The Old Market’s Late Godfather Samuel Mercer Casts Long Shadow in Omaha
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.
Sam Mercer, center ©Photograph by Vera Mercer
The Old Market’s Late Godfather Samuel Mercer Casts Long Shadow in Omaha
©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.