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)