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
There was a time, not so long ago, when it seemed Omaha was hell-bent on tearing down its history. All manner of historic structures were razed: the old United States Post Office ; the Fontenelle Hotel, a huge tract of warehouses in Jobber’s Canyon, the Medical Arts Building. Thank God more jewels were saved than lost: the Old Market district; the Orpheum Theatre, the Rose Theater; Union Station, Burlington Station, the Brandeis Building, Joslyn Castle, the Storz Mansion, the Mastercraft, Omar Bakery, the Livestock Exchange Building, St. Cecilia Cathedral and many more that have been protected, renovated, and repurposed. Some of those survived narrowly escaped being razed. It took agitation, activism, vision, and purpose by determined people to save some if not all of those treasures. The tension between new development and historic preservation continues, as witnessed by the recent loss of the apartment buildings just east of Midtown Crossing and the Johnson & Johnson Mortuary on South 10th Street. One of the most signifcant saves was Union Station ,which today goes by the name Durham Museum to reflect its adapted reuse as a museum charting Omaha’s and the nation’s history. My new story about the Durham for Metro Magazine (/www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) explains how that building has now reached the same number of years, 40, in its role as a museum that it served as a passenger rail station for Union Pacific Railroad. It is one of those grand structures, certainly by Omaha terms, that never fails to mesmerize and impress me by its sheer size and grandeur. My eyes automatically fix on the far upper reaches of that proletarian palace. I never met or caught a train there, but I recently had the privilege of delivering a lecture there and I hope to have the opportunity to do so again in the near future.
It’s not often a grand public space celebrates a dual legacy with a shared milestone of service. From 1931 to 1971 millions of rail passengers passed through. Starting in 1975 the old Union Station became a cultural-historical venue that millions more have visited.
Much like the history it celebrates, Durham Museum was not built in a day. Neither was its home, Union Station. Union Pacific began construction on it in 1929, the year the Stock Market Crash triggered the Great Depression. The Gilbert Stanley Underwood-designed structure opened in 1931, the year when a congressional resolution officially made the “Star Spangled Banner” America’s national anthem.
As soon as Union Station closed in 1971 the site’s future lay in doubt. Its survival looked bleak the longer it sat abandoned and untended. Even after UP donated the place to the City of Omaha in 1973, most officials regarded it as a burden or albatross, not a gift. Many called for the “eyesore” to be torn down. Enter a group of preservationist-minded private citizens who formed the Western Heritage Society as a vehicle for reopening the former train station as a museum. If not for their efforts this monument to Omaha’s vigor may have gone the way of other historic buildings that got razed rather than saved.
Originally known as the Western Heritage Museum, the institution was resource-poor its first two decades yet managed to give new life to the old digs that had seen far better days. Most importantly it built a formidable body of artifacts related to early Omaha, including the Byron Reed Collection of rare coins and documents and the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection of late 19th century-early 20th century photographs. It also originated events, such as Christmas at Union Station, that became community traditions.
Durham executive director Christi Janssen admires the vision and fortitude of those angels, including Itey Crummer, Emi Baker and Ron Hunter, who made the old train station a museum.
“Their challenges were way different than our challenges today,” she says. “They were really fighting hard to raise money to turn the lights on essentially.”
Then, in the mid-1990s, the struggling museum that long postponed much-needed renovations and improvements for lack of funds was gifted with tens of millions of dollars through a Heritage Services drive. That campaign also brought the museum one of its greatest champions, the late Charles W. “Chuck” Durham, who grew HDR Inc. into a national engineering firm and became a major philanthropist.”Fortunately, Chuck Durham showed up with a keen architectural and engineering instinct. Walking into this Union Station Chuck could see beyond the collapsing roof, the peeling paint and the tarnished light fixtures and envision its magnificence with the right amount of money and the best of architecture and construction firms,” recalls Heritage Services President Sue Morris.
As an active museum board member Durham committed himself to helping it reach its potential and restoring the building to its former glory. His children note their father saw great value in the work the museum did and in the history the building represented.
Daughter Sunny Lundgren says, “He thought this is Omaha’s history and we need to preserve it and so the first thing he did was give money to this place and then he started knocking on doors and saying, ‘Do you know what an important building this is? It’s part of Omaha, we need to restore it.'”
“He led the charge in raising dollars from community leaders who responded generously,” daughter Lynne Boyer adds.
Among those Durham reeled in was then-Kiewit Corporation CEO Walter Scott. His support was recognized when the museum’s most iconic space was renamed the Suzanne and Walter Scott Great Hall.
“The building and I have something in common. We were both ‘born’ in 1931,” Scott says. “Many years later it was Chuck Durham who introduced me to its role as a museum. He convinced me to help him establish the museum’s relationships with the Smithsonian, Library of Congress and National Archives. Chuck had a vision for what the Durham Museum could become, and I think he’d be pleased to see the board and staff have realized a good part of his vision.”
Sue Morris says Durham was persuasive enough that the Heritage Services-directed campaign raised more than $30 million for the museum. The funds underwrote a major 1996 project that entailed constructing a new parking deck, installing a new roof as well as new mechanical and electrical systems and creating new office spaces, classrooms and permanent exhibits. The Great Hall was repainted and restored and interactive sculptures added. A 22,000 square foot addition was built over Track #1.
In recognition of Durham’s efforts, the museum was renamed in his honor in 1997 as part of a general rebranding.”It’s always been centered on Omaha’s history and western heritage,” Janssen says, “but as the museum has evolved we have aspired to be much more than that. We want to be a gathering place. The events we host are a great way to celebrate traditions. Beyond Omaha’s history and its western heritage our mission is to share the nation’s story. We are a significant piece of that. We mirror the national story in terms of rail travel and the industry that built this community. So we have broadened our scope quite a bit over the years. Thus, we’ve been able to tap into a new audience.”
Janssen says “a very strong education focus now takes front and center,” adding, “We get into school classrooms, we host school field trips and summer camps down here, we offer a scholars in residence education series that is much sought after.” The museum does special programming around various history months, such as Black History Month (February), Women’s History Month (March), Jazz Appreciation Month (April), National Hispanic Heritage Month (September) and Native American Heritage Month (November).
The lecture hall is fully outfitted for distance learning. Presentations made there are regularly fed to classrooms, community centers and other sites around the nation. A mobile video camera unit allows educators to focus on various architectural details of the Great Hall, for example, as part of distance learning history curriculum.
“We continue to look for ways to engage people and to make the museum a presence wherever we can,” Janssen says. “We want people to realize it’s not just about the permanent and traveling exhibits, it’s about lectures, films, concerts, the Ethnic Holiday Festival, Christmas at Union Station, the authentic soda fountain and more.”
As the building transformed from dusty relic to gleaming palace once again and the museum grew its programming, attendance increased. In the first decade of the new millennium Chuck Durham contributed a generous match to new philanthropic gifts that funded several more infrastructure needs and the building of the Stanley and Dorothy Truhlsen Lecture Hall.
“But I think the thing that continues to get people excited about the museum is that everyone leaves with an appreciation for the history and the experience they find here. We are a repository of stories and we share those stories through our artifacts and our programs. We have been able to capture and retell those stories, and again this building speaks louder than words.”
With the museum’s finances stabilized and the institution becoming an affiliate of the prestigious Smithsonian Institution (in 2002), whose popular traveling exhibits show there, Durham was pleased by how far things had progressed and how bright the future looked.
“My father enjoyed watching the museum come alive with outstanding programs and exhibits which attracted large numbers of visitors from all over the city, state and country,” Boyer says. “It gave him a sense of great satisfaction to know the museum would continue to educate and entertain visitors of all ages for generations to come.”
Right up until his death in 2008 Durham, then wheel-chair bound, made a point of visiting the museum as often as he could.
“He enjoyed coming to the museum,” Janssen says. “Of course, it probably didn’t hurt that we had ice cream. He appreciated the opportunity to visit the soda fountain. He loved to eat a sundae.”
