In the spirit of somebody’s refuse being somebody else’s treasure, Frank Horejsi has made it his mission to save Omaha history by salvaging architectural remnants off of buildings slated for demolition. After decades of dedicating himself to this casue, he’s accumulated quite a collection at a near Old Market warehouse he hopes to turn into a museum. I hope you enjoy my Reaer (www.thereader.com) profile of Horejsi and his magnificent obsession. On this blog you can find my story about another Omaha salvager who shared his obsession, the late Lucile Schaaf.
©photo by Debra S. Kaplan
Omaha history salvager Frank Horejsi
Dream calls for warehouse to become a museum
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the March 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
South Omaha native Frank Horejsi doesn’t care if he’s called caretaker, curator, historian, picker, salvager, architectural remnants archeologist or his favorite, urban miner.
Just don’t call him late to a salvage site.
For 30-some years he’s scavenged vintage buildings slated for demolition. His keen eye spots ornamental details of historical and artistic value before they hit the rubble heap. He rescues carved finials, corbels, gables, cupolas, columns and assorted hand-crafted items.
He sometimes reclaims entire facades. He saved the upper two stories of glazed terra cotta on the 14-story Medical Arts Building before it was imploded. A crew working 100-plus feet off the pavement dismantled the facing piece by piece. Some was reassembled inside the atrium of the First National Bank tower that rose in the razed building’s place. Parts of the facade adorn a Lauritzen Gardens’ Victorian floral display.
“You have to have some sort of appreciation for art, history, plus you’ve got to be pretty strong and willing to take risks, too,” Horejsi says of his work.
He’s found several decorative elements for Dave Lanoha, who’s integrated many into his southwest Omaha garden center, including an Italian imported frieze from the long-gone Rialto Theater.
What Horejsi doesn’t sell or donate goes into his private collection, It’s housed in a 14th and Marcy warehouse he envisions as an Omaha history museum. The by-appointment facility, whose open-span layout and truss ceiling resemble the Kaneko, is adjoined by a four-story brick building he owns. It all sits directly east of the factory-studio of designer Cedric Hartman, an Old Market pioneer who champions Horesji’s single-minded focus on saving history before it’s lost.
What Horejsi describes as “a hobby” is clearly a passion,
“This is Omaha history. You can’t replace this. The stuff I’ve got is very high-end and historical,” he says while giving two guests a tour of his 10,000-foot space, Its contents are like pieces to a giant jigsaw puzzle of Omaha landmarks. Item by item, he describes the objects, the buildings they came from and any anecdotes about their salvage. Each has a story. The Medical Arts project stands out for sheer audacity.
“That was a very challenging job. Cold, hard, tedious. Risky. It took two months to do it. We had to label each piece, photograph it, crate it up – so it could be reassembled. There was close to 500 pieces, some weighing 500 pounds.”
The direct, personal provenance he has with most pieces separates what he does from many other salvagers.
“I document mine. Taking pictures to me is important to tell where the piece was. I like people to see a picture of the building we worked on and to know I was there to salvage it before its demolition.”
He traces his appreciation for holding onto history to his father, who junked-out old buildings. A young Frank assisted him. Downtown’s historic buildings captured Frank’s fancy as a kid.
“I grew up around it,” he says.
Then, as a young man working for Anderson Excavating, which won most bids razing Omaha’s old buildings in the 1970s and ’80s before historic preservation took hold, Horejsi found his calling to save history.
“It was just a matter that something should be done. In some cases I went in and fought to save the stuff. It wasn’t going to be saved. I did whatever I had to do to get it. I was on my own.”
When fire gutted an old streetcar barn in North Omaha except for an ornately inscribed facade he took it upon himself to rescue the front.
“That was the first time I pursued something hard. To get that was just a miracle. We had only a little area to work on top. Back then all I had was a pickup, pulleys and rope. We lowered pieces down. I didn’t even know what I was doing back then,” he says.
He’s since graduated to cranes.
He has remnants from iconic Omaha structures, including Jobbers Canyon warehouses, the Fontenelle Hotel and the Brandeis Theater, and from vanished landmarks outside Omaha, too.
Retrieving items can be hazardous. He nearly lot his life on a job he prefers not to specify except to say, “I fell 25 feet, hit the cement on my side and broke my hip.”
Not everything he owns is something he’s taken off a building himself. An 8,000-pound sandstone sculpture of Atlas from the old downtown YMCA building razed in 1968 was saved by someone else. He says, “It got moved around here and there and it ended up in Mount Pleasant, Iowa on a farm in the weeds. I was aware of its travels and so I convinced the guy who owned it it needs to come back to Omaha. So then I had this problem of how am I going to get it to Omaha.”
Enter Frank’s 15-minutes of fame on the A&E Network reality series, Shipping Wars that has haulers bid on oddball jobs. The trucker who won Frank’s gig, Jenn Brennan, enjoys a following for her model good-looks. Last year a crew captured her and fellow trucker Jess strutting and preening as they transported Atlas to its new home.
Horejsi welcomes any attention to his hoped-for museum. Citing City Museum in St. Louis as an attraction with a similar concept, he says, “This would be a neat thing for our community.”
There’s much work to be done though.
“It’s not at the level I want it to be. Things aren’t displayed on the walls as they should be. There’s no heat or running water in here.”
Despite its rough shape, he says “this building’s got a really good feel to it,” adding, “‘I’ve hosted parties for Restore Omaha and the Ak-Sar-Ben Foundation and people are curious, they ask questions, they want to see these things. It’s really satisfying to see people happy and that’s what this stuff does – it makes people happy.” Everyone from elected officials to celebrities – “Alexander Payne loves this place” – to students and historians are fans of what he’s assembled.
“Telling people where all this stuff came from is part of the fun for me.”
Omaha interior designer and preservationist Jill Benz admires Horejsi’s “heart and will from a very young age to save Omaha’s treasures,” adding, “We wouldn’t have these incredible fragments and facades from our past if it wasn’t for his hard work and determination.”
She first met him in the late ’70s, when the ruins of early Omaha were being auctioned off.
“Everyone was saying someone should be saving these. Frank came through and pursued saving our heritage.”
Horejsi says, “This is all about preserving the stuff for future generations. It needs to be kept intact.” He suggests he’s taken it as far as his resources can. “I’ve invested a lot of time, money and sweat in this building just to get it to this point. I’m not saying I’m burned out or anything but I’ve put in a lot of effort and sometimes you wonder, Is it worth it?. I’m 60 years old, I’ve done this for a number of years, I ain’t got much time left.”
He hopes a benefactor or investor shares his vision for making his warehouse into an educational center. He has plans for a sculpture garden out front and a condo in back.
He just wants to know his history crusade’s not been in vain and to prove the skeptics wrong.
“I’ve heard over and over, ‘What’s up with Frank?’ When I bought this building it was, ‘Why and the hell do you want to go down there? That’s a blighted area, it’s dangerous,’ blah, blah, blah.”
He’s been stubborn enough to stick it out.
“Nobody’s going to change my mind – I’m a stupid Bohunk. Once I get onto something, I keep pushing forward.”
Besides, he likes that his 1880s building was home to Chicago Lumber when the transcontinental railroad ran through.
“They’d offload lumber, stone, whatever. All these materials went to different building sites to build early downtown Omaha, so it’s ironic it came out of here and now I’ve brought it back.”
Horejsi wants to ensure this history is secure once he’s gone. With no wife or kids, his legacy is his collection. With a sweeping gesture at his bounty, he says, “I’m married to this building. I’m married to all this.”
To arrange tours or to rent his space, contact Horejsi at 402-699-0845
In His Corner: Midge Minor is Trainer, Friend and Father Figure to Pro Boxing Contender Terence “Bud” Crawford
As I’ve said before on this blog nearly every writer gets around to writing about boxing at one time or another. I did my first boxing story in the late 1990s and every now and then I get the craving to do a new one. I’ve built up quite a collection of boxing pieces this way and you can access them all on the blog. The following story for the New Horizons in Omaha profiles an up and coming pro lightweight contender, Terence “Bud” Crawford, and the older man in his corner who is trainer, friend, father figure and more to him, Midge Minor. They are as tight as two people nearly 50 years apart in age can be. Crawford has been under the wing of Minor from the time he was a little boy and he still relies on his sage advice today as he prepares for an expected world title fight. The loyal Crawford is an Omaha native and resident who’s never left his hometown or the gym he grew up in, the CW, and he’s not about to leave the man who’s guided him this far.
by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the New Horizons
As 25-year-old lightweight contender Terence “Bud” Crawford goes through his paces, he’s watched intently by an older man in a sweatsuit, Midge Minor. Though separated in age by four-plus decades, the two men enjoy a warm, easy relationship marked by teasing banter.
