Home > Durham Museum, Education, Entertainment, History, Omaha, Writing > Durham Museum to celebrate 40-and-40: Forty years as train station and four decades as museum

Durham Museum to celebrate 40-and-40: Forty years as train station and four decades as museum


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.

 

 

 

 

Durham Museum to celebrate 40-and-40: Forty years as train station and four decades as museum
Dual milestone for historic landmark thriving in new use
Museum’s growth spurred by champion and namesake
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Metro Magazine (/www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

 

 

Forty years. That’s the length of time the former Union Station in Omaha operated as a passenger train center and come 2015 that same Art Deco-style building marks 40 years as the Durham Museum.

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.”

 
Chuck to the rescue
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.

A new name and mission
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.

Public trust and uninterrupted growth

From that point forward the museum has seen its greatest growth in terms of attendance, membership and donations, Janssen says.”I think the thing that gets people to invest in us is a proven record and we have that now because of the growth we’ve enjoyed and the hard work we’ve been doing. We can get their attention because they see something happening here. They see we’re actually going to do what we say we’re going to do. That’s foundational for us – we never say we’re going to do something and then don’t. We’re intentional to always under promise and over deliver.

“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.

 

Advertisements
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: