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George Haecker’s Design for Living: “Trying to understand what a building wants to be.”


George Haecker

 

George Haecker’s Design for Living 

“Trying to understand what a building wants to be.”

photos by Bill Sitzmann and provided

story by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the May 2019 edition of Omaha Home Magazine (https://omahamagazine.com/articles/george-haeckers-design-for-living)

Don’t look for ostentatious displays in the work of award-winning Omaha architect George Haecker. He’s a form-follows-function man, whether designing residential, commercial, or civic projects. Above all, his organic approach tries “to avoid cliches,” he says.

“The architectural world is just inundated with cliches,” he says. “I think architecture is way too important as a physical presence in our world, city, and neighborhoods to be trendy. I think the manifestation of it needs to be mature and careful and, hopefully, timeless. It’s public sculpture, whether you like it or not.”

Haecker strives for subdued, not showy, answers to whatever a project’s needs are.

“The thing I bring is, ultimately, an originality to the solution but not an artificial imposition of a style or a big statement,” he says. “I don’t look for the finished product to show off in any way. It might subtly, but you kind of have to look at it twice to say, ‘Well, that’s something different.’ I don’t like to shout and yell and just grab your attention. I want it to be more comfortable and, of course, livable.”

Haecker communes with the unborn structure by “trying to understand what a building wants to be.”

“Every project has a context, a location, an owner, a program, and a need, and the architect’s thought is to try to meld, digest, and mix that all together,” he says. “All kinds of factors influence the result, including budget.”

Brandzel Cottage in Fremont, Nebraska

Brandzel Cottage in Fremont, Nebraska

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate, whose brother Foster Woods Haecker and son Alex Haecker are also architects, broadened his own vision working for firms in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas Virgin Islands, and New York.

“I didn’t leave Nebraska to leave Nebraska,” he says. “I like it here very much for many reasons. But, in your youth, you have an itch to look at different things, and that variety of geography and mentors was extremely valuable.”

A job offer from Dana Larson Roubal & Associates (DLR) lured him back to Nebraska in 1968. By the early 1970s, he became a founder of the Omaha office of BVH Architecture. During his nearly half-century run as a principal and part-owner, leading architectural periodicals published his work, he earned numerous awards from the American Institute of Architects, and he received The Harry F. Cunningham Gold Medal from AIA Nebraska in 2006 (the highest honor that AIA Nebraska bestows upon an individual).

He took a hand in such signature public projects as the Gene Leahy Mall and the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.

Historic renovation work is a big segment of BVH’s portfolio, and he was part of teams that repurposed Omaha’s Union Station and Union Pacific’s Harriman building.

An activist in the preservation community for many years, he successfully campaigned to save the Omaha Building downtown. He also wrote the preface for the 1977 book Omaha City Architecture.

His enduring residential works include private homes in and out of Nebraska. Perhaps his personal favorite is the Woods Cottage in Madeline Island, Wisconsin.

Woods Cottage in Madeline Island, Wisconsin

Interior of Woods Cottage in Madeline Island, Wisconsin

Woods Cottage in Madeline Island, Wisconsin

Front of Woods Cottage in Madeline Island, Wisconsin

“It’s a traditional lake-shore cottage with low-pitched shingle roofs, big overhangs, a big screened-in porch,” Haecker says. “All the siding and windows are real wood with real mullions. There’s no drywall in it. It’s all natural materials inside and out, so it has a real warmth to it. It fits into its environment.”

Another out-of-state favorite is the Keene residence in Crested Butte, Colorado.

“That was a very special challenge,” he says. “That historic town has strict design guidelines for roof pitches, proportions, and windows. My objective was to design a house that fit into that historic environment with the articulation of the floor plan, the pitches of the roofs and the selection of materials. The Keene house is, really, pretty contemporary when you stand back and look at it, but you don’t see it as an intrusion when you drive down the street or you’re inside it.”

Keene Residence, left

Keene Residence

Keene residence in Crested Butte, Colorado

Keene residence in Crested Butte, Colorado

Back home in the Omaha metro, the Matthews residence in Elkhorn’s Skyline Ranches presented the challenge of a new house in a new development.

“It’s a bigger house—pretty grand really in scale and square footage with a big dining room, great room, and game room,” he says. “The topography there was very much a part of it. It’s on a very steep site, so the house steps down the hill with the living levels. It’s somewhat dramatic but not glaring in its forms and colors and materials.” 

Then there’s the Liakos residence in southwest Omaha. He didn’t touch the street facade of this house inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School. But in the back living quarters, he designed a new family kitchen, a new dining room, and a new master bedroom.

Liakos residence in southwest Omaha

Liakos residence in southwest Omaha

“The way the old morphs into the new is what’s kind of fun with that house,” he says. “It’s got big clerestory windows with a lot of light shining in. I like a lot of light, so I use clerestory windows to reach up into the sky and bring light inside.”

He also designed a screened-in porch and deck for the property.

Whatever the project, it’s the architect’s intuitive, interpretive expression of the client’s program.

“Sometimes all the pieces come together with the owner and the site and the budget, and it’s just a joyful passage, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all,” Haecker says. “They’re hiring you, in the end, to bring your perspective and talent and aesthetic into a compatible solution that they’re comfortable with. If you just blindly do what the client wants, you’re just going to end up with, probably, a mediocre solution.”

It’s a delicate dance. “Without being overt about it, the architect needs to gently influence the client to do this or that,” he says.

Matthews residence, Elkhorn Nebraska

Matthews residence, Elkhorn Nebraska

After working most of his career in his own firm, he’s now in independent practice.

Like a lot of architecture shops, he says, BVH “started out loosely organized with unspoken philosophies. Then, as we got bigger, more structure crept in and it morphed from a spiritual camaraderie to a business with a board, policy manuals, schedules, payrolls, insurance. That happens to every firm. I just didn’t fit anymore with the structure of the thing. It was just time to step away from that.”

Today, he enjoys his well-earned autonomy working from a home studio in the 1929 Memorial Park Tudor he shares with wife, Judy. It’s the only home the couple has ever owned. The studio, which he added on, is filled with overhead windows that stream in light. A large drafting table is its centerpiece.

“I still draw by hand,” Haecker says. “A few of us do, but it’s a dying breed.”

He also writes and paints in his sanctuary of a studio space that’s filled with books, maquettes, and artwork.

The three-story home has undergone several other tweaks by his design, including adding bay windows in the living room and a study and sunroom in the back.

Haecker is a collaborating architect with The Architectural Offices in Omaha. He works up conceptual designs for the practice. He also partners on projects with his son, Alex.

In a career spanning six decades, Haecker’s pretty much done it all in terms of architectural types.

“It’s happened that way, and happily so,” he says. “I do like the variety—everything from a bridge to a lake cottage—that I’ve done and been involved with.”   


Visit georgehaecker.com for more information.

This article was printed in the May 2019 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Spellman dacha, Niobrara, Nebraska

Spellman dacha, Niobrara, Nebraska

The high price of juvenile justice Battle lines are drawn over cost, location of proposed youth detention center

November 13, 2018 Leave a comment

The high price of juvenile justice

Battle lines are drawn over cost, location of proposed youth detention center

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Nov. 2018 issue of The Reader

 

The Reader - November 2018

 

As Douglas County pushes for construction of a $120 million justice complex downtown, conflict and controversy have emerged over greater good and expediency versus accountability to stakeholders.

The 10-story tower courthouse annex would house a combination of county adult and juvenile courtrooms, judges’ chambers, public defender and probation offices and related facilities. The juvenile justice element is getting the most attention because a four-story youth detention center containing 48 to 64 beds would connect to the annex. Services and programs for juveniles and families would be onsite. A parking garage would also be built.

The Douglas County Board of Commissioners is charged with approving or denying the project. A majority of the seven-member board supports it. The project’s two vocal opponents, commissioners Jim Cavanaugh and Mike Boyle, take issue with its scale and location as well as the mechanism to pay for it and the private nonprofit created to oversee it. They’ve called for a reset to halt the project to review alternatives, including scaling it back.

Meanwhile, the county seeks to acquire a nearly century-old brick building at 420 South 18th Street, raze it and then build the complex. When owner Bob Perrin refused to sell last summer, the county began eminent domain proceedings, only to have a court order the county to back off pending further hearings.

“There are obstacles we’re going to have to overcome now and we’re working through those,” said commissioner Mary Ann Borgeson, who champions the project. “I hope in the end we’ll be able to come to a resolution. It (eminent domain) isn’t a popular thing to do or use, but we can’t go forth really without that (building).”