Crawford: “I’ll beat this dude up right now.”
Minor: “You’re scared of me, you know that.”
Crawford: “You be dreaming about me.”
Minor: “You stick that long chin out to the wrong man.”
They’ve been going back and forth like this for decades. At age 7 Crawford got his boxing start under Minor at the CW, 1510 Davenport St., and he still trains there under Minor’s scrutiny all these years later.
The facility is part of the CW Youth Resource Center, whose founder and director, Carl Washington, spotted Crawford when he was a kid and brought him to the gym.
Crawford, an Omaha native and resident, owns a 21-0 pro record and a reputation among some experts as the best fighter in the 135-pound division. The smart money says it’s only a matter of time before he wins a title. That time may come in January when the Top Rank-promoted boxer is expected to get his title shot and the opportunity to earn his first six-figure payday.
Since showing well in two recent HBO-telecast fights, he’s riding a wave of fame. He’s the pride of the CW, where the number of fighters is up because he learned to box there, made it big and never left.
“He’s one of the causes of our gym being full now,” says Minor. “They all look up to him. It’s kind of like he put us on the map.”
Crawford doesn’t act the star though.
“I’m the same person, I’m regular, I just want to be able to make it and provide for my family,” he says earnestly.
He engages everyone at the gym and offers instruction to fighters.
“I’m always going to have CW somewhere inside of me because this is where I started from. Never forget where you came from. I’m always going to be a CW fighter. I just feel comfortable here. It does feel like home when I walk through them doors because it’s the only gym I knew when I was coming up. I’ve been coming here and going to the donut shop (the adjacent Pettit’s Pastry) ever since I was 7.”
For a long time he was pressured to leave Omaha, where quality sparring partners are rare and pro boxing cards even rarer. But he’s remained true to his team and his home.
“A lot of people came at me with deals wanting to get me to fight for them, sign with them and move out of town. They kept telling me I can’t make it from Omaha and need new cornermen – that they took me as far as they could. But I’m loyal and a lot of people respect me for it. My coaches have faith in me and trust me that I’m not going to do nothing to jeopardize our relationship, and I trust them and have faith in them.
“I’ve just stayed with it and continued to have confidence in my team. I just keep pushing forward.”
He keeps a tight circle of confidantes around him and all share his same CW and Omaha lineage.
“We all family,” he says..”Every person I turn to in my corner that’s giving me instructions came up under Midge.”
CW Boxing Gym is located in the CW Youth Resource Center
For his last fight Crawford, who always sports Big Red gear to show his Nebraska pride, wore trunks emblazoned with “Omaha” on them.
As Crawford shadow boxes inside the ring, looking at his reflected image in a bank of mirrors against the near wall, the 73 year-old Minor takes it all in from his spot in the corner, just outside the ropes. Minor has been in Crawford’s corner, both literally and figuratively, since the fighter first got serious about the sport at age 12. They initially met five years before that, when Crawford became argumentative with the trainer. Minor demands obedience. He barks orders in his growl of a voice. He’s known to curse, even with kids. He doesn’t take guff from anyone, especially a brash, back-talking little boy. When Crawford wouldn’t mind him, Minor banned him from the CW.
The trainer hated letting Crawford go, too, because he recognized the kid as something special.
“I saw that he had a lot of heart and that goes a long way in boxing. He never wanted to quit on me.”
The boy’s heart reminded Minor of his own. Back in the day, Minor was a top amateur flyweight, twice winning the Midwest Golden Gloves. But prospect or no prospect, Minor wasn’t going to stand for disrespect. The two eventually reconnected.
“I kicked him out of the gym for five years,” says Minor, a father many times over, “and then I brought him back when he got a little more mature and then we went from there.”
Crawford acquired some rough edges growing up in The Hood. Being physically tested was a rite of passage in his family and neighborhood. It toughened him up. He needed to be tough too because he was small and always getting into scuffles and playing against bigger, older guys in football, basketball, whatever sport was in season. He learned to always stand his ground. The more he held his own, the more courage and confidence he gained.
“I was taught to never be scared…to never back down. That was instilled in me at a young age,” Crawford says. “My big cousins pushing me, punching me, slamming me, roughing me up. My dad wrestling me. After going against them it wasn’t nothing to me going against somebody my size, my age.
“I’d fall and get jacked up or get bitten by dogs or get scratched. I’d need stitches here and there, and my mom would be like, ‘You’re all right.’ There was no going home and crying to your parents or nothing like that. No babying me. I don’t know what it feels like to be babied.”
There was something about Crawford, even as a child, that pegged him for greatness.
“Before I even started boxing my dad used to make me punch on his hands, teach me wrestling moves, throw the ball with me. He always said, ‘You’re going to be a million dollar baby.’ Ever since I was little he was like, ‘You can be whatever you want to be, just go out there and do it, don’t let nobody hold you down or hold you back.'”
His father, grandfather and an uncle all boxed and wrestled in their youth. His dad and uncle trained at the CW. His grandfather boxed with Minor. They all had talent.
“It was just in me, it was in the blood line for me. I just took after them. My dad always gave me pointers.”
By the time Crawford came back to the gym, he was less belligerent and more ready to learn. The non-nonsense Minor and the hot-tempered youth bonded. Like father and son.
“When I came back to the gym Midge and I were like instantly close.
Midge was like my dad,” says Crawford.
What was the difference the second time around?
“I don’t know. maybe it’s because I accepted Midge ain’t going to change for nobody. I didn’t really know him like that at the start. so for him to be talking to me crazy I took that as disrespect. I was offended by it. But when i came back I realized that’s just Midge being Midge. Some people get intimidated by him but one thing about Midge is if he likes you he’s going to roll with you. If he don’t like you, he don’t like you and there’s nothing nobody can do to make him like you. And if he’s with you he’s with you to the end.
“When I got to know him more I realized Midge will have my back till the day he dies and I’ll have his back to the day I die, and that’s just how close we are. Midge put a real big hold on me.”
When you ask Crawford if he could have gotten this far without him he says, “Probably not because Midge kept me out of the streets. He taught me a lot. Without Midge, I don’t think so, He taught me a lot of responsibility.”
Crawford came to know he could depend on Minor for anything, which only made him trust him more and made him want to please him more.
“I used to ride my bike to the gym with a big old bag on my back, that’s how dedicated I was. Then Midge started taking me to the gym. Over holidays he’d come to my house to take me to the gym. On school days he’d come get me at school and take me to his house. We’d just sit there together and watch boxing tapes. I would watch any kind of fighter just for the simple fact that you never know when you might see that style. He’d tell me what they’re doing wrong and what I could do to beat ‘em.”
Minor also became Crawford’s mentor.
“Anytime I needed anything or needed someone to talk to he was always there,” says Crawford. “He’s a great father figure in my life.
Just an all around good guy. He loves kids.”
All of Minor’s work with Crawford inside and outside the ring had the full support of Bud’s mother.
“It was a little like school to me. Sometimes I’d try to duck him and tell my mom to tell him I wasn’t there and she wasn’t having it. Sometimes my mom would call him and say, ‘Come and get him Midge’ and I’d spend the night at his house, watch tapes, work out. It was like that.”
When he got in trouble at school his mother informed Minor because she knew he’d hold him accountable. When Minor got his hands on him he worked him extra hard. it was all about getting the young man to learn lessons and to pay his dues. Instead of resisting it, Crawford took it all in stride. He says, “It was instilled in me early that what don’t kill you will make you stronger.I looked at it that it was helping me.”
“He appreciated it. He respected me,” says Minor. “We got along real well.”
