This particular house fixation of ours, if you like to call it such, becomes a real drawback for an unsuspecting driver. Sometimes I fancy Mr. Cassette my driver but that’s only because he insists on driving us everywhere. He really is an innocent accomplice, fairly unaffected about my little names and most definitely not interested in the phantom sightings and latest building compulsions at hand. The Architectural Wog comes on most unexpected and one never knows when one’s spirits will be piqued. It means, for example, that if you are tooling by and if the obsessive one should happen to spy, over in a corner of a garden, a magnificent outdoor fireplace, constructed within the very chimney of the indoor fireplace of a lovely, historic, clinker brick home, one must insist that the car come to a screeching halt at once. I trust you understand these matters for you, very often, have done the same. And that is what happened. I saw the rustic hearth, tiled in some historic shade of blond, and framed in the most fantastic darkened stone from another time. It was a devastating sight. When you are an obsessive, you have not the heart to pass these relics by and leave them to mourn alone on a sunny afternoon. (I don’t know this fireplace’s personality or if she is even one for mourning as she seems like she would enjoy some stimulating conversation, group sing-a-longs and marshmallows on sticky sticks in the late of night.) A true house lover will be navigated back to the desired site without the aid of a pilot to have a proper vigil alone and there she can study her subject without nagging or interruption. Whatever the magnetic characteristic is, in this case a mysterious fireplace, you have to put it in the center of your mind, in a place of honor, for we lovers of beauty and pure oddity do not often see These Sorts of Things these days. Meaning architectural clues and savory historic details. Studying the house—absorbing all that it suggests and allowing one to get lost in a dream of the past, is just one form of folly to which our little shared neurosis can lead. With no regrets, I choose to be subsumed in the curious past.
Well, one must, mustn’t one? If you could have seen this outdoor hearth, you would have agreed that the situation was desperate. Desperate for our ogling. The flawless green expanse of lawn was like a thick, luxuriant rug pulled right up to the open, well-scrubbed fireplace, hinting that it was no longer used as a family gathering spot. But she was no cast-off. The surrounding garden was a tidy, sunlit backdrop, almost like outdoor-indoor room from decades earlier. It was as if an anxious chambermaid had just spruced the whole area as if expecting guests. I wondered how has a phantom chambermaid any right to wring one’s hands and toil in this serenely manicured, outdoor-but-so-like-an-indoor-room when she must know unsuspecting toodlers might meander by and be caught all googly-eye astonished. Whoever designed this mysterious fireplace, why even her current stewards, must be held responsible for slowly driving me daffy, in the most glorious of ways.
**Update of August 29, 2020** The address from this article has been removed at the owner’s request. This is the first My Omaha Obsession has encountered this particular unfortunate event. Now I try and do everything I can to be respectful of these glorious homes and their latest stewards by not using current owner names, not striding onto properties and not ringing up the possessor. The renter of this home has claimed that people have asked her for tours, presumably from interest around my article. Now if this is indeed true and our detective friends have been emboldened to make this request of this residence and those featured in the past, please, friends, refrain from here on out. Or learn to read people’s body language and facial expression more skillfully. Not everyone understands our house obsession and perhaps not everyone has experienced someone asking for a peek around. This query used to be commonplace and a firm, “I’m sorry but I don’t allow strangers into my home” did the trick. But these are very different times and it is sad that we have been advised to fear one another. I know from my childhood home in Benson, it seemed every few years there would be a knock on the door from any number of people who had previously resided in our home—they had returned for a proper look-see. It has even happened at the home I live in today. Likewise I have friends with fantastic homes in Omaha where strangers pull up and ask all sorts of questions of. But not everyone these days is comfortable with the 20 home questions and we must be observant of others’ privacy and need for safety. The sadness for me and my research is the realization that with names withheld and the possibility of addresses withheld, my website will no longer serve as a history hub and gathering place of memories for those wanting to understand Omaha’s built environment. I will have to see what the future holds for the website.
I just love old houses and there are many features I can’t seem to get enough of–pocket shutters, dentil molding, diamond shaped slate roofs, parapeted gables, laundry chutes, sleeping porches and Dutch doors but the outdoor fireplace built into the house is one rustic architectural detail that I don’t recall ever seeing. As far as outdoor fires and cooking goes, I get all goosey for a good 1950s Barbecue House or a separate summer kitchen with a baking oven, but especially for an old stony, well loved barbecue pit at a public park. We have discussed these enchanters in our detective meetings. Yes, I have seen private outdoor fireplaces too but they have always freestanding to my memory and unfortunately too many of them have been of the 2000s-No-Personality-Hardscape poolside variety.
