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Old Market Pioneer Roger duRand


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.

 

 

 

Roger duRand

 

 

Old Market Pioneer Roger duRand

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Encounter Magazine

 

Omaha designer Roger duRand didn’t invent the Old Market, but he played a key role shaping the former wholesale produce and jobbing center into a lively arts-culture district.

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.”

 

 

Roger Durand's photo.
 ©photo by Jody Boyer

 

 

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.

 

 

 

A youunger duRand, center (in the suit), during the Old Market’s coming-of-age

 

 

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.

 

 

 

A duRand designed interior
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  1. rogerdurand@cox.net
    December 26, 2012 at 10:56 pm

    Nice to have these photos on the blog– thx!
    Sent on the Sprint® Now Network from my BlackBerry®

    Like

  2. December 27, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    As a budding artist and designer myself in the late 70’s-early 80’s, I was a regular in the Old Market before moving away from Omaha. I worked off and on as a waiter in those days at the venerable Spaghetti Works and French Cafe, and the Neon Goose as well. To this day, I have such fond memories of my time immersing in that culture. It was during this time period that I got to know Roger duRand. I can’t think about the Old Market without thinking of Roger . . . they are inherently connected!~~~

    Like

  3. June 10, 2016 at 7:46 pm

    Roger, Vera Mercer , Carrie Rennie and I were the first women to reside in the Old Market and have many great memories, Roger is an old friend and the photo Jody, his wife took recently is exquisite. Susan Bray

    Like

    • June 10, 2016 at 7:49 pm

      Also Astrid Buffet was a pioneer too! Susan Bray

      Like

  1. December 26, 2012 at 9:58 pm
  2. December 27, 2012 at 6:14 pm
  3. January 18, 2013 at 11:53 pm
  4. February 4, 2013 at 10:11 pm

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