The troubled boy no one could reach found a friend and ally to push him and inspire him.
“Midge always instilled in me, ‘Nobody can beat you, especially if you work hard and put your heart into your training.’ He drilled that in my head. He believed in me so much. There were times I kind of doubted myself in my mind and he was just like, ‘Nobody can beat you.’ The fight’s the easy part. Preparing for it, that’s the hard part. I’ve been fighting all my life so to get in there and fight, that’s easy. That’s 30 minutes. Sometimes only three minutes or 30 seconds if I get an early knockout. That’s compared to training for hours and hours a day.”
Minor routinely put him in the ring with much more experienced guys.
“That’s how much confidence he had in me. Seeing him have that much confidence in me made me even more confident,” says Crawford.
“It didn’t make no difference who I fought him with because he was going to fight ‘em. I’ve had a lot fighters but they didn’t have the heart that he has.”
The legend of Terence “Bud” Crawford began to grow when as a teen amateur he sparred pros and outfought them. Even today he likes to spar bigger guys.
“I like to try myself.”
Crawford is now on the cusp of boxing royalty and Minor is still the one Bud puts his complete faith in.
“He’s still there for me taking good care of me,” Crawford says. “I’m always going to have his back. You know he looked out for me when I was little and I’m going to look out for him now that he’s older.”
Having Minor in his camp as he preps for the biggest fight of his life is exactly where Crawford wants him. Having him in his corner on fight night is where he needs him.
“It means a lot to have Midge there. Midge is the brain. Everything goes through Midge before it’s all said and done for me to go in there and fight. Without the brain we can’t do nothing, so it’s very important that Midge is there.
“Before every fight I bring him a disc of who I’m fighting and I ask him what he thinks about the guy and he tells me what I should do and we go from there.”
The strategy for any fight, he says, is “a team effort” between his co-managers Brian McIntyre and Cameron Dunkin, trainer Esau Diegez, Minor and himself.
“We all work together and dissect our opponent but Midge is always the one that’s like, ‘Alright, this is what you’re going to do to beat this guy. This is how you’re going to fight ‘em.’ And we all go by what Midge sats. He’s great for seeing things I don’t see and making me see it.
“He gives me the instructions to beat ‘em, and all I have to do is follow ‘em. He’s got the wisdom.”
Minor says Crawford is a great student who picks things up quickly, including a knack for altering his style to counter his opponent’s style.
“He can observe different fighters and he can adapt to their styles. He doesn’t have no problem adjusting to them,” says Minor. “He listens to me and he produces for me.”
“Oh yeah. I see it one time and I do it,” Crawford says. “You gotta practice it to though, you can’t just think you’re going to perfect it by doing it one time. You gotta keep on trying it in the gym. You might not get it the first time, you might not get it the second time, but you gotta keep trying until you get it right.”
Still, when all is said and done, it’s Crawford who’s alone in the ring come fight night.
“You can tell me this, you can tell me that, at the end of the day I’m the one that’s gotta take those punches and get hit upside my head. The difference between me and other people is that I’m willing to go through the fire to see the light.”
Crawford’s aware of the strides he’s made in recent years.
“I feel like I’m more relaxed in the ring. I know more about the game.
I know what to do, when to do it, and I’m not just throwing punches just to be throwing them. I’m pinpointing my shots more. Yeah, all around my whole arsenal is just way better.”
“Early in his career he used to just throw punches,” says Minor. “He learned to settle down and adjust.”
Crawford says his overall skill set has developed to the point that he doesn’t have an obvious weakness.
“I can adapt to any style. I’m a boxer, a puncher, I’m elusive, I’m whatever I need to be. I’m always confident and I just come to win.
I’ve got it all – hand speed, power, movement, smarts. I can take a punch.”
He’s always in shape and lives a clean lifestyle, Minor says admiringly. The trainer never has to worry his fighter’s not working hard enough.
Minor’s trained several successful pros, including Grover Wiley and Dickie Ryan, but he says he’s never had anyone as accomplished as Crawford this early in their career.
Neither feels he’s reached his full potential.
“I’ve got a lot of things to work on,” says Crawford. “So I figure once I get those bad habits out of the way then I’ll be better than I am now. Little things like not keeping my hands up, not moving my head. Sometimes I’ll get in there and I’ll feel like he can’t hurt me, and I just want to walk through him without coming with the jab.”
Minor’s always watching to make sure Crawford doesn’t abandon his fundamentals. The veteran trainer guided Crawford through a highly successful amateur career that saw the fighter compete on the U.S, Pan American Games team and advance all the way to the national Golden Gloves semi-finals in his hometown of Omaha. Crawford dropped a controversial decision in the semis that left him disillusioned by the politics of amateur scoring and Minor “broken-hearted.”
Minor continues to be the guru Crawford turns to for advice. Perhaps a turning point in their relationship and in the fighter’s development was getting past the anger that seemed to fuel Crawford early on and that threatened to derail his career.
When his temper got the better of him Crawford was suspended from the U.S, national team. He says American amateur boxing officials “put a bad rep out for my name,” adding, “They called me hot-headed and a thug.” He feels the stigma hurt him in his bid to make the U.S. Olympic team.
The fighter acknowledges he had issues. He got expelled from several schools for fighting and arguing. He grew up playing sports and fighting in the streets, parks and playgrounds of northeast Omaha, where his mother mostly raised him and his two older sisters. His father, Terence Sr., served in the U.S, Navy and was separated from his mother, only periodically reappearing in Bud’s life.
No one seemed able to get to the root of Crawford’s rage. Not even himself.
“I really can’t say about my temper. It was just something that was in me. Everybody asked me, ‘Why do you be so mad?’ and I never could pinpoint it or tell them why. I’d be like, ‘I’m not angry.’ But deep down inside I really was. I was ready to fight at any given time and that’s how mainly I got kicked out of all the schools.
“I was in counseling, anger management, all that stuff. None of it ever worked…”
His favorite way of coping with the turmoil was to go fishing at the Fontenelle Park pond.
He knows he could have easily fallen prey to the lures and risks of the inner city. Friends he ran with included gang members. On the eve of his first big nationally televised pro fight he got shot in the head after leaving a heated dice game he had no business being in in the first place. He was told by doctors that if the bullet hadn’t been slowed by the window it passed through in his car it would have likely killed him.
“I was lucky, I was blessed. That just opened my eyes more. I took it as a sign, as a wakeup call.”
Becoming a father – he and his girlfriend Alindra are raising their son and her daughter – also helped him mature.
Through it all Minor was that steadying voice telling him to do the right thing.
Crawford’s temper cooled and his life got more settled.
“It took him a while,” says Minor. “He was hard-headed. I used to make him come over to my house and I’d sit em down to watch boxing tapes and the more he observed other fighters he learned that his temperament had to change to be where he’s at now.”
Crawford also credits two men who took him under their wing at Omaha Bryan High School, then principal Dave Collins and assistant principal Todd Martin.
“They would always talk to me if I got in trouble. They put it in terms like I was in the gym training. They’d say, ‘You cant talk back to the teachers when they’re trying to tell you something you need to know. You don’t talk back to your coach when he’s teaching you how to throw a punch.’ I began to look at it like that and I said, ‘You’re right, i messed up.’ That really got me through my high school years doing what I had to do.”
Now that Crawford’s come so far he’s looking “to give back” to the community through his own boxing gym in the same community he grew up in. He wants his North O-based B & B Boxing Academy, which he recently opened with Brian McIntyre, to be a place that keeps kids off the street and gives them something structured to do.
Bringing a world title belt back to Omaha is his main focus though.
“Oh, it would be great. A lot of people look up to me so for me to bring that belt home to Omaha it would mean a lot, not only to me but to Omaha. Boxing is not real big in Omaha. I used to be and I’m trying to bring it back and I feel I can do that. I could inspire some little guy that later on could be the champion of the world. Who knows?”
He’s not leaving anything to chance in his bid for glory.
“I’ve got my mind made up, I’ve got my goals set, and I’m going to get it. I’m not going to let nothing or nobody keep me from conquering my dreams.”
“That’s that confidence.” Minor says. “I’m so proud of him.”
Crawford knows he wouldn’t be where he is today without Minor. “He’s played a big factor in my life.” He values all that Minor’s meant to him.
