Outdoor dining room and seating area.

photo by: Dana Damewood

Preservation Magazine, Summer 2021

Nancy Flansburg-Novak Renews a Midcentury House in Her Childhood Neighborhood

From our interview with Nancy Flansburg-Novak:

I grew up in this neighborhood in Omaha, Nebraska. My parents had an incredible Modernist home from 1969 that was a regional American Institute of Architects award winner. Eighteen years ago, my husband, Paul, and I were living in Minneapolis and planning on moving back to Omaha.

We knew we wanted a Midcentury Modern home, and we knew we wanted to get back to the neighborhood to be closer to my folks. We have twin boys who were 3 years old at the time.

A friend who was a real estate agent said, “Look, Midcentury Modern homes in the area hardly ever come up for sale. Why don’t you just get an apartment and get settled, and we’ll keep our eyes open?”

So we did. We moved into a giant, 1,300-square-foot apartment down in the Old Market, which is a historic district in Omaha. It was great. A week after we got unpacked, my mother called and said, “Hey, there’s a house for sale in the neighborhood I think you might like.” And when we drove by, it was this house.

The agent wasn’t even looking for it yet, because she figured she’d let us get settled first. Finding it felt like fate. We bought it right away, and that’s how it all started.

Jack Savage was the original architect and the original owner. He built it for himself in 1957. He’s a really cool guy—a well-known architect here in Omaha. I’m an interior designer, and we both worked for the firm Leo A. Daly, at different times. That’s how we were able to connect; we had mutual friends who were still at Daly. I have done an interior restoration on one of Jack’s other homes—somebody I went to high school with bought one up the street.

Most of the work we’ve done on our house has been about trying to get back to Jack’s work. The exterior was all redwood, but the previous owners had refaced part of it with cedar. When we bought it, the front windows, which were not original, looked like your typical 1960s ranch-style windows, where you would have a gang of three with the little hoppers on the bottom.

When we redid them, we copied a floor-to-ceiling window in the back of the house that had never been messed with. And we put back the redwood on the front. Right now, we’re replacing the last of the remaining cedar on the back of the house with reclaimed redwood.

Jack trimmed all the windows in white wood. It’s very California Modernist. Kind of “Richard Neutra meets Omaha.” All of the windows we put back are wood, like the originals. We also added a new front door with big sidelights, which again matches the original style of the home.

Inside, we put in wool carpeting that complemented that style of home, and just painted everything white, so it was all about the wood and the high and low color palette of the house. We also added tongue-and-groove walnut paneling because it felt like the core of the house needed that. There is a strong connection from the exterior to the interior, and you could see the redwood on the outside of the house flow in and just [stop]. We brought the wood inside and completed the move. The walnut goes from the family room all the way down the hall and into the formal living room, so it has this nice connectivity.

The original part of the house had flagstone slate everywhere, in the corridors and the formal family room. There were ceramic-tile and maple floors in the vestibule when we bought the house, and we took that out and added slate from Daltile. The kitchen floor was originally a ceramic tile that looked like cork, and new tiles had been added over it. We tore all of that out and [used] real cork.

Right now our master bedroom has an off-the-rack sliding glass door. We’re about to replace it with a big wall-to-wall window that again will be original to the style of the house.

If we had the funds, we would have done a lot of the work earlier. We just couldn’t afford to do everything at once. Two weeks ago, we got a brand-new roof and some new skylights. We’ve had setbacks like that, where we’re ready to do something aesthetic and then we’ve got to fix [something more important].

There’s a deck tennis court in the backyard. The court was original to the house; Jack built it. The structure was all redwood. We shored it up and kept most of the original floor. We sunk a lot of our early funds into just making sure it would stay [standing].

In the summertime the court is completely covered in grapevines. So when you’re playing you can’t see anything around you. Deck tennis is similar to pickleball. My husband plays all the time. It’s really pretty cool.

Our kids are in college now. We’ve been doing work on the house the whole time they’ve been growing up. It’s hard as a designer not to sit around and think about what the next project will be.

We did a lot of the work ourselves, especially on the exterior. I’m particular about getting details just right. We luckily have found a great independent contractor who does all the work we don’t have the skills to do, and he does it beautifully.

I don’t do much residential work—I do mostly commercial design—but I am always amazed when people build giant, unusable spaces in their houses. To me, this house is just the right size. It’s about 2,400 square feet, and that includes the laundry room and some storage space.

The kids’ rooms are small, but they are very efficient. Everything is built in—the dressers and all of the storage. You move in and all you need is a bed and a chair and a nightstand. The kids still come home to visit, so the bedrooms are still used as bedrooms, but it’s not like we have a ton of unusable space.

In the day of COVID lockdowns, all of a sudden we had two offices set up in the house. Paul teaches third grade, and at the time he worked at a desk set up in the family room. My desk is at the far end of the fireplace room. Both areas are kind of “breakout” spaces in the larger open living space and have great views to the outdoors. So they worked out great.

The couple standing beside each other outside of their house, with their brown dog.

photo by: Dana Damewood

Nancy Flansburg-Novak, a partner at Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture, and Paul Novak, a teacher at Hillside Elementary School, with their dog, Esther.

And even though our kids are away most of the time now, I wouldn’t say that we feel like we’re in too big of a space. It’s transitioned really well. I think that’s one of the beauties of midcentury design.

This story has been corrected from the print version, which mistakenly describes Nancy Flansburg-Novak as an architect. She is an interior designer.

Meghan Drueding is the managing editor of Preservation magazine. She has a weakness for Midcentury Modernism, walkable cities, and coffee table books about architecture and design.

@mdrueding

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