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The Magnificent Obsession of Art Storz Jr., the Old Man and the Mansion


The late Art Storz Jr. was a strange, lovely man whose fierce devotion to his family and to their legacy as successful beer brewers, as civic leaders, as philanthropists, knew no end.  He was a mass of contradictions.  Generous to a fault.  Shy, unassuming, and eccentric to the end.  Getting him to give me an interview the first time was like pulling teeth, and then when he did what should have taken an hour or two became a marathon session of three or four hours, followed by another, before he finally got comfortable with me.  The following story, which appeared in the New Horizons, was the first I wrote about him.  I did a subsequent piece, which I have also posted. The mansion in the headline or title of the story offered here really was Art’s magnificent obsession.  He finally did have to leave there for a nursing home, where I visited Art a few years ago.  He was as sweet and squirrelly as ever.  A little broken-hearted, too. He’s gone now but hardly forgotten.  He will always remain one of the most unforgettable characters in my life.

 

 

Image result for arthur c. storz

Arthur C. Storz Jr. or as I knew him, Art Storz Jr.

 

 

The Magnificent Obsession of Art Storz Jr., the Old Man and the Mansion

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

First-time visitors to the historic Storz mansion are unsure what to make of the shy, self-effacing old man greeting them at the front door.  In his ball cap, T-shirt, baggy trousers and sneakers, he might be mistaken for hired help or an overripe guest when actually he’s a reluctant heir to the Storz Brewing Co. fortune.

The 77-year-old eccentric is Art Storz.  He lives austerely in the brawny, brick Farnam Street mansion that his beer baron grandfather, Gottlieb, had built in 1907.  While the sole occupant of the imposing, gabled, gargoyle-adorned home on Omaha’s fabled Gold Coast, he’s never quite alone there.  Not with a well of precious memories to tap.  Memories of a golden bygone era that, for him, is never far away or forgotten.

Anyone familiar with his oft-troubled past must find it ironic that this one-time “heller” ended up master of the mansion after committing some highly publicized indiscretions.  The most infamous episode came in 1943 when, as a U.S. Army Air Forces pilot, he guided his four-engine Flying Fortress dangerously low over a wide swath of Omaha for the thrill of “buzzing” his hometown.

During the brazen stunt, which he describes today with both sheepish regret and cockeyed pride, he used St. Cecilia Cathedral’s spires as pylons to angle the massive B-17 bomber right past the  Blackstone Hotel and over the mansion.  Then he repeated the maneuver.  The sight and roar of a low flying bomber caused a minor panic, including a stampede of pedestrians and rash of auto pile-ups.

“Thank God nobody got hurt,” he said in a recent interview at the opulent mansion.  “If I would of ever hit anything, I’d of wiped out things for blocks.  I could have killed a lot of people.  I think I was a good enough pilot that I didn’t have to worry about that, but it’s easy to say that now.”

Amazingly, after causing all that commotion mid-town he headed west to “buzz” the homes of an uncle and aunt.  “My uncle was shaving with a straight-edge razor when I went through his backyard.  He damn near became Robert “Van Gogh” Storz because he nearly clipped off his ear,” the nephew recalls impishly, adding that his aunt, who liked imbibing, was so shaken that she “was fishin’ bottles out of the chandeliers.”

The stunt got him in hot water with civilian and military officials and he was ultimately given a general court-martial.  He remained in the service, but never went overseas and never rose beyond the rank of captain during a 29-year Air Force reserve career.  His punishment might have been more severe if not for his late father, Arthur C. Storz, a former flier and well-connected aviation supporter.

It was a scandal the family found hard living down.  There were to be others, including a divorce. Always, Storz most acutely felt the disapproval of his father, a stern family brewing chief and taskmaster.  “My dad used to like to put me down because I was kind of the Peck’s Bad Boy of the family,” he said.  “But I deserved to be put down.  I was an embarrassment to the family – and he didn’t like it.  And he didn’t let me forget it.  He really was a good guy, but boy, was he tough.  He’d really take it out on you if you got out of line.  He had a stringent yardstick.”

Storz also lived in the shadow of his younger brother, Robert Hart Storz, an Abel to his Cain and the apple of their father’s eye.  Art suffered by comparison.  Where he was a self-described “rebel,” Bob was a model citizen.  Where he disgraced his uniform, Bob was a decorated hero.  Where he was barely tolerated at the brewery, Bob was made a top executive.