The Durham family remains involved. Lundgren formed the museum’s guild and served as its president one year. She supports various education efforts there and still volunteers at events. She says her family’s Christmas is not complete without visiting the museum.
Boyer enjoys taking her grandchildren there, saying, “When I visit the museum with them I view it through their eyes and gain an even greater appreciation for all it has to offer. It is an educational gem.”
Janssen says the Durham could not have blossomed without the generous support of individual members, families, corporations and foundations or without the committed work of board members, docents, volunteers and staff. She says the museum has been fortunate to have both good leadership and stewardship.
The Durham has become a major attraction – welcoming a record 204,000 visitors in 2013 and on pace to record a similar number in 2014. Its household membership base is over 7,000.
New directions and neighbors
That kind of support, she says, “just changes the way we can do business.” There’s no time to rest on laurels. “Our job is always to take it one step further,” Janssen says. “A big focus going forward is incorporating technology into the experience, both in digitizing our photo archive and in making our gallery exhibits more interactive.”
After years of being an outlier the Durham’s poised to be one of many anchor attractions along a revived South 10th Street. It can partner with such new neighbors as the House of Loom, the resurgent Little Italy district, KETV, which is moving into the restored Burlington Station, the new Blue Barn Theater and the coming Omaha Public Market. That’s in addition to North Downtown, the Capital District, the Old Market, Lauritzen Gardens and the Henry Doorly Zoo.
All of it, she says, speaks to “a new vibrancy” in the area. “It’s not just about us anymore. It’s about everybody around us. We can do so much more if we do it together and we become a destination corridor.”
Follow the 2015 anniversary events at durhammuseum.org.
Join me for-
Nebraska’s Film Heritage Lecture
presented by Leo Adam Biga
Tuesday, Feb. 17, 6:30 p.m.
PLEASE NOTE: Reservations are required. Email reservations@DurhamMuseum.org or call 402-444-5071.
Here is how the Durham is promoting my talk:
*Nebraska’s Film Heritage
presented by Leo Adam Biga
Tuesday, February 17, 6:30PM
Stanley and Dorothy Truhlsen Lecture Hall, Durham Museum
Omaha author Leo Adam Biga highlights the story of Nebraska’s rich legacy in cinema. Several native sons and daughters have made significant contributions and established major careers in the industry, both on screen and behind the camera. To this day, Nebraskans continue to make their mark in virtually every aspect of the industry and have received many honors, including Oscar recognition. Many hometown products are regarded as leaders, innovators and trailblazers, including the Johnson Brothers and their Lincoln Film Company, Harold Lloyd, Fred Astaire, Darryl F. Zanuck, Marlon Brando and Joan Micklin Silver.
Leo Adam Biga is an Omaha-based nonfiction author, award-winning journalist and blogger. His 2012 book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film is a collection of his extensive journalism about the Oscar-winning filmmaker. Additionally, Biga is the coeditor of Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores and the author of two e-books for the Omaha Public Schools. As a working journalist he contributes articles to several newspapers and magazines. His work has been recognized by his peers at the local, regional and national levels.
*Due to limited space, reservations are required. Please call 402-444-5071 or email reservations@DurhamMuseum.org to reserve your spot.. Cost of admission applies and members are FREE.
Join selected scholars for a special tour and commentary of Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen.
*March 7, 2015, 9AM and 11AM
Rachel Jacobsen, Executive Director, Film Streams at the Ruth Sokolof Theater
*Due to limited space, reservations are required. Please call 402-444-5071 or email reservations@DurhamMuseum.org to reserve your spot. Cost of admission applies and members are free.
Saturday, March 28, 2015, 10AM-3PM
Bring your friends for a day of boot camp…Hollywood style! Walk the red carpet, learn expert tips in costuming and make-up design, star in your own movie and much more. Plus, get your own star on The Durham Walk of Fame!
Regular Museum Admission Rates Apply
Free to Members
Katharine Hepburn Movie Series
Now – March 30
The Durham Museum is proud to partner with Film Streams at the Ruth Sokolof Theater for a series of movies that coincide with the costume exhibit, Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen.
