When North Omaha was littered with large houses, grand mansions, and wealthy estates it was hard to stand above others. Some of the finest homes were in the Kountze Place neighborhood, and had tall towers, wide wrap-around porches, and intricate hand-crafted detailing from European masters who moved to the city. One house combined them all. This is a history of the John P. Bay House in North Omaha.
Mr. Bay Built the House
Throughout his working life, John P. Bay (1853-19??) was an ice magnate, real estate tycoon, and railroad man in Omaha.
Born in Iowa City, Iowa, in 1853, Bay started working for the Union Pacific as an apprentice boy in the shops in Omaha when he was 15 years old in 1868. Working his way up the line, in 1884 he was promoted to become the acting master mechanic, and in 1885, Bay was promoted to become the general foreman of the Union Pacific’s locomotive department. Writing about him, the Omaha Daily World said, “He is a fine mechanic and since learning his trade has seen a great deal of life on the southern roads, from which he returns with a higher opinion of the U.P. system than ever.”
Bay married Mary Bush in Omaha in 1872, and the couple had four children. Their first son, John P. Bay, Jr., died suddenly in 1877 and was buried at the Prospect Hill Cemetery. The couple had three other children including Blanch (1873-??), Wilber (1875-??) and May (1879-??). After a nine-day long sickness in 1881, Bay’s first wife died unexpectedly. He was remarried to Emma Fries (1852-1898) in 1886. The new Mrs. Bay often entertained at her home and was frequently cited in social circles that included many of Omaha’s elite women, including Mrs. Joslyn, Redick, Van Cort, and others.
In 1887, a series of employee complaints led to Bay being forced to resign from the U.P. Shops in Omaha. Apparently Bay had fired a bunch of workers, and after he fired a long-timer without cause, that man got a job somewhere else. However, Bay wrote a letter to his new boss assassinating his character, which led that man to come back to the U.P. Shops to beat up Bay, which he did. The newspaper reported that Bay didn’t fight back, and resigned soon after.
Bay had money tied up in real estate around Omaha, owning lots near Benson, in Kountze Place, and in other locations around the city. He also owned farmland in Kansas. Later in 1887, John P. Bay went into business with William Fitch to start the Fitch & Bay Ice Company.
Located at 2024 Binney Street, John P. Bay’s fine home was built in the heart of the fashionable Kountze Place neighborhood in 1887, and the family moved into the home in October 1887. Located across the street from the wealthy Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, the home was in good company with several other high-end houses and churches along historic Binney Street. Designed in the Queen Anne style by local architect George L. Fisher (1859-1931), the home originally featured a lot of fine features that were whimsical and light, unusual and unexpected. A lot of eclectic, asymmetrical lines connected the rooftop of the house, with steep pitches, multiple dormers, and a large dome-capped tower as the focal point of the home located on the southwest corner. There were a few porches on the house, and stained glass windows surrounded it.
Friends of the family held a large housewarming for them on November 5th of that year.
Late in 1888, Bay and a group of men incorporated a business called the Crystal Ice Company. Focused on the “cutting, packing, storing, manufacturing, selling and delivering, both at wholesale and retail, of ice.” The company took out $60,000 in stock initially, planning to lease waterfront property, build structures, and obtain all the equipment needed for the business. The partner from his first business, William Fitch, was one of the incorporators. Soon after they incorporated though, one of the partners died suddenly and the company had to be reorganized. It continued, and was referred to as “a sort of pool embracing several distinct firms.”
With offices at 218 South 15th Street, the firm cut its ice from the Florence Water Works while the American Water Works Company owned it. In September 1889, the company’s stables at North 12th and Nicholas Streets were destroyed in a “big blaze.” The horses were cleared out in time though, and about $1,000 in damages were covered in insurance. By 1896, the firm moved to 806 North 17th Street.
In an article lauding the city’s wealthiest people for expanding their careers beyond their initial trades, the Omaha World-Herald uplifted Bay for moving beyond the railroad by going into the “mercantile industry” through the Crystal Ice Company.