“You got to. Nothing lasts forever, so cherish it while it’s here.”
- Terence Crawford – The World Awaits! (boxingjunkie.wordpress.com)
- BSO Interview: Lightweight Boxing Prospect Terence “Bud” Crawford (blacksportsonline.com)
- Terence Crawford Gets a 6th-Round KO Win Over Alejandro Sanabria (sportsnippets.com)
Omaha’s signature arts-entertainment district the Old Market was never a foregone conclusion. It only came into being because a few people with the vision and guts to make it happen could see the potential of a derelict old produce center to be the base for a mixed-use urban village with residences, restaurants, shops, galleries, bookstores, live music, theater, and all sorts of funky creative spaces. What long ago became a chic destination place was forged from rough-hewn beginnings that to most looked unpromising. A band of artists, hipsters, and entrepreneurs applied their individual and collective talents to transforming a history-laden area into something entirely new and 45 years later it continues to be a vital melting pot for culture and creativity. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) attempts to explore how the Old Market emerged and who was there at the beginning to see its possibilities and to help shape those possibilities into reality.
Once Upon a Time an Urban Dead End Became Omaha’s Lively Old Market
Popular Arts-Entertainment District Emerged in Late 1960s-Early ’70s Thanks to Artists and Entrepreneurs
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appearedin The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In a state with few destination attractions, Omaha‘s Old Market arts-entertainment district packs them in. The draw is not any one or two venues, but a collective of shops, restaurants, bars, galleries and creative spaces, along with the historic character of those places.
Designer Roger duRand opened one of the first businesses there, the head shop The Farthest Outpost, with Wade Wright in 1968. duRand later designed businesses and apartments there. He was struck then as he is now by the area’s contiguous array of late 19th-early 20th century warehouses.
“I was really charmed by how coherent the neighborhood was. It was really intact. The buildings all had a relationship with each other, they were all of the same general age. They were all designed in a very unselfconsciously commercial style. They’re very honest buildings.”
If density and diversity define vital urban areas, then the Market is Omaha’s most lively concentration of eclectic spots.
It’s also a neighborhood whose residents add to the vibe.
“Having people live here makes it a 24-hour alive place,” says Ree Kaneko, an Old Market artist, arts administrator and resident whose presence there goes back 40-plus years.
Nicholas Bonham-Carter a nephew of the Market’s late godfather, Sam Mercer, says, “The Old Market works because of the multiplicity of things going on. In other historical districts they have no residence portion at all so at night when the shops close it looks dead. But in the Old Market when the shops close you know people are living upstairs. Even if you can’t see them the knowledge they’re there gives it life;”
In this same year the Market turned 45 years old its guiding light, Sam Mercer, died (Feb. 5). The Mercers are longtime property owners and landlords there. When the idea for it surfaced they were perhaps the only locals with the resources and inclination to make it over on the scale required to turn the abandoned produce center into a chic oasis.
In the mid-’60s Mercer began heeding advice that the dying wholesale district could be revived for a new use. It took vision and guts as the old buildings were in bad shape and no one knew if enough entrepreneurs would take the plunge. The four-square block area became a real life assemblage or installation that creatives reclaimed and rebirthed, one building, one endeavor at a time.
Cedric Hartman and Judy Wigton put the proverbial bug in Mercer’s ear. He’s an internationally known lighting and furniture designer who keeps a low profile at his factory on the Market’s southeast edge. She’s an arts lover. Their shared appreciation for the finer things led them to open a mid-town high-end shop, The Afternoon (the Omaha store by that name today has no relationship to the earlier store).
In 1964 the business partners went on a buying trip to Chicago and discovered Old Town – a mix of quality shops in repurposed buildings.
Wigton recalls coming back and driving around Omaha’s city market “looking for a likely area” to relocate The Afternoon and finding a For Rent sign. She made the necessary inquiries and, she says, “On a very cold day in Dec. 1964 we met Sam Mercer. He showed us the property. We indicated it wouldn’t work if we were the only ones down there. We wanted there to be a number of shops. He seemed very doubtful about our idea for a community of shops and restaurants.”
But Wigton and Hartman persisted and kept pitching the concept.
“We became great friends. One evening we took Sam to see Jim Shugart’s wonderful house in a former Budweiser building at 1215 Jones. It made a good impression on Sam who then said that maybe what we were talking about would work. Eventually he seemed to be coming around. He certainly had a great appreciation for old buildings and also a need to fill the empty places with new tenants.
“We also appreciated old buildings. Cedric and I had special interest in architectural history. I had started the drive to try to save the old Omaha City Hall from destruction, but when we met with Mayor (A.V.) Sorenson about it, he made it clear a serious goal of his and city fathers was to get rid of old buildings. That conflict continued for years.
“All through 1965-1967 we talked about possibilities for the area.”
The Market happened in spite of meek support and sometimes outright opposition from Omaha city government and business leadership. The very idea of it flew in the face of conservative, parochial Omaha.
Old buildings were razed with alarming frequency then. Aging inner city neighborhoods were neglected. The Great Suburban Boom was on and new was preferred to old. Downtown Omaha was already slipping and would soon find its once vibrant retail base gone. Flipping, reinventing, transforming massive buildings simply didn’t occur here.
Bonham-Carter echoes others in arguing the Market “provided sort of the initial shove for the rebirth of downtown.”
The Market’s success undoubtedly made Omaha more receptive to preservation and revitalizing areas like the riverfront and north downtown. Even its example though couldn’t save Jobbers Canyon and its historic buildings just east of the Market.
Hard as it may be to imagine now, the warehouses comprising the Market were mostly viewed as eyesores, not assets.
Hartman and Wigton saw things differently and their dogged pursuit of what to others seemed a pipe dream paid off.
Kaneko says few realize how vital they were to the Market coming into being.
“Nobody wanted to take on these brick warehouses. The idea was planted with Sam with Cedric’s help and as these Old Market spaces were renovated Cedric provided much good advice.”
Bonham-Carter, who spearheaded the creation of the Passageway in the Market, says Hartman “sowed the seeds of what could be done. He’s a real genius.”
Hartman was so convinced of its potential he recalls “I couldn’t stop on the subject. Judy was enthused too.” His motivation was to break Omaha from its dull status quo. He’d lived in Chicago and New York, studied in France, and upon returning to Omaha found “it dreadful, nothing happening here, it seemed like a very unsophisticated place to me. I was interested in seeing something happen downtown.”
He says there was resignation nothing would really ever change.”Most people droned, ‘It seems like nobody will ever do that here, this is Omaha, forget it.'” He wasn’t deterred. “I just kept talking it up.”
In Mercer Hartman and Wigton found the receptive audience they craved and someone in a position to do something about it.
“We were quite surprised to find such a person,” says Hartman.”He was very smart and a very worldly and sophisticated character with great personal charm. We were both flabbergasted, dazzled by his personal style. We were taken with him and in his way he was with us.
“He did respond to us in a great way and I think he was genuine. We were a couple of really arty kids and he was really arty, too, so it couldn’t have been a better association. He was a kindred spirit in so many ways.”
Hartman recalls walking around the Market with Mercer when it was a warehouse graveyard “trying to imagine what could be done.”
With Mercer on board Wigton helped raise public awareness of the proposed redevelopment by hosting luncheons at the old Omaha Club where Mercer bent the ear of stakeholders and tastemakers.
“Sam was invariably charming and interesting and would lay out the possibilities in a very persuasive way. I especially remember a lunch there with (the late columnist) Robert McMorris which seemed to result in dozens of favorable stories in the World-Herald. Another was with city planning director Alden Aust, whose advocacy became invaluable.”
The initial businesses in the fledgling district opened in 1968. Percy Roche’s British Imports was the first.
Omaha businessman Tom Davis invested in several ventures there.
The French Cafe
It was very much a combination of the right people in the right place at the right time,” says Wigton “And then it was very fortunate that Sam’s family, Mark and Vera Mercer and Nicholas and Jane Bonham-Carter were able to move here when they did and keep everything going. It hasn’t been easy and I don’t think any other family could have done it.”