All screenings will occur at Film Streams’ Ruth Sokolof Theater (1340 Mike Fahey Street). For details and showtimes visit http://www.filmstreams.org.
Filmmaker explores a Latina whose story defies all conventions; Maria Agui Carter to speak after El Museo Latinoscreening of her film ‘Rebel’
A hybrid documentary employing dramatic elements explores the fascinatiing story of Loreta Valezquez, a Cuban immigrant who posed as a man to fight and spy for both sides in the American Civil War. Noted filmmaker Maria Agui Carter will discuss her film Rebel after a 7 p.m. screening at El Museo Latino in Omaha on Sept. 25. This is my Reader (http://www.thereader.com/) story about what drew Carter to the project and what she’s discoverd and surmised about Loreta, a woman she greatly admires. The film has been airing on PBS.
NOTE: Filmmaker Maria Agui Carter is pictured in the second photogaph below.
Filmmaker explores a Latina whose story defies all conventions; Maria Agui Carter to speak after El Museo Latinoscreening of her film ‘Rebel’
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)
Award-winning filmmaker Maria Agui Carter has much to say about her new film Rebel, the story of a Latina who posed as a man to fight and spy in the American Civil War. Agui Carter will discuss the film, which recently aired as a PBS special, and its protagonist, Cuban immigrant Loreta Velazquez, following a 7 p.m. screening on September 25 at El Museo Latino, 4701 South 25th Street.
An immigrant herself, Agui Carter is an independent filmmaker based in Mass. and founder of Iguana Films, a film and new media company making Spanish and English language works. She’s a graduate of Harvard University, where she’s been a visiting artist-scholar.
In a director’s statement and answers provided via email, she details what led her to do the 12-years-in-the-making project.
“I’m a history buff, I look for interesting characters, especially women and Latinos, in American history,” she says. “I came across an original copy of Loreta’s 1876 memoir in Widener Library (Harvard).”
Agui Carter found powerful themes in those accounts that speak to her experience as a Latina storyteller, immigrant to the U.S. and feminist.
“I felt uniquely qualified to tell the story. I’m fascinated by the question of citizenship and national identity, having been brought here as a child undocumented and raised ‘underground’ by my mother. I felt growing up I was deeply American, but I did not have the citizenship status.”
Loreta’s story touches on issues of gender, race and self-determination Agui Carter identifies with.
“I identify with Loreta and sympathize with her painful struggle to find acceptance within her community. Loreta presents a Latina’s and a woman’s perspective on a time period and a war we usually think of as exclusively black and white. But this is less a story about the Civil War and more the story of a complex woman who reinvented herself to survive the impossible circumstances in which she found herself. And that reinvention of self is a quintessentially American experience that resonates with so many Americans – that idea we are not what we are born, but what we make of ourselves.”
Agui Carter’s fllm answers and asks questions prompted by the memoir. “My film is a detective story trying to understand the woman, the myth and the politics of how we understand our own past.”
From the time Loreta published her memoir until now, her story’s been marginalized and contested, even called a hoax.
“She was attacked as a liar and a fraud by an unreconstructed Ex-Confederate general. Jubal Early, who read her memoir and thought her story preposterous. He was quite powerful and publicly dismissed her story. Subsequent generations generally followed his lead.”
To unravel the mystery, Agui Carter consulted historians, who informed her some 1,000 women disguised as men fought in the Civil War. They confirm Loreta fought under the name Harry T. Buford at First Bull Run and was wounded at Shiloh. At some point Loreta became a spy, first for the Confederacy, then for the Union. She went by many aliases, including Laura Williams and Loretea DeCaulp. Agui Carter’s hybrid documentary uses actors to dramatize certain scenes.
“We don’t know all the exact details of her service, nor that of the other documented women who fought disguised as men because they were hiding their tracks and identities,” she says.
As for why Loreta did what she did, Agui Carter says, “She had just lost her family and as a young girl she had dreamed of being a hero. it’s a complicated and deliciously twisted plot. ”
The filmmaker admires what Loreta did in carving out an unexpected, emancipated life and sharing her journey with the world.