Controversy followed Art in later years too, most notably in the battle he waged in the 1980s to hold onto the mansion in the wake of foreclosure proceedings.  Despite his black sheep image, he has a genuine personal stake in the Storz success story.  He was, after all, the brewery’s advertising director during some of its fattest years – designing multi-media campaigns that won numerous awards, even if his father discounted them.

 

 

Storz brewery.

 

Inside the 27-room home today, he’s surrounded by mementos that recall an era when his family’s empire still reigned – before national brewers’ predatory pricing strategies forced the sale of the company in 1966.  “It was like cutting my heart out when Storz Brewing Co. was sold,” he said, “because I’d always hoped my brother and I would get a chance to run it.  I loved the brewing business.”

For three-quarters of a century Storz beer dominated the Nebraska market, flowing from taps like pure gold.  At peak capacity, the firm’s north

Omaha plant employed hundreds of workers, ferrying its own fleet of refrigerated box cars and trucks. The Storz name carried enough clout to open doors and get things done.

Storz likes nothing better than immersing himself in such sweet remembrances of things past.  Of rich old times at the mansion – when the family entertained on a grand scale with lavish parties, fancy balls and sumptuous feasts.  When prominent industrialists, politicians, military officials and screen idols were feted there and well-trained servants manned each of its three floors.  When it wasn’t just a home, but a showplace.  If its walls could only talk, oh, the stories they might tell.  Of back room business deals and garden romances.  Of juicy gossip and heated debate.  Of late nights filled with music, laughter and lively conversation.

Fortunately, Storz is around to serve as storyteller and guide, even if it comes hard for someone so shy. He’s never been comfortable being the son of industrial titans and society mavens.

“I was terribly intimidated by it all.  My family left some big footprints and I’ve always been very insecure because I’ve known I was never going to walk in any of their footsteps.  I just wasn’t cut out to be what they were.”

To avoid meeting people he’d make himself scarce at social functions.  “It was so painful for me that I would take a powder.  My brother and sister were just the opposite.  They were polished and self-assured.  I never had that.  I just always felt very inadequate.  And I still deal with that to this day.”

Yet for all his insecurity, he loves showing off the home.  It’s held special meaning for him as long as he can remember.  After his grandparents’ deaths, he moved there with his siblings and parents in 1939. He’s lived there continuously since the mid-’50s.  His father died at home in 1978, and his mother, Margaret, lived there until shortly before her death in 1981.  He helped care for his parents in their final years.  Near the end, his father finally uttered the words he’d always craved:  “He said, ‘Art, I love you,’ and he kissed me on the side of the face.  I always knew he loved me, I’d just never heard him say it,” he emotionally recalls.

 

Arthur C. Storz Sr., a World War I Airman and influential Omaha civic leader, helped developed Strategic Air Command (SAC) at Offutt Air Force Base. Storz was a charter member of the SAC Consultation Committee, serving as chair from 1963 to 1971 and Chair Emeritas from 1971 until his death in 1978.

Storz was a respected spokesperson for civil aviation and exercised leadership in expanding the Omaha Municipal Airport into the Jet Age. He helped motivate the Omaha City Council to establish the Omaha Airport Authority, serving as its first chair from 1959 to 1969 and Chair Emeritasfrom 1969 to 1978. In recognition of his dedicated efforts and accomplishments, the expressway between Eppley Airfield and the Interstate is named in his honor.

 

 

A promise he made to himself in 1981– to stay in the home and care for it – still drives him today.   His fondness for it runs so deep that he’s risked everything to save it.  He nearly lost it several times in the face of legal challenges and financial crises.  His fight to retain the home even pitted him against family members.  What made him persevere and pay such a steep personal price?

“It’s been a love affair,” he said.  “It really is a deep feeling of love for the place and for the history of the Storz family.  I doubt if any home in Omaha can even come close to it as far as its history and as far as the significant people that have been in and out of here.  There’s too much history here for me to walk away…I’d go to hell for this house today.  I would give up anything for it – anything.  I’d even give up my life.”

