The house on Omaha Building Death Row is a 123-year-old Victorian-era home. It has good bones, decent stucco, nearly floor-to-ceiling windows and the kind of front porch that begs for a swing and a wicker rocking chair.
The house is also a boarded-up, gutted nuisance. It has no heat, water or lights, and begs for a wrecking ball and a do-over.
So goes the argument between the property's owner, Paul Konchagulian, and the City of Omaha about the house in question: 3846 Hamilton St.
The days are numbered for old 3846. Condemned since 2006, the house has lingered on the city's tear-down list. Kevin Denker, the city's chief code inspector, said the house will come down soon, probably this month.
Konchagulian, meanwhile, is trying to tell his story in hopes that another romantic will see past the plywood-covered windows, the county's low tax value and the horror-show interior and fall in love like he did six years ago. The 51-year-old artist hopes someone who can afford to fix up the house will either buy it or accept it — he's willing to give it away to charity.
He has also launched a petition on change.org, a symbolic act that as of Tuesday night had gotten about 526 signatures.
In 2007, he and wife Barbara Briggs were on the hunt for a good deal. They lived in a house in Omaha's Florence neighborhood and were hoping to find a house they could afford to fix up and rent out or, preferably, move into themselves.
Konchagulian, a metal sculptor and handyman, had experience renovating homes and businesses in places such as Milford, Mass., Brooklyn, N.Y., and Osaka, Japan.
When he and his wife discovered 3846 Hamilton in early 2007, the numbers seemed right: Sale price of $5,250. Tax value of $92,100.
The couple figured that with a construction loan and their own sweat, they could return the vacant, trashed house to its former glory and move in.
The home's troubles were well-documented: An absentee former owner who let an unsecured residence become a de facto flop house. Graffiti on the inside walls. Copper ripped out. Mattresses and human excrement on the floor. Plaster missing in spots. An open sewer line in the basement. Storm windows torn off their frames. A garage open and filled with junk. Weeds growing through the sidewalk. An illegal duplex upstairs. A jungle of a front slope.
By the time they had come along, the house had been on Death Row for a year.
A city code inspector told the couple in detail what they'd have to do to stop demolition. The eager couple said OK and went ahead with the purchase.
A bit of good luck followed, then a lot of bad luck.
The city decided to give the new owners some time and pushed the home down on a long list of condemned properties. Then money ran low, and the city's demolition pace slowed to a crawl.
The bad luck was bad. The county dropped the property tax value from $92,100 to $10,000, killing the couple's chance for a loan. They protested — successfully — and the value went back up for several months. But the bank's credit bar was too high for a loan.
No way did the artist and his wife have the cash on hand to redo the basics such as plumbing and electrical just to make the home habitable.
So they did what they could, and 3846 Hamilton stayed on Death Row.
Konchagulian and Briggs painted over the graffiti indoors that said things such as “blood” and “killer.” They ripped out a second-floor kitchen and bath and the outdoor stairs leading to what had been the illegal duplex setup. They cut plywood to size, painted it the same color as the light-beige house and nailed it over windows and doors to keep trespassers out. They mowed the lawn, secured the garage and cut the weeds.
The house was still on Death Row.
Then, in 2010, Konchagulian suffered a massive heart attack and underwent triple bypass surgery.
The house stayed on Death Row.
The code inspector would visit, saw little change and noted that:
“Secure. Construction schedule is way outdated.” (February 2009).
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
“Incomplete. No progress. Permits expired.” (May 2009).
“Incomplete. Demo bid.” (June 2011).
“Incomplete. Internal inspection.” (February 2012).
After that visit, Briggs emailed the inspector, Kevin Mulcahy, to say thank you and to say the couple were trying. Mulcahy emailed back, saying he could not grant anymore time. He said he would put the property on “the back burner for now” but warned her that if they had a buyer in mind, “get moving on the sale.”
But they had no buyer. The couple couldn't even give the house away. They offered it to a church and to Holy Name Housing, which repairs and renovates old homes as well as building new. Both said no.
And Briggs' mother had a stroke. Briggs has been her full-time caregiver and acknowledged that work on the house has slowed down.
Meanwhile, the city fell into some money — about $840,000 — which will quadruple the number of tear-downs this year.
Denker sent the most recent letter to the couple on May 31.
Konchagulian and Briggs were shocked. The Orchard Hill Neighborhood Association, a vocal group that has opposed liquor licenses and absentee landlords in its area, came to the couple's defense.
Couldn't the demolition funds go into home restoration instead? Did the city really want to tear down an otherwise solid house that was architecturally interesting and an important part of the neighborhood landscape?
Denker says the house has been in this shape for too long, and time's up.
Two of the house's “cellmates” — 3820 and 3844 Hamilton — were knocked down last year.
Anderson Excavating said it would be 3846's executioner, bidding $14,620 — $4,220 more than the fated house is now worth.
Konchagulian is not without hope.
“We're trying,” he said. “When I'm 80 years old, I don't want to tell some kid, 'You should see what this city used to look like.' Not everything can be saved. But there are some things that should be.”