Built on the site of a Mormon campground from the 1840s Winter Quarters settlement, the Parker Mansion once sat at 3021 Vane Street on the edge of the Florence Field neighborhood that borders the Minne Lusa Historic District and Florence.
James Monroe Parker came to Florence in 1856 to open the first Bank of Florence. Parker built a house on Vane Street just west of Second Main Street, which is the present-day North 30th Street. It was originally a small brick house on the edge of a large farm that included more than 100 acres of cornfields. Sitting in a little knoll, it was surrounded by clusters of trees and looked very romantic.
“A gathering place of the city’s bohemian artistic life and a reputed treasure house of paintings and curios.”
His son, William Frederick Parker, was born in 1854, and eventually made his father’s home into a spectacular dreamland that was described as “a gathering place of the city’s bohemian artistic life and a reputed treasure house of paintings and curios.”
The Life of Fred Parker, Jr.
William Frederick Parker was called Fred, and moved removed from the Quad Cities to Florence with his family in 1858. Starting at Talbot Hall in Nebraska City in 1866, Fred went to Griswold College in Davenport, Iowa starting in 1869. Finishing there in 1873, he started at Harvard University the next year, finishing his studies in literature and arts in 1875. He continued studying in New York City for the next year, until he was called back to Omaha in 1876.
Three years later, Fred left on a two-year trip to Europe. During this first trip, he traveled through England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Germany and Italy, and lived in Rome and Paris for considerable lengths.
When Fred Parker died in 1902, he left his estate to Paulina Fraissenet and her son, Francis Tadmir Parker, who was called Frank. The relationship was scandalous because Paulina was Fred’s housekeeper. Frank stood to inherit $500,000.
The Parker Mansion and Art Museum
By the time he got back to Omaha from his worldly travels, Fred was known as an artistic dreamer, and not one determined to keep the farm he inherited from his father. Instead, he held large, frolicking parties at the mansion he built on top of his father’s old house.
Described as a sprawling building, the mansion had ten bedrooms, tunnels underground for mystery and intrigue, and several large entertainment areas both indoors and outside. The Parker Art Museum was covered in white stucco, with fountains, a large courtyard and other unusual features outside the building.
Parker took the money he’d made selling off his father’s land and reinvested into his art and traveling the world. Building a museum packed with half-painted nude canvasses, he held parties constantly and supposedly had wild parties in tunnels that ran under his estate. With wine cellars once rumored the biggest west of New York City, Parker hosted Omaha’s high society at parties and exhibitions and more.
According to historic accounts, during his many trips around the globe Fred Parker had collected artistic treasures from a lot of places. The Parker Art Museum was filled with Italian marbles and hand carved furniture; books from the library of Napoleon the First; paintings from Holland and Flanders and artistic gems; first editions of books, including autographed copies and rare prints; statues and statuettes by premier artists; tapestries that were hand painted and hand woven; and souvenirs from around the world.
Fred did things like make presentations to the Omaha Library Commission on the fossils, petrified plants, and “pre-historic relics” he collected on a trip through the western United States. On one of his 1890s travels, he brought a French woman back from Europe to live at his Vane Street hermitage. She marveled all who met her, and caused a loud squawk when Fred died. His will gave her a lot of money, and his son Francis didn’t like that. Other times, Fred enjoyed prolonged stays in Rome, Venice and other cities, too.
Parker hung around with J. Laurie Wallace a lot, and in turn both of them were associated with the Western Art Association. He also wrote a poetry book called Frondoleer.
Ending the Estate
Fred sold off a lot of the huge estate, allowing Dr. George Miller to develop the Miller Park neighborhood and his namesake contribution to the City of Omaha. Parker also sold his land to Charles Martin twice, allowing the development of Minne Lusa and the Florence Field. Fred Parker passed away in 1902.
The Bohemian friends of Fred Parker testified at the trials in support of Paulina Fraissenet after his death in 1902. They remembered the memorable night he introduced his future wife to them. They saw how pleased he was when she gave him children, who included Frank and Alex. Paulina cared and provided for Fred constantly, and he had been happy in his home and recognized her as his wife. The judge in the case awarded Frank some of the money, as well as the house and art.
Frank Parker was Fred Parker’s son. According to an Omaha World-Herald article from 1914,Frank was set to live at the mansion with his new bride after touring his extensive Florida orange groves with her. An associate of Florence’s Farmer’s State Bank and a real estate agent, he was attributed as one of Omaha’s most wealthy businessmen.
By the early 1910s, the mansion was reportedly empty of life. After sitting mostly empty for a decade, apparently Frank was living elsewhere in the winter of 1920 when Mrs. George P. Bemis was found by the police nearly dead in the second floor of the large house. Alerted by gas lamps lit up in the building commonly known as empty, the police took Mrs. Bemis to the police station, revived her and took her home.
Then, in the pre-war 1930s, Frank was involved in making movies in Florence. With its tales of ghosts and secret passageways, the Parker Estate was apparently an inspiration for the movie writers. In 1931, Frank gave a grumpy interview to the Omaha World-Herald about his reasons for closing the museum and studio, claiming people had stolen his family’s art and artifacts, including his grandfather’s collection of pioneer-era scalps.
In 1942, Frank gave away his father’s printing press, a 300-pound behemoth kept in the museum for the previous 75 years. At 60-years-old, it was already an old machine when Fred bought it. Frank scrapped it as part of a World War II metal drive.
In 1945, the Parker Estate was subdivided one last time. Once the crown of a 10-acre lot, it was separated into several smaller lots and sold to builders.
Hiram Dwoskin acquired the house in the late 1940s, and split it into a four-plex. However, that didn’t fly with the City of Omaha since the neighborhood was zoned for two-plexes at most. Arguing that he’d have to wreck the historical significance of the house, Dwoskin argued to the Omaha City Council that he needed an exception. He didn’t get it though.
After being thoroughly vandalized, the house and museum were condemned in 1956. The City Council toured the wreckage in April, and soon after it was boarded up. It was demolished by December 1st of that year. The tunnels were said to be filled with debris from the building.
By 1959, the Parker Mansion was replaced with a single family ranch-style house that stands there today.
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MY ARTICLES ABOUT THE HISTORY OF FLORENCE:
Public Places: Florence Ferry | Florence High School | The Mormon Tree | Florence Water Works | Mormon Bridge | Florence Boulevard | River Drive | J.J. Pershing Drive and Monument
Businesses: Vennelyst Park | Bank of Florence | Florence Mill | Florence Depot
Houses: Parker Mansion | Brandeis Country Home | Lantry-Thompson Mansion | Mitchell House
People: James M. Parker | James Comey Mitchell | Florence Kilborn
Neighborhoods: Winter Quarters | Florence Field | Wyman Heights