Cavanaugh sees things differently.

“With the court having stopped eminent domain for now it allows us that chance to step back and take a deep breath and look at alternatives that exist and that will work,” he said. “We have been proposing specific alternatives, which include construction of a juvenile justice center courthouse on land we own adjacent to the (current) courthouse and refurbishment of the (existing) youth center on 42nd Street. We would add a courtroom facility to the youth center to allow proximity.

“Kids will have access to outdoor activities on a campus that looks more like a school than a correctional center with numbers significantly lower than those proposed for the $120 million project.”

There’s broad agreement the current courthouse is past capacity and long overdue for expansion.

“We have been trying to jerry-rig judges into cubbyholes and all kinds of things to try and make this thing work   without having to do what we know we needed to do 20 years ago, which was to build an annex facility,” said Ben Gray. an Omaha City Council member who served on the city-county building commission driving the project and now chairs the nonprofit overseeing it. “So this was not fast-tracked or anything like that.”

“It’s nothing new,” Borgeson said. “What is new is that we actually have a conceptual plan that puts the center across the street from the existing courthouse-civic center.”

She said other locations, including the old Civic Auditorium site and MUD property, were considered.

There’s less agreement on the need for a new detention center and how many youth it should serve.

Proponents tout the efficiencies of a one-stop shop. The current center near 42nd and Woolworth would be replaced by the new one, thereby putting detainees in close proximity to the justice system and to services supporting their transition back into society.

“Hopefully, this one-stop shop being imagined will be built based on the input of what kids, families and community providers who work with them say they need,” said LaVon Stennis-Williams, a county Operation Youth Success initiative committee member. Her ReConnect Inc. serves families of current and former incarcerated. “Programs that can keep kids from being detained are underutilized. That has to be factored in.”

She said a proposed partnership among the county, University of Nebraska Medical Center and Creighton University to bring more psychologists and psychiatrists onsite “is going to be a game-changer in terms of getting the assessments done on children quicker.”

“Then we can look for services that will keep kids at home,” she said. “On any given day, most of the kids detained are there awaiting placement and professional assessment, not for their underlying offense. You’ll remove maybe two-thirds of your population with the right professionals engaged and looking for alternatives to detention. There are opportunities in the community to put those things in place.”

Gray, who has a long history working with at-risk youth, said the new center will utilize “best practice policies for getting kids in and out and served quickly and assessing what their real needs are.”

“We want to change the trajectory of how we’re doing things by enhancing service at the county level for our kids and families,” Borgeson said. “A lot of details are being worked out in terms of the internal guts of the buildings and how they’re going to look and operate.”

Some observers express concern the new detention center will house fewer youth (68 max) than the current average detainee population of 70 to 80 and less than half the existing capacity (144).

“It doesn’t make sense why we’re reducing capacity when the average daily population has been steady for years and the county has not produced any projections on how they will reduce the number of kids in detention,” community activist Brian Smith said.

“That is a valid concern,” Stennis-Williams said. “But if we’re moving towards juvenile justice reform we should applaud reducing the number of beds – just so long as we do not have any notion of shipping kids to other jurisdictions when we run out of bed space. We need to address why we’re detaining the number of kids we are and what we’re detaining them for.”

Opponents question another number – the price tag. It would be the largest capital construction project in Douglas County government history. Funding would come through bonds issued by the Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission and likely require a county property tax rate increase. Mayor Jean Stothert said she wants no city taxpayer money used for its construction.

The 501C3 formed to develop and manage the project – Douglas County Unified Justice Center Development Corp. – is based on a model UNMC used to construct its Buffett Cancer Center. The nonprofit would have the ability to solicit private philanthropy to fund the project.

“We have some ideas, but we have to have a more concrete plan before private donors will jump on board,” Borgeson said, “and that’s what we’re trying to get at.”

Critics assert a lack of transparency and due diligence in the process that created the nonprofit, whose board is comprised of various elected and appointed officials.

 

Jim Cavanaugh

 

“We don’t need a private corporation to head up construction. We’re perfectly capable doing it ourselves,” Cavanaugh said. “There’s a better, cheaper, smarter way to go, and we’re doing that right now with the 2016 public safety bond $45 million construction project voters overwhelmingly approved after months of public hearings and discussions. It’s refurbishing a large county office building to consolidate some county services, including a new state-of-the-art 9/11 center, a satellite office for the Douglas County Treasurer to serve western Douglas County and West Omaha, headquarters for our emergency services and environmental services, plus the crime lab and sheriff’s department spaces.

“We are also refurbishing the county correction center downtown. We’re installing in all fire stations in the city new alert systems. All this new construction and equipment is administered by the public property division – on time, on budget and no tax increase.”

He dislikes the apparatus behind the juvenile justice project because, he said, “It’s not accountable to the people.”

“Handing to a private corporation concocted behind closed doors by private entities control over the expenditure of $120 million of tax dollars without any vote of the people, without public access, hearings or discussions, and without any public bidding process, is wrong. It’s a top-down, cart-before-the-horse approach to what should be a well-thought-out, strategic, decision-making plan in public,” Cavanaugh said.

“I’m calling for the process to result in a bond issue that would be voted on by the public.”

He suspects the slated downtown location is more about accommodating lawyers and judges than serving kids.

 

juvenile justice

 

County officials selected a troika of Omaha power players – Burlington Capital, Kiewit Construction Corp. and HDR – to manage and build the project without apparently other potential players considered or asked to submit bids. It strikes some as back-room, sweetheart deal-making and incestuous political maneuvering. The Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission is investigating a conflict-of-interest complaint brought against some officials sitting on multiple boards involved in the project’s governance.

“It seems like HDR, Kiewit and Burlington Capital have been preselected for this program with no competitive bids,” said watchdog Smith, whose Omaha Public Meetings has convened forums on the topic. “There’s no explanation of where that $120 million number came from and why this 501c3 is going to manage it using the Double A bond borrowing status versus the county’s Triple A bond status.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions.”

Smith and others point out that HDR has pitched doing a mega-justice complex for more than a decade.

Cavanaugh sees “real estate development, sales and construction” interests as “the driving forces behind a lot of the private discussions by a lot of private players in the way the thing has been designed and put forward.”

“When they (the building commission) originally brought it to us in private,” Cavanaugh said, “I said we immediately should go public and have some discussion on this. But for months there was no public discussion. Finally, I started holding hearings in the Administrative Services Committee simply because it was clear something of this magnitude needed to be discussed in public. You can’t do a $120 million project like this without public discussion and a public vote really.”

 

By Ben Gray
By Ben Gray
By R Justice Braimah
By Elizabeth Lynn Welch

Project advocates concede it could have been a more open process.
By R Justice Braimah
By Elizabeth Lynn Welch

“I think some things could have easily been done in a public session,” Gray said, “but there were some concerns about prices going up and other things like that which made it more or less a better proposition to do it in executive session so as to try and preserve and not create any additional burden for taxpayers.

“So it was necessary in the beginning to start this effort in a sort of quiet way to get things started and get people on board and get things moving in the right direction. Now you can argue back and forth whether we should have done it sooner or not. We debate that among ourselves even. But at the end of the day it is what it is and we’re here now and we are telling the story that needs to be told.”

 

Said Borgeson, “We should have done a better job of coming out sooner with the conceptual plans, and what our thoughts are on that I can’t go back and change that, but what I can change going forward is what we’re doing and that is a monthly update at the board meeting of where we are – good and open conversation about the programs and gaps we have in the programs.”

 

Mary Ann Borgeson

 

She said she’s heard from constituents who support and oppose the plan, but she adds, “Once people really listen to what the end result is they may continue to disagree with how we got there but they’re supportive of what we’re trying to do because it’s such a need.”

ReConnect’s Stennis-Williams thinks what should be the main focus has been obscured by the conflict.

“I believe some of the arguments are mere distractions when what’s lacking are quality services for our kids.

The county needs to separate the issue of having a new courthouse, which is badly needed, from the issue of renovating, redesigning, reimagining youth detention,” she said.

“When you’re talking about formulating even the design of this detention center, parents’ voices need to be first, not secondary. I don’t care where it’s built, if we get it, how much it costs. My concern is what’s ultimately going to go inside the building. What is disturbing to me is that most of the people advocating for or against it have not sat down and talked with parents to see what they really do need. Most people on either side of the issue do not serve kids or represent that parent voice of having a system-involved child. Instead of reducing the argument to sticking points, talking points, we need to throw down deep enough to see how we keep kids from even getting system-involved. That is what needs to be upfront.”