Wigton suggests, and others agree, that “perhaps it really began to come together” when the French Cafe was born in 1969. But even that anchor, signature eatery only happened because Hartman was in the right place at the right time. He spotted a condemnation notice posted on the Solomon Gilinsky Fruit Market building and contacted Mercer.
“That’s a building I promoted finding. It was not a Mercer property, it belonged to the Gilinsky family. I said, ‘Sam, we really ought to buy this building.'” Hartman’s concern was that if the structure, situated mid-way on Howard St., were razed it would interrupt the flow of what they hoped to do with the other buildings.
“If we were working on separated buildings and somebody would do something else that didn’t quite fit in that could have destroyed the atmosphere for the whole place,” says Bonham-Carter.
Mercer and Gilinsky made the deal but even then last minute fast talking was required because, Hartman says, Gilinsky had a contract with a wrecking firm to take the building down. Demolition was set for the following morning. After some frantic calls the order was canceled.
The idea to open a French restaurant there was entirely Sam’s. Hartman designed the space. He admires the chance Mercer took.
“It was a risky thing for them. Who knew if that would work?”
Kaneko says if Hartman hadn’t prevailed on Mercer at that critical juncture there might not have been a French Cafe or Old Market.
She says “credit for building the Old Market belongs to many people over the years who put their ideas, dreams and patina on the spaces in these handsome, left behind buildings. Yes, it’s true the Mercer family had the financial ability to make lots of things happen and the flare to do it right, but I would guess had it not been for Cedric Hartman who called Sam Mercer in Paris to inform him that a building in the middle of the block of Howard St. was about to be torn down that maybe it would not have happened at all.
“Paris is a long ways away for one to keep an eye on what’s happening down the block. The idea was planted with Sam…And so it started this way – the idea, the saving of a structure, then the investment in the renovation and all the wonderful ideas and people that followed.
“So many interesting people shaped this area with their ideas and energy. Each person added to the growth of the dream. They were the fiber of the place. They came to work here, they lived here, they ate here, they hung out here. They were neighbors…they were friends.”
Bonham-Carter says, “I think everyone who was down here was in some way or another very unique and we couldn’t have done it without them.”
The Edison Exposure and Omaha Magic Theatre were cutting-edge venues. The Antiquarium and Homer’s were counter-culture bastions.
The French Cafe helped legitimize or mainstream the district.
“It was getting the so-called aristocracy of Omaha to come down to our area. It was very sophisticated and its image rubbed off on the rest of the Old Market. so I think it was very important. And it generated traffic. It became sort of a magnet,” says Bonham-Carter, who helped shepherd the Cafe its first couple years.
Bonham-Cartern notes that the Market ultimately benefited from the family having meager development funds because it reinforced leaving the buildings largely alone, to retain their historic integrity. “We had a lot of bricks and mortar but not much money,” he says, “so we were always having to sort of economize and so as a result that probably made it less likely for us to make some expensive mistakes.”
The last thing the family wanted was to make the Market a glossy theme park whitewashed of age.
For Kaneko the great attraction was “space, space and more space. It’s just what artists needed. And at that time the visual arts were the poor sister in town. So this was a big deal.” She was among the early vanguard to move in as working artists. She says despite a lack of creature comforts they felt impassioned.
“It was a no-man’s land but very exciting because you were making a change happen. We felt we were doing something very important and very radical. We were saving this wonderful architecture and bringing new life to these discarded places. We had nothing but our dreams and hard work and intense desire to make it happen.”
duRand, who was there even earlier, says, “It was exhilarating really because it was all new and it was a creative process. The whole venture was kind of an artwork really. Making something out of nothing – that was really the fun part.”
He recalls the Market as “a really interesting urban environment” where hippies and artists commingled with blue collar laborers. Some wholesalers were still operating. Cafes catered to truckers and railroaders. “A lot of jobbing went on – suppliers of all kinds of mechanical stuff. The railroad cars would go up and down the alleys at night where freight was loaded and unloaded.”
For years Sam’s son Mark Mercer and his wife Vera Mercer have stewarded the family’s various holdings and ventures. Mark developed V Mertz restaurant in the Passageway. The couple later created La Buvette and The Boiler Room. They’re now developing a new eatery at the site of the French Cafe, which closed last year. Mercer says their guiding philosophy is the same as Sam’s was:
“We want to create things that are attractive and different than other places that have been infected by chains and franchises or things like that because than it’d be just like anywhere else. We pick things we think to rent to or to do ourselves that fit our tastes and our interests.”
“Something that has made the difference between the way we did it and the way other people would do it is that we determined the only businesses we would get there would be home grown, locally owned,” says Bonham-Carter. “I think we are today exactly where we hoped we would be in having a pretty good mix of tenants down there.”
Kaneko says, “The Mercers are wonderful at allowing things to take shape. They know it is a slow process, so if you come to them with a good idea and they believe it fits with their dream for the Old Market you could probably have a good chance at succeeding. They have a great sense of the mix of things that need to happen to make the Market exciting.”
duRand says the Market succeeded “because it was genuine, it wasn’t really contrived. it evolved authentically. The main criterion wasn’t profit it was for interesting things to happen. The Mercers made it very easy for interesting people to get a foothold here. A lot of times the rent was negligible. You could give receipts for improvements in lieu of rent money, and it helped everybody. It helped people on a shoestring build something for themselves and the owners got improvements at no expense to them, so it was a win-win.”
“For a long time,” he says, “Mercer Management kept the rents low and took a percentage of profit so that if people were struggling it didn’t cost them so much to be here and then if they were successful the Mercers shared in that success. It was a nice formula.”
Mercer says it didn’t take long for the Market to attract tenants.
“It really did take off pretty quickly in the sense of these groups of artists and the French Cafe and then M’s Pub in 1972, and the galleries. Rusty Harmsen did the Toad and Spaghetti Works. Then a little bit later we did the Passageway and V Mertz.
“A lot of people were excited because maybe there wasn’t something like that in Omaha, a place where you could combine music and art and new kinds of food. We didn’t have any French restaurants in Omaha at that time. There was a hunger too for a pedestrian area and arts and books and different kinds of movies that could combine. So it all seemed to get established in a couple-three years, although there were still problems with how to deal with building code inspectors. But it seemed it had gained enough momentum by then to attract people and as long as people were coming and finding it exciting…”
Kaneko says, “Things were happening and being presented in the Old Market you could not find anywhere else in the region.” Arts were always a part of the scene but the early emphasis was all local artists. The Bemis artist residency program she founded in 1981 with Jun Kaneko, Tony Hepburn and Lorne Falk introduced artists “from all over the world who added to this conversation,” she says. “The spillover into the community has been the benefit. Hard to measure but it’s alive and it’s there. The more artists and creative people in your community from all walks of life, makes for a much better place to live.”
It’s helped that the Mercers are art lovers. Sam painted as a hobby. Vera’s a noted photographer and painter. Mark’s designed the family’s restaurants.
Not everyone agrees with the direction the Market’s gone. duRand feels it’s over-gentrified compared to its counter-culture roots. Underground newspapers were published there. Edgy film, theater and art happened there. The drug culture flourished there.
Mercer concedes it may have been more adventurous early only.
“Maybe in the beginning it was a little more rebellious and exciting in finding different things,” he says. “In the early days it was, well, newer. Maybe a little more controversial and a little more avant garde.”
Hartman despairs the Market’s overrun with bars and restaurants.
Bonham-Carter feels it might be time for another big project, adding that “a little extra sprucing up might be nice to do over the years – tuck pointing here and there. We don’t want it to look too worn out or too overdone.” The recently announced $12.8 million Jones13 apartment project at 13th and Jones may be the next large scale endeavor. It’s being developed by a private company.
Mark Mercer says, “As long as we can I guess we’ll keep trying to do new things and find new things that will enhance the Market, enhance the area,” Vera Mercer says the passion still burns. “I think we are as excited as before about doing something new. We are still looking for new things.” As for who will carry the torch in the future since the couple have no children, he says, “We have to think more about that.”
Kaneko, who with her husband, artist Jun Kaneko, has developed an arts campus there says the district illustrates how the arts act as a catalyst for renewal. Looking ahead, she says, “The next period of time in the Old Market’s life is what I call cultural in-fill. A time of refinement. If we are lucky and if we are wise we will maintain the quality, respect and excitement that this urban area needs and this city deserves.”