The Bays were socialites who were frequently cited in the news for their community activities. For instance, they hosted a “lawn social” at their mansion in July 1891. According to a report in the newspaper, “The Kountze Place Fife and Drum Corps gave a benefit lawn social last evening at the residence of John P. Bay… The lawn was prettily and tastily decorated with Chinese lanterns of all colors and descriptions. A large number were present… and everybody seemed to enjoy themselves.”
In January 1892, Bay left Omaha permanently. He “exchanges the atmosphere of the Nebraska ice fields for that of Texas roses,” and moved to Fort Worth to become the general foreman of the U.P. shops there. Within a year he was the foreman of the U.P shops in Laramie, Wyoming before moving to become general foreman at the shops in Cheyenne. A year later in 1898, Bay was promoted to become the superintendent of the U.P. shops in Laramie. His wife Emma died the same year, and soon after Bay retired from the U.P. permanently. His friends from Omaha came to Cheyenne to celebrate, including several of the city’s most important businessmen. After marrying Rachel Davis (nee Mrs. Ray Morgan) in Enid, Oklahoma in 1899, Bay falls off the public record and I haven’t determined when, where, or how he died.
The Fry Family Takes Over
According to his obituary, Thomas Alfred Fry (1860-1934) was a “prominent business executive for 47 years, a founder and former president and king of Ak-Sar-Ben, former school board member, and treasurer of the Chamber of Commerce…”
Fry bought the house when John Bay moved away from Omaha. Born and raised in Lawerence, Kansas, Fry graduate from high school there and went to Selleck’s Military Academy in Norwalk, Connecticut, and graduated from Kansas State University in 1878. Involved in building the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad, he moved to St. Louis for work in his early 20s where he met his wife Bertha B. Fry (1864-1923).
Along with two small children, the young family moved to Omaha from St. Louis in 1887, and lived in the house for the next 40-plus years. Attending the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in North Omaha, the family eventually included six daughters: Elizabeth “Bessie” Matilda (1885-1934), Annie Clarissa (1887-1954), Alice (1889-1979), Daisy Jane (1893-1962) Ethel M. (1894–1973), and Helen Marie (1901–1913). Originally living down on Leavenworth, the Fry family moved up this massive home in Kountze Place in 1892.
In 1887, Thomas Fry visited Omaha on a business trip to establish a branch of the Booth Oyster Company in Omaha, where he was a manager. After opening the Omaha branch, in 1902 Fry became the regional manager for the entire U.S. west of the Mississippi River, and in 1908 he became a receiver for the company’s western interests. He resigned from the Booth Oyster Company in 1912.
Fry spent $1,000 remodeling the home in 1900.
While he was working for Booth Oysters, in 1894 he became a shoe man. Apparently, Fry lent money to John W. Schoelply, who surrendered his business to Fry when he couldn’t pay up. In March of that year, the Sunday World-Herald announced the transaction and said, “Mr. Thomas A. Fry is well known in business circles as a live and enterprising man… It is a matter of gratification to know that one of the principal stores in the busiest retail center of the city is to fall into hands so worthy and those who will make it one of our most popular stores.” After liquidating Schoelply’s merchandise, Fry merged with an older company to form a new company. He became the the president of the Drexel Shoe Company in Omaha in 1895, making and selling shoes across the Midwest. That company ran into the 1950s. Later, he started the Fry Shoe Company, the Stryker Shoe Company and the Shoe Market. In 1912, Fry started and became president of the Cole & Fry Company, which specialized in selling fish and oysters around the Midwest. He sold his part of that company in June 1915. In addition to his retail businesses, Fry was involved in Omaha’s financial market, too, serving as a director of the United States National Bank and as president of the Nebraska Savings and Loan Company. As a business leader, Fry was also a longtime member of the Omaha Commercial Club and heavily involved in promoting business interests for the city.
Heavily involved in Omaha’s high society, Fry was a founder of Ak-Sar-Ben, and helped locate the original Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum in North Omaha. He was the president of Ak-Sar-Ben for nine years. He was a member of several fraternal organizations including the Odd Fellows and the Elks, as well as other organizations like the University Club, the Omaha Country Club, and the Happy Hollow Club. Fry also served as the treasurer of the Omaha Chamber of Commerce for 13 years.