 

 

The historic building owned by Bob Perrin that stands in the way of the proposed justice cener project

 

For Omaha architect Perrin, who owns the four-story, 40,000-square-foot, industrial-style building at 18th and Howard impeding the project, his property is no side issue. He rejected the county’s $900,000 offer for it, declaring it’s not for sale because he has plans to convert it into offices or condominiums.

His attorney, David Domina, filed suit against the county’s eminent domain attempt, and a judge enacted a temporary restraining order. The suit maintains the county lacks jurisdiction alone to obtain the property and contends the City Council and county building commission must also OK seizing the building.

Perrin has led various Omaha preservation efforts. He’s also previously challenged efforts to seize his holdings. He won a nearly $2 million settlement over land he owned coveted by the University of Nebraska Board of Regents for a University of Nebraska Medical Center expansion.

Gray openly suspects Perrin’s motives in bucking community progress interests. “He wants a better price for his property. That’s what this whole thing is about.” Perrin flatly refutes the assertion and says he simply wants the right to retain his property for what he deems a better public use. He added that he only broke even in his lawsuit against the university.

Gray questions the current structure’s historical integrity. “Because the building is old doesn’t make it historic.”

 

The area designated for the justice center.

 

The Omaha Planning Board has unanimously approved the 1920 building for local landmark status, on which the Council must vote. Landmark status would not guarantee the building from being taken by the county.

Several individuals and groups have expressed support for saving the building and criticized the city’s poor preservation track record.

Gray counters that two historic buildings – the courthouse and former downtown public library – are being preserved rather than razed for the project.

The county’s aggressive pursuit of the building became the public flashpoint for the project.

“The project had been behind the scenes with Cavanaugh the only one yelling and getting no attention at all until they started to take my building and I resisted,” Perrin said. “I feel like all the commissioners were in a dark room with their clothes off and I walked in and turned the lights on.”

He believes the industrial building, which housed early auto dealerships and more recently U.S. Corps of Engineers testing labs, is a diamond in the rough that should not be sacrificed for a project that could be built elsewhere.

“They’re disrespecting the history of our city. They’re wanting to demolish something that’s really important that we didn’t even know we had.”

He and other project detractors question placing a juvenile detention facility and justice center so close to the county’s adult prison.

Cavanaugh, who calls the planned center “a cellblock,” said, “It’s the wrong place to put children. Putting them   downtown within close proximity of the adult jail is exactly the wrong message we want to send these children.”

Critics say the project would impose a chilling effect on the area’s redevelopment.

“They’re wanting to do the wrong thing with the site by putting in things with uses that would degrade the value of neighboring properties,” Perrin said.

“It doesn’t make any sense why we would put a detention center in an already very fragile part of downtown,” Smith said.

Backers claim the project will revitalize the Flatiron District, though they don’t say how.

Lost in all of this, some assert, is what youth and parents say they want and need. Project advocates contend their actions are in the best interests of kids and families. Others call for more input from parents with youth in the system.

“It’s disturbing that the people most affected by this have the least voice,” Smith said.

 

ReConnect Inc.

Lavon Stennis-Williams

 

“We have gotten so comfortable excluding the voice of parents that we proceed as a matter of course now without getting them involved,” Stennis-Williams said. “There needs to be a direct effort to reach out to parents. We have to meet them where they’re at to intentionally get them involved in this conversation.

“We have not done a good job of getting them engaged. We’ve become comfortable speaking for parents using all these different surrogates. I’d like to have it come from a closer experience than from people looking at it from a policy standpoint. These families and kids are suffering. There are things we can do, that we can fix that we’re not putting proper attention on because we’re still arguing on issues that have nothing to do with what’s best.”

She wishes Perrin’s building fight never entered the fray.

“I think the effort to locate the center downtown and the fight to preserve the building standing in its way has become a polarizing situation keeping the parties from talking to each other. Instead, they’re talking at each other,” she said. “When you get engaged in that argument you lose sight of the kids and they need to be our foremost purpose.”

Smith is alternately a realist and idealist when projecting the outcome of this fight.

“The pessimist in me says the county is going to bulldoze their way through this first part of their plan, which is a real estate acquisition, and then maybe involve people in a meaningful way in the conversation about the actual design and programming of the facility. So the first part may be a loss. But the second part may highlight the fact people want engagement and explanation in the process.

“The optimist in me holds out hope the city, the mayor, the planning department, the city council will step in early enough in this process to prevent the demolition of the Perrin building and force some meaningful change in the way this process is planned out.”

Cavanaugh believes all is not lost.

“I think you’ve seen movement by some of my colleagues. Commissioner Boyle is now on board with stop eminent domain, right-size the project and put it on the ballot. I think others on the board are taking another look at this to maybe open it up to the robust public discussion that it needs.

“This is going to be a big issue going forward obviously because there’s so much money involved, and it’s now gotten people’s interest.”

Meanwhile, Borgeson, Gray and Co. are confident their plan will prevail in the end, with or without a vote of confidence or approval from the public.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com

Harvesting food and friends at Florence Mill Farmers Market, where agriculture, history and art meet

June 6, 2018 1 comment

 

Harvesting food and friends at Florence Mill Farmers Market, where agriculture, history and art meet

©by Leo Adam Biga, Originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com)

The Mill Lady is hard to miss at the Florence Mill Farmers Market on summer Sundays. She’s the beaming, bespectacled woman wearing the straw hat adorned by sprays of plastic fruit and vegetables.

Market vendors include local farmers, urban ag growers, gardeners and food truck purveyors. It’s been going strong since 2009 thanks to Linda Meigs, aka The Mill Lady. As director of the historic mill, located at 9102 North 30th Street, she’s transformed a derelict site into a National Register of Historic Places cultural attraction “connecting agriculture, history and art.”

She “wears” many hats beyond the fun one. As market manager, she books vendors. She organizes exhibits at the Art Loft Gallery on the mill’s top floor. She curates the history museum on the main level. She schedules and hosts special events. She writes grants to fund operations. Supervising the mid-19th century structure’s maintenance and repairs is a job in itself.

 

 

 

Ever since she and her late husband John acquired the abandoned mill in 1997. Meigs has been its face and heart. An artist by nature and trade, she also has an abiding appreciation for history.

“Omaha would be such a beautiful city with some of the architecture we’ve torn down. This is not the most beautiful architecture in Omaha, but it is the oldest historic business site and the only still-standing building in the state that bridges the historic eras of the overland pioneer trails of the 1840s with the territorial settlement of the 1850s. That’s a very small niche – but what a cool one. And it has this Mormon heritage and connection to Brigham Young, who supervised its construction.”

It took her awhile to arrive at the ag-history-art combo she now brands it with.

“I had very vague, artsy ideas about what to do. But that first summer (1998) I was in here just cleaning, which was the first thing that needed to be done, and I had a thousand visitors and the building wasn’t even open. A thousand people found their way here and they were all coming to see those 1846 Mormon hand-hewed timbers

“It was like those timbers told me it needed to be open as an historic site after that experience.. This is my 20th summer with the mill.”

She made the guts of the mill into the Winter Quarters Mill Museum with intact original equipment and period tools on view. Interpretive displays present in words and images the site’s history, including the western-bound  pioneers who built it. She converted the top floor into the ArtLoft Gallery that shows work by local-regional artists. Then she added the farmers market.

“It was not really until after it happened I realized what I had. Then I could stand back and appreciate the integrity of it. I felt like it was a natural fit for that building because it was an ag industrial site and an historic site. The pioneer trails is certainly a significant historical  passage of our country.

“Then, too, I’m an artist and a foodie. I think supporting local is good for both personal health and for conservation of resources. It promotes individual health and the health of the local farm economy. It has less impact on the environment with trucking when you bring things in from close by as opposed to far away.

“I’m into fresh, locally-produced food. In the summer I pretty much live on local vegetables. I am a gardener myself and i do support my farmers market folks, too.”

Farmers markets are ubiquitous today in the metro. Hers owns the distinction of being the farthest north within the city limits. It proved popular from the jump.

“That first farmers market started with six vendors. Hundreds of people showed. It was a crush of people for those vendors. And then every week that summer the number of vendors increased. I think we ended up with about 40 vendors. I was pleased.

“Really, 30 is about the perfect number. It’s the most manageable with the space I have. I’m not trying to compete with the maddening crowd market.”

