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George Haecker’s Design for Living: “Trying to understand what a building wants to be.”


George Haecker

 

George Haecker’s Design for Living 

“Trying to understand what a building wants to be.”

photos by Bill Sitzmann and provided

story by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the May 2019 edition of Omaha Home Magazine (https://omahamagazine.com/articles/george-haeckers-design-for-living)

Don’t look for ostentatious displays in the work of award-winning Omaha architect George Haecker. He’s a form-follows-function man, whether designing residential, commercial, or civic projects. Above all, his organic approach tries “to avoid cliches,” he says.

“The architectural world is just inundated with cliches,” he says. “I think architecture is way too important as a physical presence in our world, city, and neighborhoods to be trendy. I think the manifestation of it needs to be mature and careful and, hopefully, timeless. It’s public sculpture, whether you like it or not.”

Haecker strives for subdued, not showy, answers to whatever a project’s needs are.

“The thing I bring is, ultimately, an originality to the solution but not an artificial imposition of a style or a big statement,” he says. “I don’t look for the finished product to show off in any way. It might subtly, but you kind of have to look at it twice to say, ‘Well, that’s something different.’ I don’t like to shout and yell and just grab your attention. I want it to be more comfortable and, of course, livable.”

Haecker communes with the unborn structure by “trying to understand what a building wants to be.”

“Every project has a context, a location, an owner, a program, and a need, and the architect’s thought is to try to meld, digest, and mix that all together,” he says. “All kinds of factors influence the result, including budget.”

Brandzel Cottage in Fremont, Nebraska

Brandzel Cottage in Fremont, Nebraska

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate, whose brother Foster Woods Haecker and son Alex Haecker are also architects, broadened his own vision working for firms in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas Virgin Islands, and New York.

“I didn’t leave Nebraska to leave Nebraska,” he says. “I like it here very much for many reasons. But, in your youth, you have an itch to look at different things, and that variety of geography and mentors was extremely valuable.”

A job offer from Dana Larson Roubal & Associates (DLR) lured him back to Nebraska in 1968. By the early 1970s, he became a founder of the Omaha office of BVH Architecture. During his nearly half-century run as a principal and part-owner, leading architectural periodicals published his work, he earned numerous awards from the American Institute of Architects, and he received The Harry F. Cunningham Gold Medal from AIA Nebraska in 2006 (the highest honor that AIA Nebraska bestows upon an individual).

He took a hand in such signature public projects as the Gene Leahy Mall and the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.

Historic renovation work is a big segment of BVH’s portfolio, and he was part of teams that repurposed Omaha’s Union Station and Union Pacific’s Harriman building.

An activist in the preservation community for many years, he successfully campaigned to save the Omaha Building downtown. He also wrote the preface for the 1977 book Omaha City Architecture.

His enduring residential works include private homes in and out of Nebraska. Perhaps his personal favorite is the Woods Cottage in Madeline Island, Wisconsin.

Woods Cottage in Madeline Island, Wisconsin

Interior of Woods Cottage in Madeline Island, Wisconsin

Woods Cottage in Madeline Island, Wisconsin

Front of Woods Cottage in Madeline Island, Wisconsin

“It’s a traditional lake-shore cottage with low-pitched shingle roofs, big overhangs, a big screened-in porch,” Haecker says. “All the siding and windows are real wood with real mullions. There’s no drywall in it. It’s all natural materials inside and out, so it has a real warmth to it. It fits into its environment.”

Another out-of-state favorite is the Keene residence in Crested Butte, Colorado.

“That was a very special challenge,” he says. “That historic town has strict design guidelines for roof pitches, proportions, and windows. My objective was to design a house that fit into that historic environment with the articulation of the floor plan, the pitches of the roofs and the selection of materials. The Keene house is, really, pretty contemporary when you stand back and look at it, but you don’t see it as an intrusion when you drive down the street or you’re inside it.”

Keene Residence, left

Keene Residence

Keene residence in Crested Butte, Colorado

Keene residence in Crested Butte, Colorado

Back home in the Omaha metro, the Matthews residence in Elkhorn’s Skyline Ranches presented the challenge of a new house in a new development.

“It’s a bigger house—pretty grand really in scale and square footage with a big dining room, great room, and game room,” he says. “The topography there was very much a part of it. It’s on a very steep site, so the house steps down the hill with the living levels. It’s somewhat dramatic but not glaring in its forms and colors and materials.” 

Then there’s the Liakos residence in southwest Omaha. He didn’t touch the street facade of this house inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School. But in the back living quarters, he designed a new family kitchen, a new dining room, and a new master bedroom.