The Vulcan construction plan reads: “Taking the fireplace outdoors has done much to develop the lawn and terrace into summer living rooms for the entertainment of families and friends. Build either the Vulcan Field Stone Fireplace or the Mercury Brick Fireplace.” Published Date: circa 1945.
I found this great newspaper article from Washington State, displaying the dark and bewitching rock garden of Mr. and Mrs. F. L. Rohrbach. The couple designed their garden and erected an outdoor fireplace as its newest attraction. Now this looked like an actual fireplace, similar to the style of our latest obsession.
Please don’t mistake today’s query for my other obsession with stacked, multi-floored fireplaces with shared chimneys.
In case you are not familiar with the brick house at XXXX Hickory, I assure you, it is one of the snappier little houses around. According to the Douglas County Assessor’s database, she was constructed in 1927.
I think she could be named a modest Tudor cottage style, befitting of magical gnomes or a fair, redheaded girl with a beautiful sprinkling freckles. XXXX Hickory is deceivingly private, in that it looks so out in the open…almost as if on display. A real decoy she is. People’s eyes tend to study her longer, I am just sure of it. The elusive placement of the front door, hidden on the east side out of view and even the chimney’s positioning itself is quite curious. Her strong brick chimney, matching the home’s clinker exterior, is also adorned with decorative, rubble or field stone, suggesting a fairytale cottage or a country house. Also disconcertingly wondrous is her very placement in this neighborhood of mostly mid-century modern ranches. (I did find another great home up the road to the west, erected in 1927.) This strange commingling only served to enhance XXXX Hickory’s movie-set house guise. It made me fall for her even more.
The neighboring houses.
Sitting toward the (back?) west of the property, the low-profile outdoor fireplace had a rustic lodge or campground ambiance compared to the fussy appeal of the rest of the building. Was the outdoor fireplace feature added later? I was overcome with curiosity about the origins of this small but intentional structure. Had this been a trend? How were these double fireplaces built? What do we know about how they were used? All seasons, surrounded by patio furniture? The yellowish tile work was certainly in fitting with chimneys built in the 1920s. Stepfather of Miss Cassette, being an engineer (I don’t think they ever truly retire), was certainly concerned about the conjoining flues inside of one chimney, the necessary spacing and sealant between the individual flues. I informed him that this particular outdoor fireplace appeared to be have been regretfully laid off many years previous and not to worry.
I would discover these similar outdoor fireplaces, sharing the chimneys of obvious indoor fireplaces but I could not find much writing on the intriguing topic. Whoa is me without my beloved public library due to COVID precautions. (Tip for those who think the public library is not needed with invention of the Internet—there are many secrets held within a library’s walls that are not accessible through the web. Long Live Libraries.)
A 1927 English Cotswold home in a western suburb of Chicago features a coach house renovated into a guesthouse. Now apparently this coach house was more recently constructed by its built in fireplace is an interesting likeness.
Historic Grey Shingles Camps in New Hampshire, features a castle like wing with an outdoor fireplace built into the structure.
The Yelping Hill Farm in West Cornwall, Connecticut’s guesthouse features an outdoor fireplace attached to the building, much like our XXXX Hickory home.
As I am very busy of late, swimming in my free time and nearly up to my elbows in manila file folders and deeds with investigations, the only logical conclusion in the detection of this outdoor fireplace would seem to be to join forces with my Omaha sleuthing friends—an interactive proposition. Fellow Sherlocks, what have we here? Do you know the story of this fireplace style or the details of XXXX Hickory? Do you have a story about another similar outdoor fireplace built into a chimney?
My Short Investigation
Again XXXX Hickory was built in 1927, according to the Douglas County Assessor’s database. Her legal address is LANDS SEC-TWN-RGE 26-15-12 S 140 N 635 E 91 W 656.2 FT SW 1/4 NE 1/4 91 X 140. You have heard me bemoan the Lands parcels in the past, only because they propose additional challenges when house detecting but often this just means more fun. This Lands designation is an additionally cool clue, because it means XXXX Hickory was one of the first (oldest) in this area and was not, therefore, a part of a modern addition. The house to the west, carrying the address of XXXX Hickory, (apparently built in 1979) was also held in Lands.
1938 aerial view of XXXX Hickory shows that it was The Only Lonely in the area, surrounded by farmland. Top of the photo is north. The curving drive resembles its current state. It appears that XXXX Hickory, to the west, was a part of a large parcel, potentially a spacious garden area for XXXX Hickory. It is hard to fathom the quietude and serene beauty of this area back in 1938, but I’m going to give it a whirl. 1938 aerial borrowed from the Douglas County/Omaha NE GIS Department website.
The 1941 aerial view of XXXX Hickory is much the same. Desolation and peace. There is a small grove on the west lot where the house named XXXX now stands. 1941 aerial borrowed from the Douglas County/Omaha NE GIS Department website.