“Her book popularized her story of a woman who broke the rules and social boundaries that, post-war, so many were trying to reconstruct. By writing her memoirs, she allowed others to imagine that they, too, might choose their own fates and go against the grain. This was considered dangerous at a time when men were returning from war and expecting the women to go back to their old roles.
“She refused to be bounded by the strictures of her time. She imagined a world for herself and went out and created it, regardless of what people told her she couldn’t do. She made the impossible possible for herself.”
Agui Carter has authored a new play, 14 Freight Trains, about the first American soldier to die in Iraq – an undocumented Latino. It has reverberations with Rebel and her own family’s experience.
“My mother married a Vietnam veteran who applied for citizenship for my mother and myself. War is a terrible, painful, transformative thing and yet people believe in this country enough to put their lives on the line for it, including generation after generation of immigrants. This is a profound experience and I am drawn to these stories of people who would believe in something so much they would risk their lives for it.”
She’s working on turning Loreta’s story into a narrative action feature..
See Rebel free with museum admission. Due to limited space, reservations are advised. Call 402-731-1137.
For more about the film and Loreta’s story, visit http://rebeldocumentary.com.
One of Omaha’s most distinctive buildings is the old Union Station passenger train terminal, which closed in 1971 and has enjoyed a new life as a history museum since 1975. The Art Deco edifice is a real stunner and its beauty has been preserved through major restoration and conservation efforts. Now called the Durham Museum, the institution is home to some major photographic archives, several permanent displays depicting early Omaha history, and traveling exhibitions from the Smithsonian, of which the museum is an affiliate member. It also hosts many educational and cultural events. My article for Encounter magazine gives a brief overview of the building’s history and how it’s been reinvented from a train station to a museum. Life-like bronze scultpures capture the human stories that played out in that building when it was a busy passenger rail station and actual train engines and cars you can climb aboard provide a sense for what rail travel was like back in the day. A timeline followiing the story helps chart the venue’s makeover from one purpose to the other.
It’s an impressive place to be sure, and if you’re visiting Omaha it’s a must-see stop, as is another Art Deco masterpiece here, the Joslyn Art Museum, which opened the same year, 1931, as the Durham.
Eighty Years and Counting, History in the Making at the Durham Museum
©by Leo Adam Biga
A version of the story appears in Encounter magazine
Opened in 1931, the magnificent art deco structure went on to welcome millions of travelers during the heyday of American passenger rail service. At its operational peak in World War II, 10,000 people passed through each day. Open 24/7, this terminal serviced 64 trains and seven railroads daily.
“It was a very busy, active place,” says Bob Fahey, a former red cap (porter) and station master who met his late wife, Jaye, there.
A staff of 60 and a station full of amenities catered to every need. A janitor spent eight hours a day polishing the station’s prodigious brass fixtures.
By the late 1960s, passenger rail travel in the Midwest trailed off to a trickle and the once bustling, gleaming station resembled a dingy ghost town set.
“It was kind of a sad thing to see it dwindling down,” says Fahey.
When Union Station closed in 1971 an era ended. With no further need for it, Union Pacific donated the building to the City of Omaha in 1973. If a future use for the cavernous space was not found, it might have joined other historic landmarks in the demolition heap. Fortunately, preservationists and history buffs repurposed it.
From its 1975 opening as the Western Heritage Museum to its life as the Durham Museum today, the building’s continued to be a magnet, only now the public comes to engage history.
“This building has been serving the community for 80 years, first as a travel-transportation hub and then as a museum,” says director Christi Janssen. “We’re nearing the point where half its life has been a museum.”
After significant restoration, renovation and conservation, a few name changes, and gaining Smithsonian affiliation, the Durham has come into its own as a major arts-cultural institution. It presents exhibitions, lectures, tours and special events.
Union Station veterans like Fahey volunteer to share their stories with visitors.
In this 80th anniversary year, the Durham’s holding joint architectural tours with another Omaha art deco icon turning 80, the Joslyn Art Museum. An August 21 event at both venues promises family-friendly activities for a combined $5.