Thomas Fry was elected to a term on the Omaha School Board from 1912 to 1916. Two of Fry’s daughters were teachers at Central High School, one in English and the other in Latin. In 1915, he was appointed to the first-ever City of Omaha Planning Commission for a four-year term. Fry was also a longtime Republican who was deeply involved in party operations.
Thomas’s daughter Helen died at the age of 12 in 1913. Thomas’s wife, Bertha, died suddenly at the age of 59 in 1923. After he died at home in 1934, his home went into probate with his $125,000 estate. Two of his daughters kept living there, but one of them, Bessie, died soon after her father in 1934. was sold in 1936. The family’s plot is in Forest Lawn.
In mourning the passing of Bessie Fry, an editorial in the newspaper also mourned the end of the house’s single family phase. They wrote:
“The Fry home, known for the past 35 years for its generous hospitality, is now a relic of days gone by. The passing of such a house can never be forgotten by the older residents of Binney Street, for it was a home wherein hospitality and good cheer were dispensed with a lavish hand. In a changing Omaha, there are but a few left of this type of ye good old days.”—Omaha World-Herald, December 16, 1934.
The passing of Tom Fry coincided with the end of Kountze Place’s most opulent period. For the next 35 years, the impacts of redlining and white supremacy bared down on the neighborhood in mighty ways, impacting the homes, the families, and the community at large.
Convalescence, then a Rest Home
After Thomas Fry died in 1934, a small second house added to the large lot where the John P. Bay house once stood alone. In 1936, the John P. Bay House was sold to become a convalescent home. In that era, convalescent homes were staffed by nurses who cared for patients for a short time while they recovered from ailments. However, it often served as a hospice-type setting too, and a lot of people died in the intervening years of the house. It served in this capacity for 18 years.
In 1952, it became the Blue Rest Home. Owned and operated by the former Ada Blue (nee Ada Vivian Fair, 1902-1993), the facility was alternately called the Blue Home, the Ada Blue Rest Home, the Blue Retirement Home, the Ada Blue Care Center, and the Ada Blue Resting Facility, and operated until 1976. Advertising a “home-like atmosphere,” in 1957 the Blue Rest Home touted its “good care and food, own living and dining room, TV.”
People lived and died there for the next 25-plus years, and routine things happened. For instance, in 1961 there was a fire scare at the house when a plumber’s torch set off the automatic fire alarms. However, despite all the bells in the house and fire trucks racing to the scene, there was no actual fire and everything was okay. In 1965, a district judge in Douglas County signed a restraining order against the City of Omaha from enforcing an ordinance aimed at regulating retirement centers, specifically citing Ada Blue’s facility among others affected. In 1975, Blue’s Board-Room House was listed in the North Central Directory of Nursing Home Facilities as only accepting women. The next year, she sold the home. When Mrs. Blue closed her business she moved to Arkansas, where she died in 1993.
In Modern Times
In 1976, the home was sold to Leo and Candace “Candy” Downard. Operated as the Queen Anne Manor Residential Care Facility, Candace was the owner of the business. In 1979, the newspaper noted a “suspicious fire” at the house’s garage. The large carriage house, which featured three doors and an upstairs apartment, was destroyed.
After a rash of significant losses to Omaha’s historic properties in the 1960s, a nonprofit organization called Landmarks, Inc. arose to lead the city’s historic preservation movement. In 1981, they succeeded in getting the John P. Bay House designated as an official Omaha Landmark by the City of Omaha Landmark Heritage Preservation Commission. The house was substantially renovated that year, too.
The business at the house was listed for sale in 1982, advertised as a “custodial care center” that was for sale for $325,000. At some point, Ken Engen started operating the manor. The facility was nearly shut down in 1984 when the Nebraska Health Department reported that it suffered, “poor sanitation,” “a lack of hot water,” “improper administration of medication,” and “improper heating.” Licensed to handle 26 residents, the state agency did not know how many were living there at the time of the report. However, there was no further reports on conditions and the home stayed open, and in 1986 it was included in the National Directory of Retirement Facilities.