Some say it is his life.  When people arrive for tours, his dour demeanor visibly changes.  His eyes brighten, voice lightens, posture straightens and step quickens as he swells with pride at the prospect of telling the Storz saga again.  And what a saga it is.  A dynasty marked by entrepreneurial spirit, philanthropic generosity, civic boosterism, visionary deeds and fabulous bashes.

Gilded memories are among the few luxuries Storz has allowed himself since renouncing his inheritance during a 1981estate dispute with his siblings.  Aside from straining his relationship with his brother and sister, he said, “That wasn’t hard, because money’s never been important to me.  What hurt really bad was when my kids got control of the money and tried selling me down the river.”  He alludes to when his two adult children, from whom he’s now estranged, tried ousting him from the home.

Since the early ‘80s he’s subsisted almost entirely on his monthly Social Security check, a small pension and the largess of friends.  He has no car and can often be found pounding the pavement many blocks from home.  Except for a part-time helper, he maintains the extensive, well-manicured grounds himself. While recent hernia surgery has slowed him, his passion for the home and its vibrant history remains unabated.

Only with the help of friends has he nourished his dream for the mansion.  A dream for this Omaha landmark and National Register of Historic Places designee to be preserved as a museum and lasting monument to the Storz legacy.

He has indeed made the home a kind of shrine to his family’s storied past.  Throughout are displayed photos, paintings, letters, awards and assorted other memorabilia that document far-ranging  activities and accomplishments.

He’s turned a basement room into “The Eagle’s Nest.”  There, framed photos and newspaper clippings salute his father’s prominent role in aviation, which had its beginnings in World War I flying alongside ace Eddie Rickenbacker.  Over the years, the elder Storz kept in touch with the flying fraternity and keenly followed aviation advances.  As WWII dawned, he counted among his close friends such Air Force luminaries as Gen. James “Jimmy” Doolittle,  Gen. Curtis LeMay and Brig. Gen. James Stewart, the late beloved actor.  During the Cold War, he played a key role in selling top military brass on the idea of locating the Strategic Air Command here and he spearheaded the development of Eppley Airfield.  He was awarded the military’s highest civilian honors.

Another passion of Papa Storz’s was the great outdoors, and his son has converted a basement room into a mini-“Ducklore Lodge” – the family’s beloved hunting resort near Lisco, Neb. – whose walls practically sag from the weight of so many trophy fish and fowl the old man hooked and bagged.  Family brewing patriarch Gottlieb Storz built the home and two equally impressive family palaces nearby as conspicuous symbols of Storz success.  Edifices to the American Dream made good.   While all three homes survive, only the Farnam mansion remains in the family.  Nothing was spared in its design or construction, which took three years.  Much of it appears as it did in its heyday.   A glaring exception is the interior’s painted-over walls and ceilings, which obscure their original quarter-sawn oak finish.  Storz one day hopes to have the paint stripped and the wood restored, but that project – like others on hold – awaits needed funding.

The mansion’s Old World craftsmanship survives in leaded-glass doors, stained-glass windows, Tiffany lamps, ornately carved woodwork, mosaic tile fireplaces, exquisite murals and countless other fine details.  The pale brick facade includes limestone panel carvings depicting the stuff of the brewmaster’s art – barley, hops, corn.

 

 

 

 

The third-floor ballroom, where the legendary Fred and Adele Astaire began dancing, is off-limits while awaiting renovation.  The main-floor solarium is a sublime replica of the sun room aboard the famed Bremen oceanliner his grandparents sailed on.  The study, music room, parlor and dining room are arranged and decorated in period detail.

Storz can offer insights about every room, antique and feature and  recall anecdotes of stars (Wallace Beery, Robert Taylor, Arthur Godfrey) and dignitaries (Doolittle, LeMay) who dined there.

Those close to him agree his near obsession with the home is a Prodigal Son’s symbolic attempt to win his father’s approval.  Storz himself said hopefully:  “I think my father would probably say, ‘Art, you did a helluva job.’ I think he really would be proud of me.”

The demands of maintaining an elaborate old home have strained his own meager finances and those of the Storz Preservation Foundation he created in 1982.  Things have gotten so tight at times that the utilities have been shut off.   “I was in some terrible messes,” he recalls.  “I was totally broke once, and I was petrified.”  When he first took on the project, friends and family members considered it Art’s latest folly.  “I felt that way, yes,” said his brother.  “I felt it was too much.  There was too much involved to preserve it.”