In 1997 the museum added the Durham name to recognize benefactors Charles and Marge Durham. In 2008 it rebranded simply as the Durham Museum, says Janssen, “to better communicate to the public we’re more than western heritage,” adding, “I think the same can be said about the way we use the building — that it’s more than just a museum where we have artifacts in a case you can look at. In 2009, we changed our mission from preserving and displaying artifacts to being a strong educational-entertainment resource for the community. We want to be a resource for people who enjoy seeing and experiencing history.”
She says the Smithsonian affiliation is something “we’re very proud of because it allows us to bring nationally recognized treasures to Omaha” via traveling exhibits from the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress and the National Archives.
More of Durham’s own permanent collection treasures will be on view in coming months, including those from its Byron Reed Collection of rare coins and books and from its vast photo archive. “Our curatorial staff is spending a lot of time in our collections areas to be able to present more things,” she says.
The museum, on pace to surpass 150,000 visitors in 2011, “has really evolved,” says Janssen: “We’re able to offer a lot more, and we’re doing it with the same size staff as when I arrived in 2004. We’re finding creative ways to partner. We’re very excited about our 80th anniversary celebration and about what the future holds.”
Historic Timeline of Union Station-Durham Museum
May 29 marks the start of construction of Union Station by Peter Kiewit Sons on the site of the old station. Gilbert Stanley Underwood‘s art deco design infuses every aspect of both the exterior and interior.
After 20 months and $3.5 million, the 124,000 square foot Union Station is completed and opened. The dedication ceremony is held January 15.
The station enjoys its peak years of use.
Passenger rail service declines.
The facility closes.
The structure is donated by Union Pacific to the City of Omaha.
The former station is reopened as the Western Heritage Museum.
The Bostwick-Frohardt Collection is accepted on permanent loan from KMTV.
A portion of the John S. Savage Collection is donated by the photographer.
The Rinehart-Marsden Collection is donated by Alan Baer.
The Byron Reed Collection is transferred to the museum, on loan from the City of Omaha.
The remainder of the John S. Savage Collection is bequeathed upon the photographer’s death.
A $22 million project refurbishes the Great Hall, adds interactive sculptures and builds the 22,000 square foot Trish and Dick Davidson Gallery over Track #1.
The institution’s renamed the Durham Western Heritage Museum in honor of major restoration project benefactors Charles and Marge Durham.
The museum welcomes its one millionth visitor. The Durham gains Smithsonian affiliation.
The 12,500 square foot Velde Gallery of American History is constructed and opens.
The Robert Paskach Collection is donated by his widow, Frances Paskach.
The 1899 boiler house, dating back to the original Union Station, is renovated into the 256-seat Stanley and Dorothy Truhlsen Lecture Hall.
The institution’s new focus is reflected in its new name, the Durham Museum.
Digitization of the photo archive proceeds.
- El Museo Latino in Omaha Opened as the First Latino Art and History Museum and Cultural Center in the Midwest (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Fulfilling a $10 Million Promise (indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com)
- Pay your way into Smithsonian’s ‘Art of of Video Games’ exhibit (gamesradar.com)
Magdalena Garcia is one of those one-woman bands whose all consuming devotion to her passion, art, is so complete that one finds it hard to imagine how the museum she founded and directs, El Museo Latino in Omaha, would ever survive without her. She is hands-on involved in virtually every aspect of the place, which for its relatively small size presents a tremendous number of exhibitions and programs. The museum is a real jewel in the city and was one of the redevelopment anchors that signaled to others the promise of the South Omaha community it resides in. When she opened the museum 18 years ago South Omaha was in decline but she stuck it out, found a great new site in the heart of the South O business district and she’s seen the area around it transition from nearly a ghost town look and feel to a vibrant, bustling hub of largely Latino owned and operated businesses. I did the following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) a few years ago. Maggie, as she’s known, had already grown the museum into a first-rate arts venue of high quality exhibits and programs by that time, and she’s taken it to even greater heights since then.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
As preparations for Cinco De Mayo festivities continued earlier this month at El Museo Latino, founder and executive director Magdalena Garcia seemed to be everywhere at once in the sprawling brick building housing the museum at 4701 1/2 South 25th Street. Now in its eighth year, the museum is very much a one-woman show.