Liakos residence in southwest Omaha

Liakos residence in southwest Omaha

“The way the old morphs into the new is what’s kind of fun with that house,” he says. “It’s got big clerestory windows with a lot of light shining in. I like a lot of light, so I use clerestory windows to reach up into the sky and bring light inside.”

He also designed a screened-in porch and deck for the property.

Whatever the project, it’s the architect’s intuitive, interpretive expression of the client’s program.

“Sometimes all the pieces come together with the owner and the site and the budget, and it’s just a joyful passage, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all,” Haecker says. “They’re hiring you, in the end, to bring your perspective and talent and aesthetic into a compatible solution that they’re comfortable with. If you just blindly do what the client wants, you’re just going to end up with, probably, a mediocre solution.”

It’s a delicate dance. “Without being overt about it, the architect needs to gently influence the client to do this or that,” he says.

Matthews residence, Elkhorn Nebraska

Matthews residence, Elkhorn Nebraska

After working most of his career in his own firm, he’s now in independent practice.

Like a lot of architecture shops, he says, BVH “started out loosely organized with unspoken philosophies. Then, as we got bigger, more structure crept in and it morphed from a spiritual camaraderie to a business with a board, policy manuals, schedules, payrolls, insurance. That happens to every firm. I just didn’t fit anymore with the structure of the thing. It was just time to step away from that.”

Today, he enjoys his well-earned autonomy working from a home studio in the 1929 Memorial Park Tudor he shares with wife, Judy. It’s the only home the couple has ever owned. The studio, which he added on, is filled with overhead windows that stream in light. A large drafting table is its centerpiece.

“I still draw by hand,” Haecker says. “A few of us do, but it’s a dying breed.”

He also writes and paints in his sanctuary of a studio space that’s filled with books, maquettes, and artwork.

The three-story home has undergone several other tweaks by his design, including adding bay windows in the living room and a study and sunroom in the back.

Haecker is a collaborating architect with The Architectural Offices in Omaha. He works up conceptual designs for the practice. He also partners on projects with his son, Alex.

In a career spanning six decades, Haecker’s pretty much done it all in terms of architectural types.

“It’s happened that way, and happily so,” he says. “I do like the variety—everything from a bridge to a lake cottage—that I’ve done and been involved with.”   


Visit georgehaecker.com for more information.

This article was printed in the May 2019 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Spellman dacha, Niobrara, Nebraska

Spellman dacha, Niobrara, Nebraska

Mid-Century Modern Leaves Its Mark

February 4, 2013 2 comments

Architecture is not something I usually write about or think about, not because of disinterest, indeed the few times I’ve read or watched interviews with architects I’ve found their discourse fascinating if a little over my head and outside my comfort zone.  If I’ve learned nothing else in my game it’s that when a subject or assignment presents itself that makes me a bit anxious then that is precisely a subject or assignment that I need to pursue.  Such was the case with the following story I did for the Omaha Home section of Omaha Magazine on Mid-Century design and its expression in Omaha architecture of that style.  It was edifying to interview architects who applied the principles of that movement in their work.  I hope the story’s edifying to you.

Mid-Century Modern Leaves Its Mark

©by Leo Adam Biga, ©photos by Bill Sitzmann and Kristine Gerber

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine’s Omaha Home section

 

In post-World War II America a contemporary design style borne of the modernist movement and emphasizing a balance of form and function, came to the attention of visionary Omaha developers and architects. The resulting homes and buildings completed in that style made for some distinctive neighborhoods that endure as models of aesthetics and utility and that continue to fascinate owners and onlookers alike.

What became known as Mid-Century Modern is seeing a resurgence in interest today among preservationists and restorers, thanks in part to television shows like Mad Men and their celebration of vintage culture. That interest was never more evident than during a October 7 Mid-Century Modern tour sponsored by Restore Omaha and Omaha 2020 that drew a record 850 participants.

Restore Omaha president Kristine Gerber says it was the organization’s first tour to focus on an architectural style and the Indian Hills neighborhood offered “the best collection” of Mid-Century Modern. A 2010 Omaha Historic Building Survey of Mid-Century Modern neighborhoods by Leo A. Daly architects Christina Jansen and Jennifer Honebrink offered a blueprint or map for the tour.

For tour participants, it meant getting inside homes, for example, they may have long admired from afar or been curious about to see for themselves the various ways in which these structures bring-the-outdoors-in.

 

04 December 2012- MCM buildings are photographed for Omaha Magazine.

The Swanson Branch Library designed by Leo A. Daly architects in the Brutalist architectural style, which was popular from the 1950s to 1970s.

