The foyer is Cuban mahogany. The floor has Brazilian cherry. The pocket doors are quartersawn oak.
“Aren't I lucky?” asks Joni Fogarty, owner of a Gold Coast beauty with perfectly preserved woodwork. “No one had painted it.”
We are standing in the dining room of the home Joni shares with husband Ed on the southeast corner of 38th and California Streets. It's a Prairie-style house with green tile embedded into the brown brick. A large arched overhang covers the front porch. The arch shape is repeated in windows made of leaded glass.
This house was built more than 100 years ago. It has built-in bookshelves in the living room, a lovely staircase with a big landing and an upstairs closet cubby where they used to hide the hooch during Prohibition.
This house was never chopped into apartments. It was never razed to make a freeway. It was never painted a terrible color.
That the house at 521 N. 38th St. stands proudly still is a testament to caretaker owners, a neighborhood that fought change and a man named John McDonald.
I am here to learn about McDonald. He built scores of homes in Omaha, including many on this stretch of North 38th Street, dubbed the North Gold Coast. He built houses of worship, schools, apartment buildings, commercial buildings and architectural treasures such as Joslyn Castle. He had a son Alan who worked with him. Alan designed the Joslyn Art Museum.
Joni has researched the father-son team and written a book called “Building Omaha: The Architectural Legacy of John and Alan McDonald.” She plans to talk about this book tonight at a sold-out gathering at Fort Omaha.
Joni is the first of a series of authors who will present history-based works during a new monthly event organized by the Douglas County Historical Society. It is called A Page From Our Past.
Joni's book seems like pages from the present. Inside are photographs of McDonald houses and buildings, many of which remain standing. I recognized more than a few houses in the Field Club, Cathedral and Dundee neighborhoods.
Flip through the book and you'll find the Tadousac, a classic revival apartment building on South 39th Street.
Another page shows the First Unitarian Church, a Georgian revival structure at 31st and Harney. Then a Baptist church. And the old Beth El Synagogue at 49th and Farnam, now home to an architecture firm.
Schools, too: Benson High, Monroe Middle and Yates Elementary.
Here is, essentially, so much of what we love about midtown Omaha: buildings that have settled into the landscape and give texture to the city.
Some McDonald creations, such as the brick four-squares and Georgian revival-style homes, aren't ostentatious enough to grab your attention.
Others, like the 30-plus-room mansion built on 5½ acres and called, appropriate to its Scottish baronial design, a castle, are true standouts.
So who was the man with the pencil?
Joni's book tells us.
John “Jack” McDonald was the grandson of Scottish immigrants to Canada. He grew up on Prince Edward Island. He studied engineering at McGill University in Montreal.
After graduation in 1884 he seized the westward ho movement of his time and set off to see the American West, with plans to settle on the Pacific Coast.
First, though, was a promise to his mother to see the relatives in Omaha.
When Jack McDonald got off the train in Omaha in 1884, he never got back on. The city's population was booming.
These new Omahans would need churches and businesses and schools and homes. Jack got on with a local firm.
A year after he had arrived, he opened his own shop and established himself. He met the woman he would marry and made some very good friends, including one named George Joslyn.
Jack built the first of two homes in Omaha where he and his wife, Martha, would live: a two-story Victorian frame home at 3102 Woolworth Ave. and a brick Jacobean revival-syle home at 515 N. 38th St. Their son, Alan, would wind up building the house next door, a Georgian revival brick home at 509 N. 38th St.
When Joslyn, a newsprint magnate, tapped Jack to build his home, it spurred development in the area and cemented Jack's reputation as a solid architect.
Son Alan McDonald got his architecture degree from Harvard University and returned to Omaha to join his father. When George Joslyn died, his widow, Sarah, tapped the McDonald firm to build a memorial to her husband. It cost almost $3 million, took three years to build and used 250 boxcar loads of Georgia pink marble for the exterior. The Joslyn Art Museum opened in 1931.
Alan died in 1947 and Jack in 1956, before they could see the Cathedral neighborhood suffer the effects of Omaha's suburbanization. Many beautiful homes were carved into apartments or fell into disrepair. Property values dropped.
At one time, city officials planned to build a western freeway that would have cut right through midtown. Neighbors fought that off and the plans died.
The Fogartys bought their home in 1995. They got it added to the National Register of Historic Places. And Joni, a former teacher and a preservationist, dug in on keeping the Gold Coast preserved as it was in the McDonald era.
“You just have to know what came before you,” she said. “You have to respect the past.”
This is not always a popular cause. Joni, along with other neighbors, opposed an effort to turn a mansion at 39th and Dodge into a sorority house. And she joined neighborhood leaders in opposing an Omaha couple's plans to build a modern house on a lot on North 38th that has stood vacant for 100 years.
When she and Ed moved in, they ripped out the shag carpeting, repainted interior walls and added a modern kitchen. But they didn't touch the woodwork.
“McDonald,” she gushed, “had such a love affair with wood.”
And Joni is in love with this house. But she and Ed see themselves as caretakers, not owners.
“You never own a house like this,” Joni says. “It belongs to the community.”