 

 

Finding the right mix is a challenge.

“You want to have enough variety to choose from, but you also have to have the customers that will support those vendors or they wont come back. If the community doesn’t support it, it’s hard to keep it going.”

Other markets may have more vendors, but few can match her setting.

“This one is quite unique. It’s in a field. It’s inside and    outside an historic ag building. And it feels like an authentic place for a market.”

She cultivates an intimate, upbeat atmosphere.

“It’s like a country fair. I have live music. Dale Thornton’s always there with his country soft pop ballads in the morning. The afternoon varies from a group called Ring of Flutes to old-time country bluegrass circle jams. Second Sundays is kind of a surprise. One time I had harpists show up. Lutist Kenneth Be has played here several times. I’ve had dueling banjos. Just whatever.”

A massage therapist is usually there plying her healing art. Livestock handlers variously bring in lamas, ponies and chickens for petting-feeding.

A main attraction for many vendors is Meigs.

“Oh, she’s beautiful. Nice lady, yeah,” said Lawrence Gatewood, who has the market cornered with barbecue with his T.L.C. Down Home Food stall.

Jared Uecker, owner of O’tille Pork and Pantry, said, “Linda’s exceptional to work with and really cares about the market and its vendors. She’s passionate about local food and is a frequent customer of ours.”

Jim and Sylvia Thomas of Thomas Farms in Decatur, Nebraska are among the produce vendors who’ve been there from near the start and they’re not going anywhere as long as Meigs is around.

“Everybody loves Linda. She’s what makes it,” Jim Thomas said. “She’s really doing a good job and she’s pretty much doing it for free. I mean, we pay her a little stall fee but for what we get its a deal.”

“Jim and Sylvia Thomas came in the middle of that first season and they’ve come back every year,” Meigs said.

“We kind of grew along with it,” Thomas said. “It’s a really nice friendly little market. We’re also down at the Haymarket in Lincoln, but it’s touristy, This (Florence Mill) is more of a real, live food market.”

Thomas is the third-generation operator of his family farm but now that he and his wife are nearing retirement they’re backing off full-scale farming “to do more of this.” “I like the interchange with the people. I guess you’d say its our social because out in the boondocks you never see anybody. The thing about Florence is that you get everybody. It’s really varied.”

That variation extends to fellow vendors, including Mai Thao and her husband. The immigrants from Thailand grow exquisite vegetables and herbs

“They came towards end of the first season and they’ve always been there since,” Meigs said.

Then there’s Gatewood’s “down home” Mississippi-style barbecue. He learned to cook from his mother. He makes his own sausage and head-cheese. He grows and cooks some mean collard greens.

Gatewood said, “I make my own everything.”

“I call him “Sir Lawrence,” Meigs said. “He’s come for the last three years. He smokes his meats and beans right there. He grills corn on the cob.”

Gatewood gets his grill and smoker going early in the morning. By lunchtime, the sweet, smokey aroma is hard for public patrons and fellow vendors to resist.

“He’s a real character and he puts out a real good product,” said Thomas.

Kesa Kenny, chef-owner of Finicky Frank’s Cafe, “does tailgate food at the market,” said Meigs. “She goes around and buys vegetables from the vendors and then makes things right on the spot. She makes her own salsa and guacamole and things. You never know what she’s going to make or bring. She’s very creative.”

Kenny’s sampler market dishes have also included a fresh radish salad, a roasted vegetable stock topped, pho-style, with chopped fresh vegetables, and a creamy butter bean spread. She said she wants people “to see how simple it is” to create scrumptious, nutritious dishes from familiar, fresh ingredients on hand.

“From a farmers market you could eat all summer long for pennies,” Kenny said.

More than a vendor, Kenny’s a buyer.

“She’s very supportive,” Meigs said. “For years, she’s bought her vegetables for her restaurant from the market.”

“It’s so wonderful to have that available,” Kenny said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meigs said that Kenny embodies the market’s sense of community.

“She comes down to the market and does this cooking without advertising her own restaurant. I told her, ‘You need to tell people you’re Kesa of Finicky Franks,’ and she said, ‘No, I’m not doing this to advertise my restaurant, I’m doing this to support the market and to be part of the fun.’ That’s a pretty unique attitude.”

“Kesa’s also an artist. She I knew each other back at the Artists Cooperative Gallery in the Old Market. She quit to open a cafe-coffee shop and I quit to do an art project and then got the mill instead. It’s funny that we have reconnected in Florence.”

Jim Thomas likes that the market coincides with exhibits at the ArtLoft Gallery, which he said provides exposure to the art scene he and his wife otherwise don’t get.

“I really enjoy the artsy people and the crafts people. They’re so creative. I guess what I’m saying is for us it isn’t about the food as much as it is about the people.”

Being part of a site with such a rich past as a jumping off point to the West is neat, too.

“That’s some big history,” said Thomas.

He added that the variety and camaraderie keep them coming back. “It’s really diverse and we’ve developed a lot of friendships down there.”

“It’s a great mingling of different nationalities and cultures.” Sylvia Thomas confirmed. “All the vendors help each other out, which is very unique. At a lot of markets, they don’t do that. Here, if you don’t have something that someone’s looking for, we’ll refer you to who has it. After you’ve been there long enough like we have, vendors and customers become kind of a family. Our regular customers introduce us to their kids and grandkids and keep us posted on what’s going on, and they ask how our family’s doing.

“We kind of intertwine each other.”

The couple traditionally occupy the market’s northeast corner, where gregarious Jim Thomas holds court.

“Linda (Meigs) tells us, ‘You’re our welcoming committee.’ It’s very fun, we enjoy it a lot,” Sylvia Thomas said.

Lawrence Gatewood echoes the family-community vibe found there.

“It’s real nice there. Wonderful people.”

Even though business isn’t always brisk, Gatewood’s found a sweet spot on the market’s southeast side.

“Not every Sunday’s good, but I still like being out there mingling with the people.”

But food, not frivolity, is what most patrons are after.

“Our big deal in the summer is peppers and tomatoes,” Jim Thomas said. “We also have onions,p ottos,  cucumbers, eggplants. We do sweet corn but sweet corn is really secondary. Early this year, if we get lucky, we might have some morels down there. Morels sell like crazy. We can sell just as many as we’ve got.”

In the fall, Thomas pumpkins rule.

The veggies and herbs that Mai Thao features at her family stall pop with color. There are variously green beans, peas, bok choy, radishes, fingerling potatoes, cucumbers, kale, cilantro and basil.

Makers of pies, cakes and other sweets are also frequent vendors at the market.

The farmers market is not the only way the mill intersects with food. Meigs has found a kindred spirit in No More Empty Pots (NMEP) head Nancy Williams, whose nonprofit’s Food Hub is mere blocks away.

“We both have an interest in food and health,” Meigs said as it relates to creating sustainable food system solutions. “Nancy is also into cultivating entrepreneurs and I guess I am too in a way.”

Jared Uecker found the market “a wonderful starting point” for his start-up O’tillie Pork & Pantry last year.

“It was the perfect home for us to begin selling our meat products. I really enjoyed its small-size, especially for businesses new to the market such as ourselves. It gave us a great opportunity to have a consistent spot to showcase our products and bring in revenue for the business. I particularly enjoyed the small-town family feel to it. It’s filled with really great local people using it for their weekly shopping as opposed to some other bigger markets which can feel more like people are there more to browse.”

The mill and NMEP have organized Blues and Barbecue Harvest Party joint fundraisers at the mill.

Meigs has welcomed other events involving food there.

“I’ve hosted a lot of different things. Every year is kind of different. In 2014 the mill was the setting for a Great Plains Theatre Conference PlayFest performance of Wood Music. The piece immersed the audience in reenactments of the mill’s early history, complete with actors in costume and atmospheric lighting. A traditional hoedown, complete with good eats and live bluegrass music, followed the play.

Kesa Kenny catered a lunch there featuring Darrell Draper in-character as Teddy Roosevelt. A group held an herb festival at the mill. Another year, crates of Colorado peaches starred.

“I occasionally do flour sack lunches for bus tour groups that come,” Meigs said. “I make flour sacks and stuff them with grain sampler sandwiches that I have made to my specifications by one of the local restaurants. It’s like an old-fashioned picnic lunch we have on the hay bales in the Faribanks Scale.”

The mill is part of the North Omaha Hills Pottery Tour the first full weekend of October each year. The Czech Notre Dame sisters hold a homemade kolache sale there that weekend.

