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In a Hectic World, a Little Slice of Eden

The house is the first thing that catches your eye. It’s not everyday you see a towering Chinese “pagoda” in a residential neighborhood. The next thing is the landscape — a Chinese garden filled with boulders, trees, rock streams, nodding sage, creeping juniper and a winding cedar staircase that beckons you upward and inward.
Once inside, you find tranquility—despite being just two blocks from 72nd and Dodge streets, the busiest intersection in Omaha.

But to Bing Chen and his family it’s just home.

Chen, chair of the Department of Computer and Electronics Engineering, began creating his slice of Eden more than 10 years ago. To prevent its likely demolition, he purchased the pagoda from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in an auction.

The house was exactly what Chen wanted but it created a dilemma—it sits so high, he could virtually see into the homes of all of his neighbors.

“This lot was flat—like the rest of the neighborhood,” Chen said. “I wanted to make sure my neighbors had privacy.”
To do that, Chen brought in tons of landscape boulders and dirt, full-grown evergreens and shrubs and plants of every variety. Now, the yard rises up to 20 feet in some places. From the highest point in the garden, only the rooftops of a few homes can be seen.

Because of the size of the house—it is several thousand square feet—Chen needed to make it energy-efficient. The garden acts as a berm on the north side of the house and the many pine trees make the wind loads negligible. Chen also lined the lower and upper levels of the home with windows on the south side, allowing passive solar heat to warm the house in the winter. “On sunny days, I basically turn off the furnace,” he said.

But in the garden, you don’t think about wind loads, energy efficiency or passive solar heat. You think about beauty.

“This is what I call a Chinese landscape painting—God’s-eye view of the universe,” he said one day last summer during a walk through the garden.

Walking the winding trails we are surrounded with the heady fragrances of sage, juniper and pine. We duck through a jungle of bamboo, clamber over a somewhat precarious section of trails and skirt boulders as tall as Chen. We stop amid wildflowers surrounded by a grove of trees—“Mountain Meadow,” Chen calls it—Eastern Poplars chosen for their similarity to Quaking Aspens.

“I planted these because of my great love for Wyoming and Colorado,” Chen said. “The leaves of aspens make a beautiful rustling sound when the breeze hits them.” As if on cue, a gentle breeze stirs the leaves. He closes his eyes for a moment, then opens them and smiles.

Through the half-mile of trails, the sound of falling water is constant, but soothing. And then we see it: Water cascading over meticulously placed boulders into a pond filled with Japanese koi, water lilies and even a frog or two. It’s an awesome sight—“Distant Mountain with Waterfall,” Chen calls it. The waterfall is central to the design of the garden and is the dominant view from the house. “In the spring and summer you can hear the water inside the house. It’s very peaceful.”

Although the house and the garden sit on just two-thirds of an acre of land, there is a feeling of vastness, as if the garden goes on forever. Sometimes it appears tame and yielding; other times, wild and formidable. That’s all part of the plan. “The Chinese are very clever in their depiction of nature.”

Chen said he has been intrigued by the “mystery of this art form since childhood.” Upon first seeing the land where his house now stands, he saw the design for the garden in his head within five minutes; within 15 minutes, he had sketched the plan. In the ten years he’s spent working on it, he hasn’t deviated much. Chen estimates he’s put in anywhere from 2,500 to 5,000 hours—this from a man who, in addition to his academic responsibilities, is married and the father of four children ages 7 to 10. Nor did he forget them in the design of the garden.

Nestled among pines and other plants is a rock fort and cave that offer a respite from heat and wind.

“I wanted to create a ‘Winnie the Pooh’ environment—something that gives them a sense of wonder about nature.”

And a little tranquility.

—Constance Walter
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