In 1987 the World-Herald said the John P. Bay House was, “One of the finest examples of Victorian Queen Anne architecture remaining in Omaha. Look for stained – glass windows, three imported Italian fireplaces.”
Engen lost his license to operate the facility in 1988 after he slapped a resident and because of “deficiencies in care.” There were 19 residents at the time, but he regained his license soon after appealing.
According to the Douglas County Assessor’s Office, Annie Todd bought the house from Candice D. Sales, formerly known as Candice Downard, in 1990 for $52,000. The Omaha Police Department accused Todd of working “to get unauthorized payments for room and board at the residential care center” in 1994. In 1995, the state Health Department again moved against a facility at the address, this time seeking to close the Princess Anne Care Center “because of deficiencies the department inspectors found in the operation and physical condition of the center and the handling of medications.” Then licensed for up to 24 residents, it was allowed to have people who “require supervision but who do not need as much care as would be provided in a nursing home.” They had 11 residents at the time. Owned by Anne Todd, she alleged the actions taken by the state started in 1993. The day after the report, Todd appealed the state’s action and won the right to stay open. The state took action against Todd again in 1996, which she appealed in district court and won the right to stay open pending compliance with the state’s recommendations.
A fire at the home in 2016 critically injured two people and hurt a third person. It caused an estimated $15,000 in damages.
Currently in 2022, the assessor’s office lists it in fair condition, and says its a 2 1/2 story apartment building, and lists it as an assisted living/group home with 20 rooms. There are approximately 1882 square feet on the first floor, 1845 square feet on the second floor, and 1380 square feet on the third floor. There is also a 450 square foot finished basement, and 800 square feet of unfinished basement. The main front wraparound porch is entirely enclosed now, and many of the home’s other unique features have been “muted” by years of paint-overs, cover-ups, and other hiding of the historical details of the house. The house sits on almost a 1/2 acre in the Kountze Place neighborhood.
According to the World-Herald, in February 2022 the property was sold by Annie Todd to John and Rachel Pinkerton for almost $75,000. The Pinkerton’s operate halfway houses and other group home facilities in Omaha, and it’s presumed that is what the John P. Bay House is serving as currently.
A relatively new website lists the facility currently at the house, and says this:
“When searching for Alzheimer’s care facilities in Omaha, Nebraska, you will find Princess Anne as an excellent luxurious memory care option that is located at 2020-2024 Binney Street in the 68110 zip code area. It has a maximum capacity of 20 dementia care units and includes amenities that include secure campus to prevent wandering, custom memory care programs and activities and a homey design that facilitates friendships. Its license number is ALF143. Princess Anne provides memory care not only to Omaha residents, but also to all Douglas county residents as well.”—”Dementia, Alzheimer’s & Memory Care Facilities in Omaha, NE” from MemoryCareFacilities.net
They must be running a tight ship today, because no public notices or newspaper reports exist for more than 25 years now.
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MY ARTICLES ABOUT THE HISTORY OF KOUNTZE PLACE
General: Kountze Place | Kountze Park | Omaha University | North 16th Street | North 24th Street | Florence Boulevard | Wirt Street | Binney Street | 16th and Locust Historic District
Houses: Charles Storz House | Anna Wilson’s Mansion | McCreary Mansion | McLain Mansion | Redick Mansion | John E. Reagan House | George F. Shepard House
Churches: First UPC/Faith Temple COGIC | St. Paul Lutheran Church | Hartford Memorial UBC/Rising Star Baptist Church | Immanuel Baptist Church | Calvin Memorial Presbyterian Church | Omaha Presbyterian Theological Seminary | Trinity Methodist Episcopal
Hospitals: Salvation Army Hospital | Swedish Hospital | Kountze Place Hospital
Events: Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition | Greater America Exposition | Riots
Businesses: Hash House | 3006 Building | Grand Theater | 2936 North 24th Street | Corby Theater
Listen to the North Omaha History Podcast show #4 about the history of the Kountze Place neighborhood »