Visit http://www.theflorencemill.org.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at https://leoadambiga.com.

 

 

Omaha’s Old Market: History, stories, places, personalities, characters

June 19, 2016 4 comments

Omaha’s Old Market: History, stories, places, personalities, characters

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

The Old Market represents different things to different people but it is undeniably one of the few go-to destinations Omaha has to offer. It is a concentrated mish-mash of local culture, though still predominantly a white-bread, precious experience. It could use a healthy dose of diversity and grit, which is to say it could use some broader community representation that brings in some fresh entrepreneurial and cultural experiences and perspectives. But however you feel about it or view it, the Old Market holds some of the richest history in this city and it has been home to a fascinating mix of places, personalities and characters. Here is a compilation of some of my Old Market stories featuring some of that history and some of those venues and figures.

One of the biggest champions of Omaha’s Old Market and the history of the place has died.  George Eisenberg devoted much of his life to the historic warehouse district.  As boys and young men he and his brother Hymie worked alongside their father, Benjamin, manning a fruit and vegetable stand when the area was home to the Omaha Wholesale Produce Market.  Later, the brothers revolutionized the family business to become niche suppliers of potatoes and onions to major food processors, operating out of offices in the commercial center.  When the wholesale district declined and largely disbanded altogether the area was transformed into an arts-culture haven and George, who never left and owned substantial property there, became a landlord and an active Old Market Association member.  In his later years he was advocate and amateur historian for the Old Market and proudly led an effort to get decorative street lamps installed and other improvements made. He contributed some anecdotes to a section I wrote on the history of the Old Market for a recent book, Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores published by the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society.  An excerpt with that section can be found on this blog.  George was one of the last of the go-to sources who personally worked in the Omaha City Market.  He enjoyed reliving that history and as he saw it educating the public about a way of commerce and life that is largely no more.  His enthusiasm for the subject will be missed.  I did the following short profile of George about five years ago for Omaha Magazine and now as fate would have it I will soon be writing an in-memoriam piece about him for the same publication.  That rememberance will join one I wrote about another Old Market legend who died recently, Joe Vitale.  You can find the Vitale story on this blog.

George Eisenberg’s Love for Omaha‘s Old Market Never Grows Old

@by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

 

Old Market icon George Eisenberg has more than the usual attachment to the historic warehouse district that once was the area’s nexus for produce dealers, buyers and transporters. His late father Benjamin was a peddler in what used to be called the City Market. As boys Eisenberg and his brother Hymie worked alongside their dad in the leased open air sidewalk stalls whose overhead metal canopies still adorn many of the 19th century-era buildings preserved there. Once home to wholesellers and outfitters, the brick structures now house the Old Market’s mix of condos, restaurants, shops, artist studios and galleries.

After serving in the U.S. Army in World War II Eisenberg rejoined his father, delivering items by truck, and by the early ‘60s he’d modernized and expanded the enterprise and bought out papa. In 1972 his brother Hymie partnered with him. Innovations gave the company such a competitive advantage that the brothers were dubbed “the potato and onion kings of the United States” supplying millions of pounds a week to commercial customers across America and into Canada. They made their fortune and retired in 1983. Hymie died in ‘91.

The 83-year-old is proud to be a peddler’s son. He’s also proud of his continuing relationship with the district. He’s a property owner and an active volunteer with the Old Market Business Association and Downtown Omaha Inc.. Eisenberg secured the authentic lamp posts that lend such a distinctive design element to the 10th Street Bridge. He played a key role, too, in making the 11th and Jackson Street parking garage a reality. Downtown Omaha Inc. honored him with its 2007 Economic Development Award.

He’s a model landlord for the tasteful restoration he’s done and solid tenants he’s brought to his 414-418 South 10th Street buildings, properties originally owned by his father for wholesale storage, distribution and offices.

Generous with advice, he’s given counsel to many Old Market entrepreneurs, including Nouvelle Eve/Jackson Artworks owner Kat Moser.

As much as he’s involved in the “new” Old Market’s destination place identity and as much as he supports the emerging SoMa and NoDo developments, he enjoys looking back to the Market’s past. Back when ethnic blue collar produce vendors pitched their wares in the ancient tradition of the open air market. When pockets took the place of cash registers and vendors took a break from 14-hour days by reclining on bales of hay or overturned crates. It was a boisterous, press-the-flesh carnival of men, women and children using sing-song chants to hawk fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers and plants. Shoppers hailed from all walks of life.

A chorus of Eisenberg shouting, “Get your watermelon — red, ripe and sweet watermelon,” blended with the pitch, dicker and banter of hundreds of merchants-customers. Accents were common among the mostly Jewish, Italian and Syrian vendors. “English was the primary language spoken,” he said, but many foreign-born merchants, like his Russian immigrant father, “conversed among themselves in their native tongues. Every ethnic group was represented in one way or another.”

All those peddlers packed in a small space shouting to get customers’ attention created quite a racket. “Our advertisement was our voice,” he said. “It was noisy, yeah.” But that noise was sweet “music.”” Besides, he said, the ruckus and color “were part of the charm of the market.”

Hawking’s not for wallflowers. “If you’re shy you don’t belong in marketing,” he said. Things only quieted down, he said, after a warning from the market master, whose job was to collect monthly fees from vendors and mediate disputes among them. Once gone, the din began again. It was a special time and place.

“It was fun,” Eisenberg said. “There was excitement.”

He said his father steeped him in the market’s history. Ben Eisenberg got into the trade through his father-in-law Solomon Silverman, whose daughter Elsie became Ben’s wife and George and Hymie’s mother. Just as Silverman began as a door-to-door peddler with a horse and wagon, Ben followed suit. Just as Solomon leased stalls in the market, so did Ben. In the early 1900s, Eisenberg learned, a bidding process divvied up the stalls. Some locations were better than others. Getting outbid caused sore feelings and fistfights broke out. The bidding system was disbanded, he said, and exisiting stalls grandfathered in. Ben had four choice spots at the northeast corner of 11th and Jackson as well as his own wholesale house.

In an era before “Thanks for shopping…come again,” he said many vendors lacked good customer relation skills. His dad, though, had a gift with people.

“My dad was a really good salesman and he separated himself from everybody else because he was very polite, businesslike, and his word was his bond. If my dad said, ‘You got it,’ you didn’t need a contract — that’s it.” Eisenberg said.

He said his father “bought and sold in big quantities,” a practice Eisenberg continued. Many of Ben’s grocery-supermarket customers were former peddlers like himself. “My dad knew all the peddlers, so when he got in the wholesale business all the peddlers came to do business with dad. They knew he was going to give them the right price and not insult them.”

Like his father before him, Eisenberg served as vice president of the Omaha Wholesale Fruit Dealers Association, a predecessor of the Old Market Business Association. In some ways he’s still hawking, still looking after the best interests of his beloved Old Market. “I love business. I love marketing. I welcome anybody who wants to hang up their shingle and start their business.” He embraces the growing community there. “That’s the district’s salvation — it’s a neighborhood now.”

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Oh, for the days when there was almost literally a grocery store on every corner and a movie theater in every neighborhood.  I only know those days through articles, books, movies, photographs, and reminiscences and I am sure the reality did not match my romanticism about them.  As fate would have it, the Mom and Pop grocery phenomenon I only got a glimmer of during my childhood became the subject of an assignment I was offered and gladly accepted: as co-editor and lead writer for a NebraskaJewish Historical Society book project that commemmorates and documents the Mom and Pop Jewish grocery stores that operated in and around the Omaha metropolitan area from approximately the beginning of the 20th century through the 1960s-1970s.  But it was Ben Nachman, along with Renee Ratner-Corcoran, who I worked with on the project, that truly realized the book .  Ben’s vision and energy got it started and Renee’s commitment and persistence saw it through.  I just helped pick up the pieces once Ben passed away a year or so into the project.  Ultimately, the book belongs to all the families and individuals who contributed anecdotes, stories, essays, photos, and ads about their grocery stores.

Immediately below is Jewish Press story about the project, followed by an excerpt from the book.

The book is dedicated to the man who inaugurated the project, the late Ben Nachman, who was responsible for starting what is now my long association with both the Jewish Press and the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society.  Ben led me to many Holocaust survivor and rescuer stories I ended up writing, many of which can be found on this blog.  My stories about Ben and his work as an amatuer but highy dedicated historian can also be found here.  I also collaborated with Ben and Renee, as the writer to their producder-roles, on a documentary film about the Brandeis Department Store empire of Nebraska.  A very long two-part story I did for the Jewish Press on the Brandeis family and their empire served as the basis for the script I wrote.  You can find that story on this blog.