- Omaha for Art Lovers (apartmentguide.com)
- Tapestries to celebrate Omaha neighborhoods; Theater by any other name (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Jazz Pianist Paul Serrato is Back in His Hometown of Omaha After Decades in New York City (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Artists running with opportunity to go to the next level; Carver Bank resident artists bring new life to area (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Any urban place worth its salt as a destination to visit bears the imprint of the people who shaped it. Omaha isn’t known for much outside Nebraska but one area just south of downtown has become its primary tourist destination, the Old Market, which at its core is a historic district whose collection of late 19th and early 20th century warehouses offers the city’s most eclectic concentration of restaurants, shops, and arts-cultural venues. Many people have had a hand in molding the Old Market but the most critical guiding hand belonged to the late Sam Mercer, who had the vision to see what only a few others saw in terms of the potential of transforming this old produce warehouse market into a arts-culture-entertainment haven. My story about Mercer and the small coterie of fellow visionaries he developed a consipiracy of hearts with in creating the Old Market appears in Encouner Magazine. You’ll find some other Old Market-related stories on this blog and coming this spring I will be postiing a retrospective piece on how this creative hub became the Old Market and how it survived and thrived against all odds. I will introduce you to the people who turned the spark of an idea into reality.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Encounter Magazine
The Old Market’s undisputed godfather, Samuel Mercer, passed away Feb. 5 at his home in Honfleur, France. He was 92. Services were held at Trinity Episcopal Church in Omaha.
This continental bon vivant was not a typical Nebraskan. The son of prominent Omaha physician and landowner Nelson Mercer, he was born and raised in privileged circumstances in London, England and educated at Oxford and Yale. After living in Washington D.C. he based his law practice in Paris, where he mostly lived the rest of his life. He held dual citizenship.
In Paris he cultivated relationships with avant garde artists, A watercolorist himself, he made artist Eva Aeppli his second wife.
On his handful of trips to Omaha each year he cut an indelible figure between his shock of shoulder-length gray hair, his Trans-Atlantic accent and his waxing on far-ranging subjects. He spoke perfect French.
“He projected an aura of unpretentious aristocracy…I liked him immediately and enormously,” says designer Roger duRand, who with Percy Roche opened the Old Market’s first business, The Farthest Outpost.
When the death of his father in 1963 Mercer inherited his family’s property holdings and he took charge of their Mercer Management company here. He appreciated the century-old brick warehouses, some Mercer-owned, comprising the wholesale produce market just southeast of downtown. But it was someone his junior, designer Cedric Hartman, who first advocated doing something with those buildings, which by the mid-1960s were largely abandoned and in disrepair.
Hartman, an acclaimed designer of lighting and furniture pieces made at his 1414 Marcy St. factory, recalls the genesis of the Old Market. He and Judy Wigton were partners in a high end gift shop. Like Mercer they admired the dying produce district’s buildings and in 1964 began meeting with him about these structures as potential sites for exciting new ventures, such as fine shops, galleries and restaurants. Those conservations in turn sparked Sam’s efforts to preserve and repurpose the Market as an arts-culture haven.
“We were quite surprised to find such a person,” says Hartman. “He was a very smart, very worldly and sophisticated character with great personal charm. We were both wowed by him and in his way he was with us.”
Wigton says, “He certainly had a great appreciation for old buildings and also a need to fill the empty places with new tenants.”
“He did respond to us in a great way,” Hartman notes. “We were a couple of really arty kids and he was really arty, so it couldn’t have been a better association. He was a kindred spirit in so many ways.”
Those early encounters formulated the vision for what became the Old Market.
“I remember we walked around the streets trying to imagine what could be done. I’d say, ‘Now look at this building, here’s we could do this with it,’ and he’d just respond right in kind,” says Hartman. “I couldn’t have done that with anybody else. He hooked into all this stuff really fast.”
A sense of urgency set in when city officials and property owners began eying some Market buildings for demolition.
Hartman tipped off Mercer to the condemnation of the Gilinsky building that sat in the middle of Mercer-owned properties on Howard Street. It was Hartman too who brokered a meeting between Mercer and Peaches Gilinsky. A deal was struck that led Mercer to acquire the site.
By 1968 Mercer moved strategically to gain control of a collection of buildings there.
“Sam did not want anything said about the project until he could acquire options on enough other properties in the area to insure the success of the redevelopment,” says Wigton.
It was Mercer’s idea to make the groundfloor space of the former Gilinsky fruit company into a French restaurant. There, Hartman designed the Old Market’s signature spot, the French Cafe, as well as apartments above it. Ree Kaneko, a fellow Old Market pioneer, says the restaurant, opened in 1969, was “very important” in helping solidify and legitimize the Market.
“It was a risky thing for him to do,” Hartman says “Who knew if that would work? However, it was a great success.”
More anchor attractions followed – Homer’s, M’s Pub, Mr. Toad, the Spaghetti Works, Nouvelle Eve, eh Firehouse Dinner Theater, the Bemis.
Designers duRand and Hartman advised Mercer and his son Mark, daughter-in-law Vera, nephew Nicholas Bonham-Carter on this never planned but organically developed area. The Mercers created one of the Market’s most distinct features, The Passageway, and later opened their own distinguished enterprises – V Mertz, La Buvette and The Boiler Room.
“We worked to shape the Old Market neighborhood in the most authentic and benign ways possible, gently guiding new tenants away from the cliched and vulgar, and to more thoughtful and honest approaches to development of the beautiful old structures,” says duRand. “Even though Sam lived and worked in Paris, his presence was in every decision of significance in nurturing the Market. He made frequent visits to Omaha in the early days, and was instrumental in bringing the city fathers around to acceptance, then eventual approval, and finally enthusiasm for the preservation and rebirth of our neighborhood.
“His passing leaves a permanent and poignant void.”
Sam Mercer viewed the Market as an evolving social experiment and art project aligned with his own desires. Mark Mercer says the family’s continued that philosophy by encouraging unique ventures that “fit our tastes and interests.” He and his wife, artist Vera Mercer, say “creating” new things is their passion.
Ree Kaneko has high praise for the Mercers’ stewardship and their “allowing things to take shape” by nurturing select endeavors. She adds, “They know it’s a slow process,. They have a great sense of the mix of things that need to happen to make the Market exciting.”
“It hasn’t been easy and I don’t think any other family could have done it,” Wigton says.
Mark and Vera Mercer say Sam remained “very interested” in the Market. They vow retaining the vibrant charm of this historic neighborhood he lovingly made happen.
The Old Market in Omaha is a both major attraction and a laidback state of mind that’s made up of the places and personalities, past and present, expressed there. Two of this historic arts and culture district’s longest sustained restaurants, M’s Pub and Vivace, share the same owners and executive chef, and in 2013 these each of these eateries celebrates a milestone anniversary. M’s Pub is 40 years old and Vivace 20 years old. Owners Ann Mellen and Ron Samuelson discuss their successful enterprises in the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) and along with Old Market pioneer Roger duRand they look back at the force of nature who started M’s, Mary Vogel, and who personified the visionaries and characters that have made the Market the singular destination and experience that it is.
Two Old Market Fixtures Celebrate Milestones
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Signature Old Market spot M’s Pub celebrates 40 years in business this year. It’s a milestone for any independently owned restaurant. But reaching four decades takes on added meaning because when M’s opened in 1973 (a planned 1972 opening was delayed), the fledgling Market’s survival looked unsure.
The Market though went from counter culture social experiment to mixed use success story. M’s owners Ann Mellen and Ron Samuelson doubly appreciate a thriving Market as their highly reviewed eatery is a fixture along with a second respected restaurant they own there, Vivace, which marks its 20th anniversary this fall. The establishments are emblems of the district’s sustainability and growth.
