Adam’s Note: This is a guest article by Jody Lovallo in her continuing series about important women in North Omaha history. Check out the “You Might Like…” section below for links to her other articles. Enjoy “A History of the Zabriskie Mansion” by Jody Lovallo.
Did you ring, sir?.. Sir?..Sir?..Are you alright Mr. Zabriskie?
Omaha history is for sale and the only one who really knew what happened was the maid. She was the one who found Mr. Zabriskie dead on the porch and we don’t even know her name.
Its May 2020, and the Zabriskie Mansion is on the market and it’s been under the media spotlight for several months. Many folks had attended the open house when the for-sale sign was first hammered in the ground. Much has been written about the 1895 Queen Anne style Victorian home in the Bemis Park Landmark Heritage District at 3524 Hawthorne Avenue. Well, I take that back. Much has been written about the mansion and the men who held the deed to the home.
The Women of the House
But what about everyone else who lived in the house? The wives? The servants? The children? The lives of these people should matter just as much as the woodwork, the husband and the son who inherited it.
It could be that women’s history is just so hard to find. Women’s first names were rarely in the newspaper prior to the early 1970s. You often have to read about their husbands lives to understand the wifes’ lives. And the servants? Good luck finding much about them. The Omaha World Herald showed little purpose in making their lives news in the beginning of the 20th Century.
The Zabriskie women and the maid that found the body are no different. But I will share with you what I could find about ALL the Zabriskies.
It all started with a marriage of a 20-year-old Esther and a 30-year-old Edgar in 1870 in Oswego, NY.
Meet Mister Zabriskie
The groom was born in NYC in 1840 and at the tender age of 15 went to sea. He became an officer in a mail ship company at a young age, then he later joined the 8th Artillery of NY and fought in the Civil War. (It was about this time that the American government was making a “land deal” with the Omaha tribe.)
Edgar was injured in the war. After his injury, he served on a dispatch boat “The Reindeer” in the battle of Port Royal, an attack on South Carolina and a win for the Union.
When the war ended, Edgar set his mind on the Midwest. Maybe he had enough of the ocean to last a lifetime and he sought the prairie as a refuge. Here he was, a wounded Civil War Veteran from a well-to-do family with ties to European royalty. The newspaper reported that Edgar Zabriskie was from an elite Polish family that escaped Poland because of problems with the King. There was an ancestor who was actually related to King John 111 and he tried to overthrow him. The family fled to Holland and came to “New Amsterdam” which was later renamed New York City. It is believed Edgar was born in NYC, but grew up near Hackensack, NJ. Like many European families, they changed their surname. Perhaps, they still feared the King of Poland. Who knows? But the family changed their name from Soborowiskie to Zabriskie.
It is unclear what brought young Edgar Zabriskie from NYC to Omaha, Nebraska. Connections from his prestigious, Polish family? Or maybe a hand-shake during the American Civil War? Today local historians have called 1860s Omaha “the plaything of the East Coast industrialists.” And here comes Edgar to the new city at the point of Omaha’s genesis – early enough to be called a “pioneer.” There are records of his being affiliated with the First National Bank of Omaha for 6 months in 1869. He also worked for the Union Pacific and a business in St. Louis.
Esther and Edgar
But before he came to permanently set up home in Omaha, he traveled back to New York to get his bride. After 15 years as a bachelor leading an adventurous war-torn life, he married a woman 10 years his junior.
As noted previously, Edgar and Esther Zabriskie (imagine the two initials embroidered on the towels) married in 1870 in Oswego which is right on Lake Erie and not far from the Canadian border.
At some point between 1870-1878, we know that they left New York and buried an infant in Prospect Hill Cemetery in Omaha. How did they travel to Omaha? Maybe by steam ship via way of St. Louis or rail? We do know he was employed by the UP at some point. I did not uncover anything else to connect the dots in those 8 years. I do not know if the baby was born in New York or Nebraska. We only know that Baby Albert survived just four months and is buried in Omaha’s renown historic graveyard, Prospect Hill.
We know that in the next ten years, Esther gave birth to 2 more children and the newspaper indicates that she gave birth inside her home, not in a hospital.
Esther’s second child, Helen, died after 2 days in 1883.
Imagine the joy of these two parents in seeing their third and now only child, Edgar Junior, live into adulthood and inherit the mansion after his 1888 birth.
Imagine the toil on Esther’s body and the sorrow in her soul as she carried three children to term and had to bury two of them.