Historical Society publishes grocery store history

by Rita Shelley

11.11.11 issue, Jewish Press

Freshly arrived from Europe a century ago, thousands of men and women found work in South Omaha’s packinghouse and stockyards.

South 24th Street grocer Witte Fried, also a first generation American and a widow with children from ages 2 to 7, knew something of her neighbors’ struggles to survive and prosper. She also knew they needed to eat. According to her descendants, Fried took care to mark prices on the merchandise in her store in several languages. She wanted her customers, regardless of their German, Irish, Italian, Russian, Polish, Greek, Czech or other origins, to have an easier transition into their new world.

Fried’s story is one of many featured in Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores. Scheduled to be published in November by the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society (NJHS), the book includes recollections of Jewish grocers and members of the families who operated stores throughout Omaha, Lincoln, Council Bluffs and surrounding areas from the early 1900s to the present.

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“A history of Jewish owned stores is also a history of the grocery business,” Renee Ratner-Corcoran, NJHS executive director, said. “Beginning with peddlers who traveled from farm to farm to trade their wares for farm produce to sell in the cities, through one-room Mom and Pop stores with adjoining living quarters, to the first large self-service grocery stores, to today’s discount stores that sell housewares and groceries under the same roof, the Jewish community played a vital role in the grocery industry.The book was a dream of Dr. Ben Nachman, an NJHS volunteer whose father owned a small store on North 27th Street. Dr. Nachman died in 2010; publication of the book is dedicated to his memory.

Children of early Jewish grocers who were interviewed for the book or submitted recollections recall the hustle and bustle of buying produce from open air stalls downtown (today’s Old Market) as early as 4 a.m. to stay ahead of the competition. Before there were automobiles, grocers’ children were responsible for the care of the horses that pulled delivery buggies. Mixing the flour and water paste to use for painting prices of the week’s specials on the front window was also the responsibility of children. So were dividing 100-pound sacks of potatoes into five- and 10-pound packages, grinding and bagging coffee, and feeding the chickens. (A kerosene barrel and a chicken coop were located side-by-side in at least one family’s store.).

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The book’s publication was underwritten by the Herbert Goldsten Trust, the Special Donor Advised Fund of the Jewish Federation of Omaha Foundation, the Milton S. & Corinne N. Livingston Foundation, Inc., the Murray H. and Sharee C. Newman Supporting Foundation, Doris and Bill Alloy, Sheila and John Anderson, Edith Toby Fellman, Doris Raduziner Marks, In honor of Larry Roffman’s 80th Birthday, and Stanley and Norma Silverman.Increasing prosperity meant housewives had more money to spend. Innovations in transportation and refrigeration also brought changes to the grocery industry, and Jewish grocers were among the first to embrace those changes. More recently, Jewish Nebraskans “invented” some of the country’s first discount chains and wholesale distribution networks, as well as the data processing innovations that made them profitable.

For additional information, contact Renee Ratner-Corcoran by e-mail at rcorcoran@jewishomaha.org or by phone at 402.334.6442.

Excerpts from the book-

©by Leo Adam Biga

Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores                                                                                Omaha, Lincoln, Greater Nebraska and Southwest Iowa

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Jews have a proud history as entrepreneurs and merchants. When Jewish immigrants began coming to America in greater and greater numbers during the late 19th century and early 20th century, many gravitated to the food industry, some as peddlers and fresh produce market stall hawkers, others as wholesalers, and still others as grocers.

Most Jews who settled in Nebraska came from Russia and Poland, with smaller segments from Hungary, Germany, and other central and Eastern European nations. They were variously escaping pogroms, revolution, war, and poverty. The prospect of freedom and opportunity motivated Jews, just as it did other peoples, to flock here.

At a time when Jews were restricted from entering certain fields, the food business was relatively wide open and affordable to enter. There was a time when for a few hundred dollars one could put a down payment on a small store. That was still a considerable amount of money before 1960, but it was not out of reach of most working men who scrimped and put away a little every week. And that was a good thing too because obtaining capital to launch a store was difficult. Most banks would not lend credit to Jews and other minorities until after World War II.

The most likely route that Jews took to becoming grocers was first working as a peddler, selling feed, selling produce by horse and wagon or truck, or apprenticing in someone else’s store. Some came to the grocery business from other endeavors or industries. The goal was the same – to save enough to buy or open a store of their own. By whatever means Jews found to enter the grocery business, enough did that during the height of this self-made era, from roughly the 1920s through the 1950s, there may have been a hundred or more Jewish-owned and operated grocery stores in the metro area at any given time.

Jewish grocers almost always started out modestly, owning and operating small Mom and Pop neighborhood stores that catered to residents in the immediate area. By custom and convenience, most Jewish grocer families lived above or behind the store, although the more prosperous were able to buy or build their own free-standing home.

Since most customers in Nebraska and Iowa were non-Jewish, store inventories reflected that fact, thus featuring mostly mainstream food and nonfood items, with only limited Jewish items and even fewer kosher goods. The exception to that rule was during Passover and other Jewish high holidays, when traditional Jewish fare was highlighted.

Business could never be taken for granted. In lean times it could be a real struggle. Because the margin between making it and not making was often quite slim many Jewish grocers stayed open from early morning to early evening, seven days a week, even during the Sabbath, although some stores were closed a half-day on the weekend. Jewish stores that did close for the Sabbath were open on Sunday.

Jewish grocery stores almost always became multi-generation family affairs. The classic story was for a husband and wife to open a store and for their children to “grow up” in it. In some families there was a definite expectation for the children to follow and succeed their parents in the business. But there were as many variations on this story as families themselves. In some cases, the founder, almost always a male, was joined in the business by a brother or brothers or perhaps a brother in law. Therefore, a child born into a grocer family might have one or both parents and some combination of uncles, aunts, siblings, and cousins working there, too.

Of course, not every child followed his folks into the family business. Because most early Jewish grocers did not have much in the way of a formal education, the family business was viewed as a springboard for their children to complete an education, even to go onto college. It was a means by which the next generation could advance farther than their parents had, whether in the family grocery business or in a professional field far removed from stocking shelves and bagging groceries.

Some Jewish grocers went in and out of business in a short time, but many enjoyed long runs, extending over generations. Some proprietors stayed small, with never more than a single store, while others added more stores to form chains (the Tuchman brothers) and others (like the Bakers and the Newmans) graduated from Mom and Pop shops to supermarkets. Some owners made their success as grocers only to leave that segment of the food business behind to become wholesale suppliers and distributors (Floyd Kulkin), even food manufacturers (Louis Albert).

Whatever path Jewish grocers took, the core goal was the same, namely to provide for their families and to stake out a place of their own that offered continued prosperity. For a Jewish family, especially an immigrant Jewish family, owning a store meant self-sufficiency and independence. It was a means to an end in terms of assimilation and acceptance. It was a real, tangible sign that a family had arrived and made it. Most Jewish grocers didn’t get rich, but most managed to purchase their own homes and send their kids to college. It was a legitimate, honorable gateway to achieving the American Dream, and one well within reach of people of modest means.

For much of the last century Jewish grocery stores could be found all over the area, in rural as well as in urban locales, doing business where there were no other Jews and where there was a concentration of Jews. In Nebraska and Western Iowa there have historically been few Jewish enclaves, meaning that Jewish grocers depended upon Gentiles for the bulk of their business. Dealing with a diverse clientele was a necessity.

In some instances, Jewish grocers and their fellow Jewish business owners catered to distinct ethnic groups. For example, from the 1920s through the 1960s the North 24th Street business district in Omaha was the commercial hub for the area’s largely African-American community. During that period the preponderance of business owners along and around that strip were Jewish, including several grocers, some of whom lived in the neighborhood. These circumstances meant that Jews and blacks in Omaha were mutually dependent on each other in a manner that didn’t exist before and hasn’t existed since. When the last in a series of civil disturbances in the district did significant damage there, the last of the Jewish merchants moved out. Only a few Jewish owned grocery stores remained in what was the Near Northside.

Until mechanical refrigeration became standard, customers had to shop daily or at least every other day to buy fresh products to replenish their ice boxes and pantries. Having to shop so frequently at a small, family-run neighborhood store meant that customers and grocers developed closer, more personal relationships than they generally do today. Grocers not only knew their regular customers by name but knew their buying patterns so well that they could fill an order without even looking at a list.

