He hopes to find a buyer who loves the property as much as he does, or at least loves it enough to preserve it. One prospective buyer told Johnston he wanted to raze the home, which got this 78-year-old fired up.

“It’s too nice,” Johnston said, “to have somebody ’doze it.”

But is it nice enough to net Johnston an asking price of $575,000 — more than twice the tax value? The market will say. Two people, including the man who wanted to level the building, have made offers, and both were way under asking price.

The mansion sits along a scenic street in a changing neighborhood. It is walking distance from the Old Market and from promising redevelopment projects.

A new Blue Barn Theater is being built. The Postal Annex is supposed to become a year-round market. Condo and apartment projects are in the works. KETV is redoing the old Burlington Station. The closest neighbors are St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, All Saints Catholic School, the Sons of Italy hall, mansions-turned-apartments and private homes.

Philanthropist Nancy Mammel built a four-story apartment building a block away. Grace University is an anchor. And tourist draws such as the Lauritzen Gardens and Henry Doorly Zoo are nearby.

Longtime Realtor Jeff Rensch said houses like this can be gems for particular buyers who like the character of old homes and plan to settle in. But the size, utility costs and list of updates can scare some prospects away. Rensch has spent two years trying to sell the impeccable Cornerstone Mansion near Joslyn Castle.

Preservationists and neighborhood leaders hope the funeral home will attract a buyer who appreciates the architecture and interior finishes.

“Nothing this old is perfect,” said Arnie Breslow, who heads the Old Market South Neighborhood Association and has an ownership stake in two mansions-turned-apartment-buildings on South 10th. “But it’s about as perfect as something more than 100 years old can be.”

According to Johnston’s records, the house was built in 1886 on land formerly owned by Augustus and Catherine Kountze. Augustus was a German immigrant who, with his brother Herman, founded what would become First National Bank. Herman also had a mansion on South 10th Street that since has been torn down.

In 1900, Joseph Maul Metcalf, an industrial titan, bought the house for his wife, Anna Cornish Metcalf, whose prominent family lived in another 10th Street mansion. The Cornish mansion was converted into apartments and today sits on the National Register of Historic Places.

Poor Joseph Metcalf didn’t get much time in his new home. He died in 1905. His widow, a society woman who loved music and art, made sure the place had the latest technology: It is said hers was the first Omaha house to get electric lights and an oil-heating furnace.

When Anna died in 1945, the house was supposed to go to the Daughters of the American Revolution. But the group didn’t end up using the home.

By then an up-and-coming mortician was interested. Salvatore Salanitro bought it and opened a funeral business there. He and wife Angeline moved into the second floor and ran their business on the main floor.

In 1961, the Salanitros sold the place to Kenneth and Louise Miller, who also lived upstairs and ran the funeral business downstairs. Then Kenneth died.

Enter Bill Johnston, the third generation in his family to run a funeral home. His grandfather founded the family business downtown and then moved it to 33rd and Farnam. In 1972, Johnston ran the business here.

He let the Millers — there were nine children — remain living on the upper floors until they moved out in 1980. Then he had various tenants but stopped renting the space years ago, and the rooms look frozen in time.

That’s both a good thing — the moldings, fireplaces, paneling, doors and window frames are in excellent shape — and a seemingly easy fix when it comes to old, smoky carpet and outdated decor. There is a full but dated kitchen on the second floor but just a fridge and sink on the main level.

I’m a sucker for old buildings, so I will admit to love before first sight when I heard about this funeral home. Once I ran my hand along the banister, pulled open the 3-inch-thick pocket door, walked through large, airy rooms and saw the downtown views out the third-floor window, I was sold. I dreamed about how we could walk to the Old Market and get spaghetti lunches almost every Thursday from the Sons of Italy. I thought about what it would take to remove the siding, update the kitchens and bathrooms and wondered what kind of wood floors were hidden beneath that carpet.

Alas, I don’t have the dough.

So it’s up to someone else to determine whether the John E. Johnston & Son, Miller and Salanitro Funeral Home gets another life.

Bill Johnston does not want to have a funeral for his funeral home.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1136, erin.grace@owh.com, twitter.com/ErinGraceOWH

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