With a small staff and a meager budget its survival depends on Garcia, whose formidable drive brought it from concept to reality in five short weeks in early 1993. She does everything from unpacking crates to framing works to leading tours to presenting lectures to schmoozing at fundraisers to writing grants to giving dance lessons. She even locks up at night. It’s her baby. And, despite protests to the contrary, she would not have it any other way. Her work is her life’s mission.
“It’s definitely a passion. I’m totally immersed in it. It’s never, never boring. There’s always something new to do and learn, and that’s exciting,” said Garcia, a Mexico City native who has kept close to her heritage since emigrating with her family to Omaha in the early 1960s. Such devotion is typical for Garcia.
She had an epiphany serving as a Joslyn Art Museum Docent during a 1984 exhibition of art and artifacts from the Maximilian-Bodmer collection on permanent loan to Joslyn from her then employer, Northern Natural Gas, where she was human resources manager. Her experience then inspired a desire to dig deeper into that world and eventually led her to reorder her life around art, something she’d only dabbled in before.
“I remember thinking how wonderful it would be to be that close to real art every day. That was an exciting prospect to me. After the exhibit ended I stayed on as a volunteer in the Joslyn’s art library. Then I found myself taking vacations to see exhibits in Boston, Los Angeles, Europe. As I saw more art I found traveling to exhibitions a few days a year wasn’t enough anymore. I wanted to make art my profession. To work in a museum. I just didn’t know how I was going to get there.”
Her first step on that journey was to switch her major from business to art history while a part-time University of Nebraska at Omaha student. The next step came when her company downsized in 1988 and she accepted a severance package. She used the money to enter graduate school at Syracuse University, where she embarked on a dual master’s program in art history and museum studies. After a fateful decision to change her focus from Renaissance to Latin American art, her research on Mexican muralists took her to New York, Los Angeles (where she completed an internship at the L.A. County Museum of Art) and Mexico City. “It really brought me full circle,” she said.
When New York’s illustrious Guggenheim Museum courted her to head-up its Latin American Art Department it confirmed her marketability as a bilingual woman with art and business expertise. “That was an eye-opener,” she said. “It showed me I could be a tremendous resource to an institution wanting to reach the growing Hispanic population.” She turned the Guggenheim down, however, because she could not justify stopping short of completing the academic path she had worked so long and hard to follow.
Then, in the fall of 1992, something happened to derail her conventional museum track. While in Omaha for a one-day Hispanic Heritage program and exhibit she was struck by the “overwhelming” requests she received to speak to school and community groups and by the “need for a space where we could show art year-round.” That’s when she got the idea of starting an Omaha Hispanic museum.
Bringing a Vision to Life
Her plan from the outset was for a museum to be based in its cultural center — South Omaha. When her search for a space turned-up a former print shop in the basement of the Livestock Exchange Building, she negotiated a one-year lease with eight months free rent in lieu of her cleaning up the ink, grease and smoke-stained site.
Armed with pledges of donated supplies from individuals and businesses, work proceeded at a fever pitch, especially once Garcia and her board decided to open in a mere 34 days to kick-off that year’s Cinco De Mayo celebration. Volunteers worked day and night to convert the space, putting-on the finishing touches minutes before the doors opened at 4 p.m. on May 5, 1993.
Only a few years later, with the museum having quickly outgrown its space and the future of the Livestock Exchange Building and surrounding stockyards in doubt, Garcia looked for a larger, more permanent site and found it in the former Polish Home at the corner of 25th & L, a fitting symbol for the changing makeup of South Omaha’s ethnic community. In Garcia’s mind it was providence that led her to the building, which, with its brick walls, red tile roof and U-shape design framing a courtyard, resembles a Spanish colonial structure. “It probably was meant to be,” she said.
She believes that when El Museo Latino opened in its new digs it became the first Latino art and history museum and cultural center in the Midwest.