Home delivery was a standard service offered by most grocers back in the day. Some stores were mainly cash and carry operations and others primarily charge and delivery endeavors. Taking grocery orders by phone was commonplace.

Most grocers extended credit to existing customers, even carrying them during rough times. It was simply the way business was conducted then. A person’s word was their bond.

Fridays were generally the busiest day in the grocery business because it’s when most laborers got paid and it’s when families stocked up for the big weekend meal most households prepared.

Jewish grocers were among the founders and directors of cooperatives, such as the United Associated Grocers Co-op or United AG and the Lincoln Grocers Association, that gave grocers increased buying power on the open market.

With only a few exceptions today, the intimate, family neighborhood stores are a thing of the past. As automobiles and highways changed the landscape to accommodate the burgeoning suburbs, newer, larger chain stores and supermarkets emerged whose buying and selling power the Mom and Pops could not compete with on anything like an even basis. Thus, the Mom and Pop stores, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, began fading away.

Because Jewish grocers were such familiar, even ubiquitous fixtures in the community, the majority population gave little thought to the fact that Omaha Jewish merchants like the Bakers (Baker’s Supermarkets) or the Newmans (Hinky Dinky), who began with Mom and Pop stores, led the transition to supermarket chains. For much of the metro’s history then, Jews controlled a large share of the grocery market, helping streamline and modernize the way in which grocers did business and consumers shopped.

It is true the one-to-one bond between grocer and consumer may have all but disappeared with the advent of the supermarket and discount store phenomenon. The days of grocers filling each customer order individually went by the wayside in the new age of self-service.

One thing that’s never changed is the fact that everybody has to eat and Jews have been at the forefront of fulfilling that basic human need for time immemorial. The Jewish grocer was an extension of the friendly neighborhood bubbe or zayde or mensch in making sure his or her customers always had enough to eat.

Go Bold and Build Big Omaha – A Contrarian’s View


 

Go Bold and Build Big Omaha

A Contrarian’s View

With the College World Series upon us again, the contrarian in me comes out. First, let me say that I embrace the CWS as a cornerstone and touchstone event for the city. It is great that Omaha has hosted this NCAA championship for so long and has truly made it its own. The CWS is in many ways emblematic of Omaha itself. Stolid, stable, safe, conservative, family-friendly. Those qualities are certainly admirable in the context of a mass appeal, community-oriented event. But the CWS is also representative of Omaha settling for things that are, well, less than perhaps they could be. I refer to our fair city’s lack of truly major attractions and of monumental places and spaces to visit and gather in. Yes, I know all about the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. But for many of us a zoo is a zoo is a zoo, no matter how many new exhibits you add, and frankly a zoo is a very niche thing that doesn’t even fall into the monumental places and spaces conversation. Indeed, a zoo is the antithesis of wide open expanses by the very nature of its secured confinement fences, gates, enclosures and borders. No, what I mean is an urban park or square or plaza that is rather epic in scope and scale. Something measured in a few acres or a couple square miles. A place where many thousands can gather without being on top of each other. Something where permanent attractions and features are part of the landscape, such as wide walkways, extensive gardens, fountains, sculptures, gazebos, amphitheaters, et cetera. It might also be home to brick and mortar museums, theaters, nature conservancies and other large attractions. The actual outdoor area should be conducive to concerts, plays, arts festivals, hot air balloon launches and any number of other things.

It would be expansive enough to accommodate more than one of these activities at the same time. The closest thing we have to anything like that in Omaha is Memorial Park, which is quite nice for what it is but it is a rather small park with limited features and it certainly strains to the limit when a major concert is held there once a year. There’s the park, a small garden area, the memorial and one big event a year, and that’s it.

The city fathers have missed many opportunities to put something of this scale in place. The planners of the 1898 Trans-Miss Exposition designed something along these proportions but did not have the foresight or will or funding to build permanent structures and thus that magnificent faux city disappeared. Another missed opportunity came in the first quarter of the last century, when Omaha was being built out as a finished city, but nothing even approaching monumental arose. None of our major vintage public spaces compares in size or grandeur to those in similar sized Midwestern cities such as Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago, Minneapolis or our far west neighbor Denver. Was this because of lack of vision or support? It doesn’t really matter now, except that we are left with what we are left in a rather fixed downtown and inner city landscape. But even within those restrictions more opportunities presented themselves – only Omaha failed miserably each time to realize what could have been. Whether you think it was a good idea or not, the Gene Leahy Mall presented a chance for Omaha to create a big open green space right in the heart of downtown but the leaders got it terribly wrong when they built a smallish sunken mall/park that has virtually no open space to speak of it is so densely designed and its main feature, a filthy lagoon or pond, is less than breathtaking.

 

 

Then there was Jobbers Canyon. Of course, it should have remained just it was – a huge cluster of historic multi-story warehouse buildings begging to be redeveloped for commercial and nonprofit uses. If in the end it did have to be razed, then at least ConAgra and the city should have worked out a deal to create a truly impressive public use park with grand features and spaces. That was not done. What was created is nice enough, but it pales to what could have and should have been. Ah, then there’s the rest of the riverfront development that ensued. Again, it’s a good thing that Omaha finally made it back to the river and cleaned up what had become an environmental wasteland, but leaders were far too timid and constrained with how they repurposed the area. They wasted what was a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a bold statement. What’s there is okay. but that’s the point, it’s merely okay, and mediocre and uninspiring. The biggest fault is that there is just not enough there, there. It needs much more open space and many more amenities. The pedestrian bridge is yet another underwhelming structure. None of these things standup to their counterparts in peer cities. Where is our Arch? Our Forest Park? Our Walker Art Center? Our Millennium Park? Our Lincoln Park? Our City Park? Our Liberty Memorial? Our Nelson Atkins?

Another lost opportunity saw the city never follow through and finish the grand boulevard and parks system that would have given Omaha an enduring and distinguishing urban design highlight.

While I am at it, Omaha also lacks a super wide city street to accommodate a truly massive parade with large floats and inflatables and armies of paraders or protestors, as the case may be.

A whole related conversation could be had about all the historic buildings the city has let go and that would have contributed to a much more interesting architectural aesthetic than the one we are left with today.

Perhaps Omaha is a victim of its own easy to please nature. It is ironic though that just as a new generation of creatives and dreamers have emerged in the city, many of them doing bold entrepreneurial things that enrich the culture, they and the rest of us are stuck with a blah city landscape that does not do justice to their/our aesthetics and aspirations. I wish the design of Omaha could start all over again from scratch but since that is not happening, I pray that some dreamers mesh their grand vision with big dollars to create the kind of space and place I describe. Only where would it go? North Downtown and Northeast Omaha would seem the most likely urban, inner city prospects.

Since Omaha will never have an ocean front or a mountain backdrop or dramatic skyline, much less a major professional sports team, it needs a defining, image-making place or space, not just for branding purposes outside the city, but as a point of pride celebration and destination gathering spot for us residents. Nothing we presently have even comes close to cutting it. Perhaps it’s not too late for a major redesign that would build a public park that encompasses the east Creighton Campus and its arts and sports amenities along with the Joslyn Art Museum, the Rose Theatre and the Omaha Children’s Museum, with new amenities added to the mix, in one contiguous park complex. Nah, wouldn’t work. you say. Probably not. Then again, why not, or why not something like it somewhere else? Why not a grand design element that somehow ties together the string of amenities up and down 10th Street from North Downtown to the new Blue Barn and beyond to the Lauritzen Gardens and the Zoo. Perhaps it involves somehow making 10th Street a wider, prettier thoroughfare that includes a landscaped promenade with extra wide sidewalks and plenty of perches for vendors. And a true trolley system serving that stretch and the greater downtown and midtown districts.

You can’t tell me that the resources are not available do something of scale given the level of private philanthropy here and the kinds of public monies that can be had for projects that redevelop so-called distressed or blighted areas. It’s just a matter of where the funds are directed or diverted. And what the priorities are. But we’re talking vision here, not soup and nuts. And this city is starving for a big bold vision. We just need enough deep-pocketed folks to catch the vision.

I dread having to go through this litany again in a decade or two. That’s why I say, Go Bold and Build Big Omaha. What are we afraid of?

 

Omaha history salvager Frank Horejsi: Dream calls for warehouse to become a museum

March 11, 2015 3 comments

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.