The well-connected woman who founded “M’s” and was its namesake, the late Mary Vogel, wanted to be part of the emerging Market scene. She commissioned architect John Morford from the Omaha firm headed by Cedric Hartman, who designed the French Cafe, to transform the former Sortino Fruit Company warehouse into a sophisticated, cozy environs inspired by her favorite dining-drinking nooks from around the globe, particularly the pubs of England and Washington DC. Some argue M’s is more bistro than pub but whatever it is M’s owns a reputation for quality food, superior service and laid-back charm that’s both cosmopolitan chic and homespun Midwest.
The small space is dominated by a three-sided green marble topped bar, exposed white brick work, a high ceiling, large mirrors, which make the room seem bigger, and picture windows that provide a glimpse of 11th Street on the east and peer into Nouvelle Eve on the south. The open kitchen is about the size and shape of a train’s dining car and overflows with activity, though the culinary action mostly happens in the downstairs prep rooms.
“It’s just a great open plan,” says Samuelson. “Timeless. And that’s why we don’t change anything about it because we see a lot of fads come and go and as tempting as you might be to say, ‘Well, it seems like that’s what everybody’s doing today – maybe we should try that,’ it’s not going to work here.”
M’s is indelibly of the Old Market. Like its neighbor shops it resides in a historic, 19th century building that exudes character earned with age. It adheres to tradition. It pays attention to detail. Its personality can’t be replicated or franchised.
“I don’t think we could take our sign and throw it in a place out west or anywhere else really,” Samuelson says. “I just don’t think it would transfer.”
The affable, attentive, knowledgable wait staff wear crisp white and black uniforms with none of the attendant starch.
Samuelson says, “We’ve worked really hard for a really long time to position ourselves as a place where you can come sit by side with the table that has a $150 bottle of wine and a couple steaks and you can have a beer and a Greek sandwich and not be treated any differently by the waiter. A lot of our people have been around here for a really long time. We have people that we trust.”
When Vogel sold M’s in 1979 to Mellen’s parents Floyd and Kate Mellen she stayed on as hostess and matriarch. Ann Mellen began working there around then and she soon grew fond of this force of nature.
“She would sit at the bar every day after lunch and count how many drinks we sold,” Mellen says of Vogel. “She was a trip. A very energetic lady, very world traveled, very knowledgable, very opinionated. But very helpful – when things went wrong here she knew who to call.
“She had a passion for this place. She knew exactly what she wanted it to be and she did it right. She totally designed M’s after her favorite places all over the world. She was like the mother of M’s pub. It was her baby.”
Market pioneer Roger duRand writes:
“Mary Vogel was a dame, A socialite with a heart of brass (polished). Mary was equal parts Mayflower pedigree, finishing school gloss and ribald cocktail raconteur. When she courageously cast her lot with the Old Market demimonde of 1972, she found a welcoming environment among the artists and adventurers. Her vision of a tearoom for ‘ladies who lunch’ that doubled as a bistro for ‘lads who lust’ became the elegant and reliably satisfying M’s Pub that remains little changed from its first days.”
Samuelson, who went to work there in 1986 after restaurant experience in Omaha, Texas and Colorado and then quickly partnered with Mellen, admired Vogel’s “indomitable spirit,” adding, “I think she was way ahead of her time. I think that’s probably why she got along with the Mercers so well. They needed people like that to incubate ideas and to establish a core of anchor businesses.”
Mellen’s parents, who’d never operated a restaurant before, bought it with the intent of their restauranteur son Joe running it but when he passed Ann stepped in to lend her folks a hand. Her passion for the business bloomed.
“I liked working for myself basically,” says Mellen, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism grad who worked as a reporter and advertising copywriter before M’s. “Then I came here and never left.”
She and Samuelson pride themselves on being hands-on owners. One or the other or both are at their restaurants most days. A tunnel connects the two sites.
Though an institution today, M’s first decade was a struggle.
“Times were hard,” she says. “The Old Market was a totally different place then.
The Omaha (homeless) mission was just up the street. A lot of people were afraid of the Old Market. But even then it had a family, neighborhood feeling and I liked that a lot.”
“It gets under your skin,” Samuelson says of the Market.
By the early ’80s, Mellen determined the Market was here to stay.
“It just got busier and busier and we saw more tourists coming to the area. You could just tell it was an exciting, upcoming area.”
She and Samuelson, both Omaha natives, make a good team.
“We’re a good fit personality-wise and professionally,” he says. “We share the same passion for the Old Market and the same visions and goals for M’s and Vivace. It’s rare we have a disagreement about and when we do we do it respectfully.”
“I don’t want to seem like an old married couple but a lot of people think we’re married. We’re not,” says Mellen.
She does all the books. An acknowledged foodie, he deals more with the culinary side. Both partners enjoy engaging with people.
“We feel the same way about how to treat people – our clientele as well as our employees,” he says.
The fierce devotion of M’s regulars is appreciated but it can be too much.
“Somebody who’s been coming here for awhile may have an opinion about what you’re doing and if you don’t take their advice you can ruffle some feathers that way,” says Samuelson. “We listen to people a lot and we always end up making decisions based on the good of the whole, which I think is responsible ownership.”
He says that with M’s “in good hands” he and Mellen decided to launch Vivace in 1993 ” to fill a gap we saw in the landscape of the restaurant scene in Omaha for Mediterranean-influenced Italian food. We wanted to fill a niche for the community but also complement what we do at M’s.” He’s proud of its pasta and pizza.
Vivace’s larger space is perhaps warmer than M’s but not as intimate.
Executive chef Bobby Mekiney is in charge of both kitchens. “He’s young and kind of bridges the generation gap for us in a lot of ways,” says Samuelson. “He’s as talented a guy as we’ve ever had here. He makes it work.”
Samuelson’s proud that M’s Pub and Vivace express the same “meticulously adhered-to, single-minded vision of passionate, locally-owned” venues that make the Market “a community treasure.”
- Old Market Pioneer Roger duRand (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- OmahaNightOutGuide.com Announces its Arrival as Omaha’s New Internet Directory for Dining, Entertainment and Night Life; Making it Easy to find something to do in Omaha. (prweb.com)
- The Troy Davis Story: From Beyond the Fringe to Fringes Salon (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Hair designer Troy Davis of Omaha was amazingly forthcoming and transparent in a recent interview he did with me for this Encounter Magazine profle I wrote about him. As a fellow 12-stepper I know something of what he speaks. I know the courage and conviction it requires to be this honest about the hurt and the healing. His words and his story are bound to help someone else.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Encounter Magazine
Leading Omaha hair dresser Troy Davis long ago showed an educational and entrepreneurial knack for his craft and for building the Edgeworthy brand at Fringes Salon & Spa in the Old Market. Now that his mentor and longtime business partner, Fringes founder Carol Cole, has sold her interest in the location, he has a new partner and a new focus on managing costs. The result is record profitability.
“Fringes of the Old Market is the busiest and healthiest it’s ever been,” says Davis, who’s made Fringes an Omaha Fashion Week fixture.
“Troy and Fringes have been a very important part of Omaha Fashion Week, as they style many of our veteran designers and constantly impress with their ability to interpret the latest hair and makeup trends on our runway,” says OFW producer Brook Hudson.
Davis is glad to share in the success. He’s lately seen members of the Fringes team represent well in a recent competition and awards show. Never content to stay put, his Clear Salon Services business is a new generation, grassroots distributorship for independent hair care brands.
These professional triumphs have been happening as Davis addresses personal problems that “came to a head” last August but that have their roots in the past. Growing up in Blair, Neb., he began drinking and using drugs to mask the sexual identity issues he confronted as a gay teen in an environment devoid of alternative lifestyles.
“I felt so completely isolated. I lived in fear so badly that I hid it with drinking and weed,” he says.
A healthier form of self-expression he excelled in, speech and drama, seemed a likely direction to pursue out of high school. But first he moved to Omaha to experience the diversity he craved back home. He briefly attended Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, even landing the lead in the school’s fall production, before dropping out to attend beauty school in Omaha.
From their first meeting Davis and Cole knew they’d found a new best friend they could grow in their chosen field alongside. She says she immediately responded to his “passion and energy and drive,” adding, “Troy Davis has definitely made me a better person and stylist and leader.”
Within four years he’d proven to be such a trusted asset that Cole partnered with him in opening the Old Market shop.