The eclectic museum is a reflection of her wide interests in and deep feelings for Hispanic art. What it lacks in polish or panache it makes up for in serious presentations of textiles, pottery, carvings, paintings, drawings and photographs revealing the breadth and depth of a rich culture. “Hopefully, anyone who comes to the museum will get a little glimpse or flavor of how varied Latin American art is. It’s not one thing. It’s not just cactus and mariachi. It’s not just a Mexican thing. It’s a variety of periods, countries and styles,” she said. “The thing I’ve been most pleased with is sharing this diversity not just with our community, but with the rest of the community and sharing how WE see our culture rather than someone else translating it and telling us what our culture is.”
Finding a Niche
Garcia feels the museum is taking hold in the mostly Hispanic district. “I’ve noticed people taking more ownership. That this is ‘our museum’ versus, the first years, this is ‘Maggie’s museum,’ and that’s great. There’s more of a community embrace and it’s grown out of a collaborative effort. Our people look to see what’s happening here and the wider community looks to us to see what the Hispanic community is doing.”
With a broad mission of collecting and exhibiting Hispanic art from the Americas and developing education and outreach programs around all its displays, El Museo Latino has set ambitious goals. To date, it has acquired a small collection of textiles and objects and averaged eight exhibits per year. Garcia hopes to increase acquisitions and add more exhibits, but for now funds are earmarked for renovations to the turn-of-the-century building, including an overhaul of its outmoded electrical and plumbing systems, a major roof repair and the addition of an elevator and dock. Then attention will turn to fully conditioning the former social hall into museum quality classroom and gallery spaces.
To meet those needs and allow for the building’s purchase, the museum is three-quarters of the way to reaching a $1 million fund drive goal. Meanwhile, Garcia said museum-sponsored classes and workshops overflow with students learning paper cutting, weaving and mola-making. Traditional Mexican folk dancing classes are also popular. Garcia, a dancer herself, leads a youth performance dance troupe. Lectures and concerts draw well too. Combined attendance (for exhibits, classes, concerts, etc.) is also up — to 52,000 visitors last year from 17,000 three years ago.
While there is always a chance she will take one of those high-profile museum jobs she still gets offered, she’s not going anywhere soon. “I’ve made a commitment to see this museum take off and really get on solid ground. We’re still pretty new. There’s a lot of work yet to be done,” she said. Besides, she finds renewal in the endlessly rich veins of art she explores. “One of the things I find exciting is that there’s so much out there. It’s like, What do we want to exhibit this time? Every time we have something new it’s a learning process. That part keeps me fresh.”
El Museo Latino is currently presenting a traveling exhibition of Alebrijes, brightly colored wood carvings of fantastic animals from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. The show continues through August. For more information, visit http://www.elmuseolatino.org or call 731-1137.
NOTE: El Museo’s exhibition schedule through the remainder of 2012 and into early 2013 is:
- OLLAS, the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, A Melting Pot of Latino/Latin American Concerns (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- National Latino Museum Plan Faces Fight for a Place on the Mall (nytimes.com)
- Should We Have a National Latino Museum? (nytimes.com)
- Long Live Roberto Clemente, A New Exhibit Looks at this Late King of the Latin Ball Players and Human Rights Hero (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Frederick Brown’s Journey Through Art is a Passage Across Form and a Passing On of Legacy (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native American Survival Strategies Shared Through Theater and Testimony (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Eighty Years and Counting, History in the Making at the Durham Museum (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Frederick Brown’s Journey Through Art is a Passage Across Form and a Passing On of Legacy (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- When a Building isn’t Just a Building (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Turning Kids Away from Gangs and Toward Teams in South Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Finding the Essence of Omaha in All the Right Places Leads You to Obvious and Obscure Sites (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Home is Where the Heart Is for Activist Attorney Rita Melgares (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- El Puente: Attempting to Bridge the Divide Between Grassroots Community and The System (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A South Omaha Renaissance (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha South High Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award Winner Maria Walinski-Peterson Follows Her Heart (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)