The Zabriskie Family
It’s well documented that Edgar was the first one to buy a plot of land in the new subdivision, Bemis Park. Buyers were attracted to its proximity to the streetcar line. The Zabriskie mansion was finished in 1889 and sat alone at the top of the hill for a decade until the rest of the subdivision was filled in.
In obituaries, Edgar’s life in Omaha is described in terms of his work with First National Bank of Omaha. Edgar was a banker, accountant, collector, mortgage broker, and property manager, He is described as “not having belonged to lodges”, only some social clubs and a pioneer member of the First Congregational Church. (I can’t find a picture of this church.)
Three years before Edgar died, there was an ad in the paper seeking a “neat housekeeper” to look after 3 people. This was the only ad for servants I could find attached to the address. Obviously they had had some sort of problem with an untidy housekeeper.
Many consumers of history think that the lives of “the help” don’t matter. People say well they didn’t accomplish anything. They didn’t take risks. Their achievements aren’t important to the masses. But I find their invisible lives interesting and revealing of everything going on at the time. Stories of “the help” are largely untold in Omaha history sources.
With the impending sale of the Zabriskie mansion, there is an item in the house that is always mentioned: the servant’s call box. It’s a door-bell like mechanism that is designed to let the help know from which room their employer called. It still works to ghis day, and is a fun selling-feature of real estate agents. The premise was that “the help” should not be seen until they were rung for. We would only suppose that for a servant’s call box to have survived over 120 years…that the role of these caretakers must have been central to the house.
When the first Edgar Zabriskie died in 1908 he was said to have been house-bound for over a year suffering from apoplexy (stroke-like condition). He lived years past doctors predictions, and fought valiantly to regain his strength. Edgar Jr. was telegraphed at Amhurst College to return to Omaha.
After Edgar’s 1908 death, a “Traveler’s sled” went up for sale in the classified ads. I attached a picture of what it might have looked like. Behind the Zabriskie mansion is a carriage house that has been converted into another residence. You can imagine the horses there and the snows that required them to buy a horse-drawn sled. And for whatever reason, it was sold immediately when the old man died.
The 1913 tornado that stormdd through the neighborhood tore off the dome on top of cylinder turret.
The son Edgar junior spent his young years collecting college degrees: He had a degree from Amhurst College in Massachusetts; A degree in engineering from the University of Michigan; and in 1919 he earned a law degree from Creighton. He married a woman who was four years older than him, Mary Barbara, and they had no children, no heirs to inherit the mansion.
In the phase of the home when Edgar Senior had passed Edgar Junior went away to college and got married, the house was offered for sale in 1920. But apparently, nothing came of it.
Esther Zabriskie lived longer in the house as a widow than she did as a married woman. She had the title of “widow” for 36 years. She died in 1944 at the age of 94. She had lived in Omaha for 70 years.
Edgar Junior’s wife died in 1958. We know nothing about his wife Mary Barbara. There is little about her in the lady’s section of the paper. Her obituary offers no details. She died, leaving Edgar Jr. to live alone in the manor, except for the housekeeper who found him when he died on the porch. Edgar Jr. had run a private practice law office for 50 years out of the Service Life Building.
The Zabriskies were gone with no heirs.
Understanding the Architecture
In the 1970s the house was known as “the birthday cake” house, and in the 1970s, people all across America began to appreciate and protect these unique homes that deserve preservation. Of the 29 homes in Omaha on the National Register of Historic Places, the Zabriskie home is the most stunning Victorian Queen Anne left in Omaha.
What is left to tell the lives of the upper-middle class, European-American pioneers of Omaha is the house. Like it’s builders, it has shades of Europe.
From France, there is window glass and fireplace tiles. From England, walnut paneling was brought in 1889. From Sweden is the craftmanship of parquets, inlays and beading.
The gas lighting and high ceiling in the kitchen are the two most noted things of significance as being features you just can’t get in newer construction.
The Eastlake Movement was a nineteenth-century architectural and household design reform movement started by British architect and writer Charles Eastlake (1836–1906).
The Zabriskie Mansion Today
Today, the porch of the Zabriskie home is considered the finest examples of an “Eastlake porch” in Omaha with its oversized porch posts, railings, balustrades, bargeboards, and braces. Curved brackets, scrolls, and other stylized elements were placed at every corner, turn or projection of the porch façade.
We will keep looking and over turning stones to find out more about the men, women and servants of these old gems. Meanwhile, how lucky for Omaha that this grand Victorian still stands.
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- “Edward Zabriskie Residence” on Wikipedia
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