Back in September of 1950, local attorney John D. Wear announced a plat of the area between Seventy-fifth and Seventy-eighth Streets, north of Shirley approved for residential development. The new residential area would be named Cornish Heights.
Early Cornish Heights advertisement which gives a nice visual of the plat for inquiring minds. Not surprisingly, Wear was co-owner and developer, his name could later be found in Cornish Heights’ print ads. I found the Cornish Heights and Stratford Terrace additions soon enveloped our little brick XXXX Hickory address, with ranches found stationed up and down the streets. This scrumptious tree named neighborhood remains a classic mid-century ranch tour with incredible, mature trees and shady lanes off the beaten path, wedged between busy Pacific and Center Streets. One of my favorite Omaha hideaways!
1955 aerial reveals a very different look to the 76th and Hickory area. MCM sprawling tracts with complete with crisp, wide drives for growing, mobile families. 1955 aerial borrowed from the Douglas County/Omaha NE GIS Department website.
Here is what we know. The lucky ducks who currently own the historic XXXX Hickory Street also own XXXX Hickory Street, the much younger house to the west. Although I would wager that the two parcels were one in the same early on, I don’t believe that once XXXX was built, the two homes were previously held in the same name. I could be wrong. I found a history of separate surnames residing in the properties. The current owners appeared to first move into the larger, younger XXXX Hickory by at least the early 1980s, having previously resided out in west Omaha. I found indication that they owned the XXXX Hickory by at least 1992. They possibly use the smaller home as a rental property. The snuggly close and perfectly laid driveways suggest a mother in law house or a rental unit in XXXX Hickory.
Current aerial of XXXX and XXXX Hickory Street borrowed from the Douglas County/Omaha NE GIS Department website.
XXXX Hickory, built in 1979. Legal description is LANDS SEC-TWN-RGE 26-15-12 S 140 N 635 E 174 W 565.2 FT SW 1/4 NE 1/4 174 X 140. Photo borrowed from the Douglas County Assessor website.
I have a delightful friend named Mary. Mary is the type of galpal that I can talk to All Day about house stalking and she usually knows exactly what I am talking about. She never misses a beat and most serendipitously often has the same architectonic specter impressions as I. When I was recently talking to Mary about the mysterious fireplace house, she said her auntie used to live up the road from that very home. This auntie apparently had a swimming pool. Mary and her family would walk by the little house at XXXX on the way to go swimming and in her recollection there was another home at XXXX that strangely extended out into Hickory Street. She remembers it awkwardly stretched so far, she recalls having to walk around it. She thought there had been another house on the lot of XXXX previous to the 1979 home that stands there now. In my review of the Dogis historic aerials, between the 1962 and 1973 aerials, I could not find proof of another house having been on the lot. Now we know that the Assessor’s site estimated XXXX as having been built in 1979 but I wasn’t able to make out a house in the photos until the 1982 overview, where the home and driveway are distinctly viewable. This image suggests the property held the exact footprint that it has now. For the record, any DOGIS enthusiast knows that the 1973 aerials shots are The Worst on Record. Unfortunately a clearer viewing from 1962 to 73 could have cinched the deal. I wondered if Mary was remembering the XXXX Hickory home being built, thus forcing the girls to have to walk around it in the street? Just an idea but I’m eager to hear if anyone else remembers this strange building.
And here I will have to draw a line, at least for today, but not because there isn’t anything more to say but because I could rattle on all day. I do hope that you can set out on an adventure and view this remarkable, mysterious fireplace and her adjoining home. I know the fascination. I dream that many of you hold the clues to this case and will let the rest of us know the scoop in comments. Let’s hope we will embark on a fine voyage from which there will be no returning. Dream big, obsessors.
**Addendum of August 29, 2020**
The current homeowner, (name withheld at her request), emailed that her family bought the 1920s brick home in the 70’s. They eventually built the house next door (to the west) in 1979. They rent out the smaller home. She discovered that long ago, Hickory Street was one lane going one-way–East. An elderly widower, Mr. Hanley, lived in the little brick house. She wrote: “I remember being told years ago that he had the patent on the original aluminum, webbed lawn chair! Mr. Hanley died in his 90s with a nephew handling his estate. When we purchased the property it was it in disrepair and overgrown. Lightning struck the roof September of 1992, leaving the house smoke and fire damaged. We had it repaired. We had the address changed when we divided the property. It originally faced 76th Street. Most of the info I received was from Bob Wear, neighbor and real estate agent.” I couldn’t help but wonder if Bob Wear was related to the original Cornish Heights’ Wears?
I welcome your feedback and comments on the mysterious fireplace, the great little home at 7656 Hickory and the Cornish Heights addition. This is only a small part of the story and we’d all love to hear your input and secret clues.
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