“He earned that,” she says. “He just really wanted to be downtown. His heart was there. I finally said, ‘Look, if you want to be a partner, I’ll do it, but you’re going to have to step it up and find a location.’ And he did. I have to give him a lot of credit because he put a lot of grunt work into it to get it started.”
The rest is history, as Fringes became a presence in the Old Market for its ultra-contemporary, urban styles and high-end hair care and beauty services. Cole let him run things there so she could concentrate on the West Dodge site.
For Davis, Cole’s been more than just a business partner.
“Carol and I are so close. We just absolutely click,” he says. “She’s a very intelligent, very professional business woman. There’s not a lot of partnerships that make it. In a lot of ways our relationship is like a marriage, only platonic. I think it’s healthier or better than most marriages I know of. We are able to communicate in a way that most people are not. We can say anything to each other and even if it’s something that ends up hurting each other, we know that’s not our intention. Usually it’s one of us misunderstanding something and we’re always able to go back and clean it up.”
Davis has moved fast in the industry. While still in his 20s he became one of 10 international creative team members for Rusk, a role that saw him flown all over the world to teach other hair dressers the use of the international distributor’s products. He worked in the Omaha salon during the week and jetted around on weekends.
It gave him the stage, the lights, the theatrics he felt called to. It also meant lots of money and partying.
All the while, his addictions progressed.
He was prepping for the always stressful Omaha Fashion Week last summer when he and his life partner split for good. Amidst the breakup, the all-nighters, running his businesses, and leading an online advocacy campaign for a Fringes team that showed well in the national Battle of the Strands competition, Davis crashed.
“By the time I hit bottom I was drinking every day and drinking to black out three days a week and, you know, it just had to end. I finally realized I am an alcoholic. It was a real wake up call.”
He’s now actively working a 12-step program.
“It’s definitely helped me get sober. I definitely thank my Higher Power for the strength I’ve had to get where I am today.”
He’s not shy sharing his ups and downs.
“I’ve always been a very honest and open person. I’ve actually shared publicly via Facebook some of my bottoms and what I’ve learned in my treatment. In order to achieve something you need support in your life and there is a connection through Facebook with family and friends that I think is very useful. I see it as an opportunity to share with them what I’m going through and the choices I’m making for myself.”
He calls his 12-step group “a new addition to my family,” adding, “They’re great people.” Like many addicts he’s replaced his former addictions for a couple new, blessedly benign ones – Twitter and tattoos.
As his recovery’s progressed he’s grown in other ways, too, including taking charge of his Fringes store’s finances.
“It’s absolutely the best thing that could have happened for this business. It’s given me a whole new level of accountability. I see things more clearly and because of that we’ve broken through a plateau we were never able to get past.”
He credits new business partner Sarah Pithan, a former assistant, for helping increase business by more than $4,000 a week. He also credits the “amazing team” he and Pithan have cultivated, including Omar Rodriguez, Kristina Lee and Teresa Chaffin, for taking Fringes and Clear Salon Services to new levels.
- Old Market Pioneer Roger duRand (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Entrepreneur and Craftsman John Hargiss Invests in North Omaha: Stringed Instrument Maker Envisons Ambitious Plans for his New Hargissville Digs (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Omaha’s popular arts-culture district the Old Market didn’t happen by accident, it evolved with the careful nurturing of landlords, entrepreneurs, and artists whose vision for the city’s historic wholesale produce center went against the tide at a time the district’s future was up for grabs. The late 19th and early 20th century warehouses that now are home to shops, restaurants, galleries, and condos might easily have been lost to the wrecking ball if not for visionaries and pioneers like Roger duRand, a designer who took a firm hand in becoming a creative stakeholder there. This short profile of duRand for Encounter Magazine provides some insight into the forces that helped shape the Old Market in the face of certain obstacles.
Old Market Pioneer Roger duRand
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Encounter Magazine
His imprint on this historic urban residential-commercial environment is everywhere. He’s designed everything from Old Market business logos to chic condos over the French Cafe and Vivace to shop interiors. He’s served as an “aesthetic consultant” to property and business owners.
He’s been a business owner there himself. He once directed the Gallery at the Market. For decades he made his home and office in the Old Market.
The Omaha native goes back to the very start when the Old Market lacked a name and identity. It consisted of old, abandoned warehouses full of broken windows, and pigeon and bat droppings. City leaders saw no future for the buildings and planned tearing them down. Only a few visionaries like duRand saw their potential.
He’d apprenticed under his engineer-architect father, the late William Durand, a Renaissance Man who also designed and flew experimental aircraft. The son had resettled in Omaha after cross-country road trips to connect with the burgeoning counter-culture movement, working odd jobs to support himself, from fry cook to folk singer to sign painter to construction worker. He even shot pool for money.
He and a business partner, Wade Wright, ran the head shop The Farthest Outpost in midtown. A friend, Percy Roche, who had a British import store nearby, told them about the Old Market buildings owned by the Mercer family. Nicholas Bonham Carter, a nephew of Mercer family patriarch Samuel Mercer, led a tour.
“We trudged through all the empty buildings and I was really charmed by how coherent the neighborhood was,” says duRand. “It was really intact. The buildings all had a relationship with each other, they were all of the same general age, they were all designed in a very unselfconsciously commercial style.
“They were such an asset.”
Remnants and rituals of the once bustling marketplace remained.
“When I first came down here the space where M’s Pub is now was Subby Sortino’s potato warehouse and there were potatoes to the ceiling,” recalls duRand. “Across the street was his brother John Sortino, an onion broker. There were produce brokerage offices in some of the upper floors. There were a couple cafes that catered to the truck drivers and railroad guys. There was a lot of jobbing, with suppliers of all kinds of mechanical stuff – heating and cooling, plumbing and industrial supplies. The railroad cars would go up and down the alleys at night for freight to be loaded and unloaded.
“A really interesting urban environment.”
He thought this gritty, rich-in-character built domain could be transformed into Omaha’s Greenwich Village.
“I had in mind kind of an arts neighborhood with lots of galleries and artist lofts.”
That eventually happened thanks to Ree (Schonlau) Kaneko and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.
duRand and Wright’s head shop at 1106 Howard St. was joined by more entrepreneurs and artists doing their thing.
The early Market scene became an underground haven.
“In 1968 it was really artsy, edgy, political, kind of druggy,” says duRand.
Experimental art, film, theater and alternative newspapers flourished there.
City officials looked with suspicion on the young, long-haired vendors and customers.
“We had all kinds of trouble with building inspectors,” whom he said resisted attempts to repurpose the structures. “The idea of a hippie neighborhood really troubled a lot of people. This was going to be the end of civilization as they knew it if they allowed hippies to get a foothold. It was quite a struggle the first few years. We really had a lot of obstacles thrown in our path, but we persevered. It succeeded in spite of the obstructionists.
“And then it became more fashionable with the little clothing stores, bars and gift shops. Adventuresome young professionals would come down to have cocktails and to shop.”
The French Cafe helped establish the Old Market as viable and respectable.
Te social experiment of the Old Market thrived, he says, “because it was genuine, it wasn’t really contrived, it evolved authentically,” which jives with his philosophy of “authentic design” that’s unobtrusive and rooted in the personality of the client or space. “Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all. The main criterion wasn’t profit, it was for interesting things to happen. We made it very easy for interesting people to get a foothold here.”
Having a hand in its transformation, he says, “was interesting, exciting, exhilarating because it was all new and it was a creative process. The whole venture was kind of an artwork really. I do have a sense of accomplishment in making something out of nothing. That was really the fun part.”
He fears as the Market’s become gentrified – “really almost beyond recognition – it’s lost some of its edge though he concedes remains a hipster hub. “I’m a little awed by the juggernaut it’s become. It’s taken on a much bigger life than I imagined it would. I never imagined I would be designing million-dollar condos in the Old Market or that a Hyatt hotel would go in.”
duRand and his wife Jody don’t live in the Market anymore but he still does work for clients there and it’s where he still prefers hanging out. Besides, all pathways seem take this Old Market pioneer back to where it all began anyway.
Learn about his authentic design at http://rogerdurand.com.
- Carver Building Rebirthed as Arts-culture Haven; Theaster Gates, Rebuild and Bemis Reimagine North Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)