Art said he was tempted to sell the home – “to take the money and run” – rather than keep it.  “The reason I wanted to run is because I was afraid I would embarrass the family name.  I really couldn’t visualize managing this operation.  It’s a helluva big job.  I knew it was going to cost a lot of money.  And I thought, ‘Where the hell is it going to come from?’”

 

Very low pass (B-17):

 

 

 

But he stubbornly stayed on.  “I never did run because the love’s too great,” he said.  He takes satisfaction in the fact he eventually kept the mansion despite the many hurdles, long odds and nagging doubts. “I gave it everything I had – my heart and soul – because I love the place.  I think I’ve really been tested. There were times when it felt like I’d been in the ring with Muhammad Ali.  I hung in even when I was whipped.”His brother, with whom he’s grown close again, has come to respect his devotion:  “I give him credit.  I don’t know how he did it.  I have admiration for him.  He loves that house.  It’s a love affair – it really is.”

Others still marvel he pulled it off:  “I was afraid he was going to lose the whole shootin’ match and end up on his rear out in the cold,” said Omahan Dick Deaver, a fellow flier and lifelong friend.  “I give him credit for seeing it through.”

The constant struggle did take its toll.  As Art explains, “The pressure was just tremendous.  That kind of stress had a disastrous effect on me.  I got really depressed.   I was just browbeat so bad that I didn’t even want to be around anybody.  I let the place go.   And I hate to even admit this, but I got suicidal.”  He purchased a gun for the deed.  “I was really going to knock myself off,  but I never could pull the trigger,” he said.  Storz, who still suffers from depression, adds, “I’d rather take a good whippin’ physically then take one that emotionally tears you into little pieces.”  In the end, he couldn’t bear disgracing his family that way.  Besides, he still had his mission – the home.

Retired Omaha World-Herald reporter Howard Silber, who’s known Storz for years, said, “I don’t think he’d be alive today if it weren’t for that mission and that zeal.  He lives for that.”

Storz survived his darkest days with the aid of friends.  “When I look back and think about the people who helped me, I just thank God I had friends like that.   I’ll never forget what they did for me.  And don’t think it wasn’t hard for me to accept. I feel a great debt.”

His lowest point came in 1988 when, due to delinquent property tax payments totaling more than $73,000, the home was auctioned off at a forced sheriff’s sale.  It was purchased by a bidder who planned turning it into a restaurant.  A judge gave Storz two years to redeem the taxes and allowed him to remain in the home.  When an effort to raise the needed money failed, things looked bleak.  With the deadline only weeks off, a father-son tandem of Las Vegas gambling magnates came to the rescue.  The father, Jackie Gaughan, was a classmate of Storz’s at Creighton University, and when he heard his old chum was in trouble he enlisted his son Michael’s support.  Once the taxes were paid and the home reclaimed, Michael Gaughan became its legal owner and Storz its chief trustee.  A trust fund helps defray the property’s operating costs and taxes.

“If the Gaughans hadn’t bailed me out, I would have gone down,” said Storz.  “They were my biggest benefactors.”  He’s also grateful to the local media for its sympathetic coverage of his plight.  “The media made me sort of like David and the people trying to knock me out like Goliath,” he said.  That depiction suits him fine.   “I’m a staunch competitor.  I would never quit.”

Even with the home’s immediate future secured, he frets what will happen after he dies.  “I’ve got 16 years here of fighting for my life and I don’t want to lose it now.  Everything I’ve done has come from my heart. When I’m gone I hope somebody says, ‘Well, he’s carried it far enough – it should be kept intact.’”

 
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  1. Ian Storz
    September 14, 2012 at 1:03 am

    I’d like to note my father is one of his children and my father never tried selling he’s own father down the river….. I know this from art’s letters to my father and my personal conversations with him.. Just something I’d thought I would ad.

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  2. August 14, 2014 at 3:30 am

    Everything that you wrote about Arthur was so right-on. I knew him for about a year when my husband was stationed at Sac Headquarters in Bellevue. I had so many precious conversations with him and lifted him a little when he was down . He was truly a dedicated precious sweet “Piece of Work” . So saddened he passed so young.

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