After long, busy weeks in hot downtown Omaha offices, business leaders wanted to relax and enjoy the splendor of their wealth. Crammed against busy urban streets and filled with reminders of work, their swanky Gold Coast homes weren’t perfect settings. Instead, they built lavish country estates as getaways for their families. Far North Omaha’s bucolic settings included the rolling hills west of Florence.
This is Arlena Lodge…
|This image is from a 1909 feature on the home in the Omaha Bee.|
In the early 1900s, it became fashionable for Omaha’s elite to build country homes around the city. These elaborate places would take acres of lands that would be planted with acres of forests, given artificial lakes, and decorated with elaborate landscaping. One of the prime locations were North Omaha’s Florence Hills, which extended west of the town.
Taking over the massive department store business from his father, under Arthur’s leadership it became regarded as the most splendid shopping experience west of Chicago.Arthur Brandeis, a scion of the Brandeis family, was the visionary president of the company for years and a leader in AkSarBen. Born in 1862, his father, Jonas Leopold Brandeis, was a store owner in Wisconsin who eventually moved his business to Omaha. His mother, Franziska (Fanny) Brandeis, was a traditional mother who raised her children carefully.
|Arthur and his family, including his wife, three children and a nanny, and his sister. His children were Ruth, E. John, and Leola (or Viola).|
Boatloads of Money
After he his family was reaping in boatloads of money from their store, they enjoyed their wealth in a variety of ways. One brother, Emil, raced cars at the Omaha Driving Park and world traveler who traveled around the globe several times. His sister, Sarah, owned a number of investment properties in California and became extravagantly wealthy. The other brother, Hugo, was a very important buyer and salesman for the family business.
The Brandeis were rolling in dough.
|This is Sarah Brandeis, Arthur’s sister, standing in the county home’s porch in 19–.|
Building an Country Estate
Almost a decade before family misfortunes struck, Arthur took it upon himself to build a country home in the Florence hills on North 52nd Street. Built in 1906, the house was renowned for its Mediterranean influence, high style and grand feeling as visitors looked out across its lawn towards rolling fields and beautiful Nebraskan sunsets. Many family events happened there, including several weddings.
The home was featured in a 1909 Omaha Bee feature on country homes around the city.
|This is Arthur, standing at the center with his wife seated with their two youngest children on either side, and his older daughters, nieces, and sister Sarah standing to his left.|
Fitting of a country home, Arlena Lodge was renowned for its collection of birds, including several grand ducks and chickens. They were truly the talk of the town, and the Omaha Bee reported specifically on them. Unfortunately, I cannot find any pictures of these birds. Their eggs were supposedly enormous though, and according to one newspaper writer, strikingly good in omelets. As the writer said, “The almost countless flocks of beautiful poultry are a sight to behold.”
A Big Businessman
Arthur was as big of a businessman as Omaha had produced up to that point.
In the first decade of the 1900s, Arthur focused on the Brandeis Realty Company to speculate and sell land in Omaha, and it became a big business. He started two other land companies to sell properties, too.
A decade after the Trans-Mississippi Exposition of 1898, Arthur decided Omaha needed a first-class hotel. In 1912, Brandeis donated a quarter of a square block on the northwest corner of 18th and Douglas streets, and made it clear that a $1 million hotel was what he wanted built. Gurdon Wattles, the leader of the Expo, took him up on the opportunity and rallied investors to build the Fontenelle Hotel. It was demolished in 1983, and is now the site of the federal courthouse.
Arthur wanted to run theatres, too. The Brandeis Theater was built in 1910, downtown at the corner of 17th and Douglas Streets. Once described as the most beautiful playhouse in America, it was an elegant Art Nouveau style theater that live productions, including opera and vaudeville, and introduced some of the first films to Omaha. It was demolished for a parking garage in 1959.
He opened the Empress Theatre in 1912, the year that his brother died. A grand vaudeville house that also showed “moving picture shows”, the The Empress sat on the block near 15th and Douglas in downtown Omaha. It was burned to the ground in 1929, and later became the location of the Woolworth’s Department Store. Today it is a parking garage.
|This is the inside porch / sitting room at Arlena Lodge. The walls and ceiling are covered in lattice.|
Tragedy Befalls the Family
Arthur’s brother Emil died in during the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. There’s a dramatic story about he gave up his seat on a lifeboat for a Mrs. Harris, who spoke highly of his valor afterward. Emil’s body was recovered and sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Arthur’s wife went to retrieve it. He was buried at Prospect Hill Cemetery.
His older brother died later that year. Hugo, who was 38 years old and had been married for more than a decade, was said to have died from grief at the loss of his brother.
After those calamities, Arthur wanted to expand his horizons.
|Here, the family is relaxing in their living room. The women sit on a swinging couch, while two young people are on the floor and Arthur is seated by an upright piano.|
Moving to the Big City
After his brothers died and his family was growing up, Arthur decided it was time for a radical change.
In May 1914 Arthur Brandeis moved to New York City and was hired First Vice President of Stern Brothers Store. In 1911, his daughter had married Irving C. Stern, one of the founders and directors of Stern Brothers.
Within a year of moving to New York City, though, Arthur stopped working for the company. He left his money in Stern Brothers, and began focusing on managing his Omaha real estate and business interests from the City.
By the time they’d sold Arlena Lodge and their summer acres, the Brandeis had compounded more than 250 acres in their holdings. This acreage eventually became home to a development known as Raven Oaks, which stands there today.
|A rustic arbor leading to a gazebo that looked out over a rolling field.|
|The grand walkway leading to the entrance of the home. The driveway is on the right, and a car is parked there.|
After a botched appendicitis surgery, Arthur Brandeis died suddenly in 1916.
I have not located any mention of Arlena Lodge after 1912, except for one report that said it was in a different location than the Omaha Bee and other sources.
|The grand walkway is covered in flowers, and there is a concrete fountain in the middle of it.|
|Some sort of dress-up production was held at the home, and this shot of one of the Brandeis daughters shows her in a 14th century costume. She is standing on the back porch of the house.|
|Some sort of dress-up production was held at the home, and this shot shows one of the Brandeis daughters and her father, Arthur, who is in a 14th century costume. They are seated on a bench in the lawn of the home, with a sundial in the background.|
|This is one of the Brandeis daughters standing at a sundial in the lawn, with the lawn of the home in the background.|
|Some sort of dress-up production was held at the home, and this shot shows one of the Brandeis daughters ladeling water and her father in a 14th century costume.|
- Leo Adam Biga (2010) “Brandeis Story: Great Plains Family-Owned Department Store Empire.” – This is a really nice, complete family history. Highly recommended!
|The early leaders of the Brandeis clan, including Jonas, Hugo, Arthur and Emile.|
|A postcard featuring the Brandeis Store, and the Brandeis Theatre from est 1908.|
|The exterior of the Brandeis family’s Empress Theatre from est 1920.|
|The interior of the Brandeis family’s Empress Theatre from 1913.|
|A postcard for the Hotel Fontenelle from circa 1925. Arthur Brandeis enable the construction of this bohomoth by donating the land where it sits.|
|This article from the March 10, 1910 Omaha Bee reported that Brandeis gave 1,000 eggs from Arlena Lodge to a gathering in downtown Omaha.|
|The ascending generations of the Brandeis men, Arthur, his cousin George, and his son E. John Brandeis.