 

Leo A. Daly company headquarters.

Leo A. Daly company headquarters is a shining model of modernist-inspired architecture.

 

Mid-Century Modern homeowners like Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill love their residences. “We both feel we have lived here forever and plan no move now or later,” says Manhart.

Gerber says there’s growing appreciation for the style’s ahead-of-its-time characteristics of flat roofs, open floor plans, floor-to-ceiling windows, ample natural light and green design-construction elements.

There’s motivation, too, in obtaining National Register of Historic Places status for select Mid-Century Modern structures and neighborhoods that qualify.

Mid-Century Modern can be found in other metro neighborhoods besides Indian Hills, but some intentional decisions made it the prime site for it to flower here.

Food manufacturer brothers Gilbert and W. Clarke Swanson, along with architect Leo A. Daly, saw potential to develop a modern, upscale suburban neighborhood taking its name from the old Indian Hills Golf Course. Commercial structures, such as Christ the King Church and the Leo A. Daly company headquarters, became shining examples of this modernist-inspired architectural style.

But it was left up to a pair of edgy young architects, Don Polsky and Stanley J. How Sr., to design dozens of residential homes in this new development featuring the attributes, values and principles of Mid-Century Modern. How also designed one of Omaha’s most distinctive luxury apartment buildings, the sleek Swanson Towers, in Indian Hills. The building’s since been converted to condominiums.

Together, the Swansons, Daly, How and Polksy, transformed the built Omaha.

“They were young tigers and weren’t necessarily rooted in doing the same old thing and I think they saw an opportunity to do some things that were really unique and new,” says Stan How, president of Stanley J. How Architects, the company his late father founded. He says his father was “a cutting-edge guy.”

 

Stan How, Sr., turned his business over to his son in 1990 but still came into the office every day until his death in December 2011.

Stan How, Sr., turned his business over to his son in 1990 but still came into the office every day until his death in December 2011.

 

Polsky apprenticed with superstar modernist architect Richard Neutra in Los Angeles and borrowed concepts from his mentor and others for the work he did in Omaha. He says Mid-Century Modern’s appeal all these years later makes sense because it’s forward-thinking approaches and emphasis on clean lines, simplicity and efficient use of space are what many homebuyers look for today.

“We were green before its time, we put in a lot of insulation, we shaded our windows, we oriented things towards light and brought light into the home. We used insulating glass, we planted trees to give us shade, we broke the wind from the north, we worked with the client’s budget on the configuration of the sight.”

Passive solar features and energy efficient systems were rarities then.

Stan How says his father began practicing architecture for Leo A. Daly right as the modernist movement caught on. “He started his career at a perfect time to absorb all these new things going on. When he went out on his own he had some clients who had the guts, he’d always say, to explore some of these ideas and let him toy around with that.” Mike Ford became a key early client.

“Mike was a young guy who wanted to do something really new, so my dad floated out the contemporary style or what we now call Mid-Century Modern and Mike loved it  But he also didn’t want to be the only one on the street with a house like that, so he bought four lots and said, ‘Let’s do four spec houses,’ and that’s what they did.”

One of those Stanley How-designed homes, built in 1963, was later purchased by Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill.

Home buyers like Ford were the exception, however, not the rule, as Mid-Century found relatively few takers.

“We’re a pretty conservative group, Omaha. It’s not Los Angeles. I thought you’d just show a few things and they’d be beating a path to your door, but it didn’t turn out that way,” says Polsky. “There’s still a limited supply of buyers for this type of architecture but you do what you can, you carry the torch.”

 

 

Stan How, Sr., turned his business over to his son in 1990 but still came into the office every day until his death in December 2011.

 

Don Polsky at his drafting desk.

Don Polsky at his drafting desk, circa 1979.

 

Polsky marveled though at the huge turnout to see his homes and those of his old colleague, Stanley How Sr. “It’s amazing how many people showed up,” he says.

Stan How says designs by his father and Polsky are the antithesis of the overblown, oversized McMansions many homeowners reject today. “I think people are coming back to simplicity.” Indeed, Mark Manhart says “the clean lines and classic simplicity” of his home are major attraction points for he and his wife and the many inquirers who call on them.

The only regret How has is that his father wasn’t around to see all the love his homes are getting today. “He would have absolutely reveled in it. He would have loved it.”

The March 1-2 Restore Omaha Conference will once again offer a strong lineup of expert preservation and restoration presenters, says Gerber, who promises a dynamic host site that gives attendees an insider’s glimpse at some landmark.

For details, visit http://restoreomaha.org.

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