Former Omaha city planner finds downtown home 'exciting'

A home downtown. That is what Alden Aust, former city planner of Omaha, Neb., and his wife, Beth, wanted most after years of suburban living and the daily battle with freeway traffic.

For years while in office, Mr. Aust had been a proponent of downtown redevelopment and had often argued the case for the renovation of old buildings for use as residences.

A year or so ago he decided to act on his own conviction and bought a 1907 brick commercial building in the heart of a downtown neighborhood that is now undergoing a surge of rehabilitation. His own successful renovation has encouraged many others to join the back-to-downtown movement.

''We are finding it an interesting and exciting place to live,'' he says. ''There's a mix of businesses, buildings, and people. Many of the people are young single professionals, or upwardly mobile executives. Some, like us, are adventurous older couples in search of a more convenient address or a little different life style.''

From the Austs' new home on Farnam Street it is only a short walk to banks, stores, the business district, clusters of fine restaurants, and the restored Old Market area with its numerous shops and galleries. It faces on an urban parkway mall that is a distinct amenity in the area.

How has the old 132-foot-long, 22-foot-wide building, which most recently housed a Greek restaurant on its first floor, been transformed? The Austs decided to lease out the ground floor and convert the second floor into their living area, with an addition of a master bedroom. A loft was also added to serve as an office for Aust, now a consultant who works from his home.

Inside and outside brick walls were sandblasted. A suspended ceiling was removed to reveal original wood beams and joists. Skylights were installed to bring more light into the middle of the building. By removing a portion of the roof, an open-to-the-sky atrium was added to one end of the building. Glass walls were installed at both the south and north ends of the building to allow in maximum light.

They called in Leslie Berry, an Omaha interior designer, to help bring warmth , color, design, and comfort to that 3,800 square feet of open boxcar-shaped space. Mr. Berry met the challenge of a long, narrow room by angling almost everything in it, including the stove, the built-in seating arrangement, and the railing that goes up the stairs. Even the new modern kitchen was set at an angle.

It is a plan that fools the eye, breaks up the space, and gives an illusion of breadth and architectural variation. The floor was raised at the front of the area to provide space for a library.

To absorb sound, Mr. Berry used Berber wool carpeting throughout, as well as lots of upholstery, area rugs, and hanging tapestries. With the Austs, he selected a color palette of slate blue, terra cotta, bittersweet, and a shell-colored neutral, arranging their antique and contemporary furnishings and their collections of art and artifacts.

Only the bedroom is separate. Berry refers to the rest of the space as ''the gathering room'' and divides it into several areas. One is the gourmet center that includes kitchen and indoor and outdoor eating areas. The lounge area is dominated by a free-standing fireplace-stove.

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