 

Frank

©photo by Debra S. Kaplan

 

 

Omaha history salvager Frank Horejsi
Dream calls for warehouse to become a museum

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared 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

Lucile’s Old Market, Mother Hubbard magnificent obsession: From one eccentric to another – Mary Thompson on her late mother Lucile Schaaf

November 28, 2010 2 comments

For better or worse, the following story for the New Horizons is a reflection of what I do as a writer when allowed the opportunity to tell a story at length.  I don’t claim that there’s anything special about my work, but if it is distinguished by anything, it is my interest in tapping into stories of passion and magnificent obsession, which is very much how I think of the subject of this piece – the late Lucile Schaaf.  I then take that interest and try to express it to the best of my ability.  I always wanted to tell this particular story, that is Lucile’s story.  I never met the woman, but I heard tales about her and then I got to know one of her daughters, Mary Thompson, who is quoted extensively in the piece.  I earlier profiled Mary in a story you can find on this blog entitled, Extremities.  Mary’s mother, Lucile, the profile subject of the story below, was a kind of patron saint of the Old Market, the historic district in Omaha, Neb. that has been transformed from the former wholesale produce center to the cultural hub of the city.  To get to the heart of a story like hers requires some space, and New Horizons editor Jeff Reinhardt is about the only one left around here that accords me the space I need to tell a story like this at the length I believe I need to communicate its layers and nuances. The Old Market was made by people like Lucile, eccentric visionaries who did their own thing and followed their own muse.  There are many more Old Market stories I would like to tell.  Writing this piece also only confirmed my very intentional niche as a journalist who tells the stories of people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions.  Like I said at the top, for better or worse it is my brand as a writer and it is what keeps me doing what I do.

My story about Lucile’s daughter, Mary Thompson, who is much quoted here, can be found on this blog.  It’s entitled, “Extremities.”

 

Lucile looking out a window of her Old Market residence

 

Lucile’s Old Market, Mother Hubbard magnificent obsession: From one eccentric to another – Mary Thompson on her late mother, Lucile Schaaf

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

As once upon a time stories go, the late Lucile Ann Schaaf’s saga is a fractured fairy tale that like the pint-sized woman embodied herself, is made up of quirky twists and turns that leave you scratching your head or smiling.

When she passed away in 2009 at age 91, Schaaf was variously remembered as a mother, grandmother, entrepreneur, collector, preservationist, Christmas fanatic, and someone for whom the color orange was a personal brand.

After her marriage ended in divorce, Lucile, her children grown and flown the coop by then, asserted her independence and curiosity in a series of enterprising and creative adventures. Earlier in life, the former Lucile Duda exhibited an adventurous streak when, fresh out of Central High School, she left home to attend Scripps College, a women’s school in Claremont, Calif, where she studied art and architecture at a time when women pursuing higher education was a rarity.

Given the moxie it took to leave home for the west coast, it’s not surprising that years later she thought nothing of journeying all around the Midwest in search of architectural remnants from buildings and homes under the wrecking ball. Lucile developed a network of contacts in the demolition and salvage field that tipped her off to projects that might contain objects of interest. Whenever she got a lead on something, whether furniture or ornamental design elements, she set out to acquire it. Daughter Mary Thompson often accompanied Lucile on these treasure hunting jaunts.

“Mother became acquainted with a gentleman called Rock the Wrecker. I worked for him for many years driving a pickup and hauling all kinds of stuff. I would go to sites and I would help salvage and bring stuff back for Mother, and Mother and I would go on trips to demolition sites to gather materials. I carried wrecking tools behind the seat in my truck. Mom and I would take off and drive down to Kansas or over in Iowa or up to South Dakota if Rock would call to say, ‘We’ve got something, come get it,” said Thompson.

“We went to Des Moines (Iowa) one time time to get some marble clocks. It was rush hour and there were fire engines all over the place and when we finally got to the building it was on fire, but we got our stuff. Another time we drove to Coffeyville Kansas and we picked up an 18-foot chandelier, put it in the back of my El Camino and drove it back home.”

Then there was the time Lucile got it in her head that she had to have a double decker bus for sale two thousand miles away. This was in January. So, Thompson and her mother flew to High Point, N.C. and the intrepid duo drove the bus back to Omaha in the dead of winter.

“The whole trip was hilarious because we had all kinds of problems and everything else,” Thompson said of the experience as if were a big lark. “It was 20 below zero when we pulled into Omaha, wearing our snow mobile suits.”

But why a double decker bus?

“We used it for tours around the city,” said Thompson. “We’d take ladies groups, school groups. My kids were going to Jackson Elementary School at the time and anytime there was something the school needed to go to everybody from Jackson went in the double decker bus. They thought that was pretty nifty, and it was.”

 

Mary Thompson holds her 15-year-old cat Mollie in the second-floor office space of her home. Thompson is a reformed hoarder who appeared on TLC’s show “Hoarding: Buried Alive”. Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz/World-Herald News Service

 

Lucile’s daughter, Mary Thompson

 

The bus and tours were examples of Lucile and Mary, who closely resembles her mother, doing something just for the fun of it, no matter how impractical.

“That’s exactly right,” said Thompson,

Whatever Lucile thought up, her family fell right in line.

“We never questioned her or anything she did,” said Thompson. “It seemed, ‘Well, Mom did it, it must be right.’”

Thompson inherited Lucile’s sense of adventure and compulsion for collecting things. But where Mary’s collected most everything at one time or another, Lucile’s stockpiling was more focused on assembling stores of antique architectural details and Christmas decorations.

Said Thompson, “Her collecting was like anything, once you start, you can’t stop. You find a coin you’re really intrigued with and so you think, I’ll start collecting more coins like this, and pretty soon you’ve got an entire collection. If it’s a gorgeous stained glass window, well there’s another one, and so you get yourself to the point where pretty soon you’ve got a fabulous collection.”

For Lucile it meant acquiring everything from stained glass windows to bannisters to fancy doors to fireplace surrounds to built in wall units, and just about anything in between that caught her eye or captured her fancy.

“It just became more and more and more and more,” said Thompson. “People brought it to her too.”

The operating principle Lucile came to live by, said Thompson, is that “if it’s something that still has some life in it, it’s good, let’s not destroy it, let’s not put in the landfill. So she started acquiring all this stuff and saving it. It just goes back to the old adage that one person’s trash is somebody else’s treasure. That’s the fun of it ”

“Work with what you have” was one of Lucile’s favorite sayings.

In this sense, said Thompson, Lucile’s emphasis on recycling things and preservation was well ahead of the curve.

Lucile’s obsessive collecting accumulated so many objects that she turned her passionate hobby into a business. Needing a place to store everything, she bought an abandoned Danish Lutheran church near downtown Omaha and converted it into an antique shop that she called Steeple Studios.

According to Thompson, “At one time Mother had the largest collection of antique architectural details between Chicago and San Francisco and people came from all over the country because they knew she had all this stuff.”

Lucile brought her business acumen and appreciation for history to the Old Market, where she became one of the pioneering merchants and denizens of that then fledgling enclave. In the late 1960s she was one of the early shop owners and one of the few residents in the former wholesale produce district that most city leaders and developers viewed as a wasteland.

Jeff Jorgensen and Joe Montello, whose Tannenbaum Christmas Shop in the Old Market occupies the same bay Lucile did business in at the southwest corner of 10th and Howard, got to know her as a benevolent landlord and neighbor. Montello had worked for her at The Place. They respected her as an Old Market original.

“She was definitely one of the first people who saw the potential of the Old Market,” said Jorgensen, adding that she recognized the area as not only a burgeoning commercial center and cultural-arts oasis but as a historic district in need of preservation. “I think what motivated her was finding new value in old things. It’s what made her such a natural to be an Old Market pioneer.”

Lucile put her money where her mouth was as owner-operator of The Place, a gift shop that expressed her eclectic tastes. She later had the Christmas Shop, a one-stop decorations and collectibles store, and The T Room sandwich shop. Lucile laid the brick walkway in front of her Howard Street bays. She was also active in the Old Market Business Association.

“I always thought she was pleased to see a Christmas shop continue here within her domain,” said Jorgensen. I think the fact that Joe worked for her and was involved here meant a lot to her too.”

She purchased adjoining buildings between the southwest corners of 10th and Howard and 10th and Jackson and converted them into her personal residence. What once housed Frank’e Cafe, the Pickwick Bar, Pioneer Uniform, a flophouse and a whorehouse, among other enterprises, became this lovable eccentric’s home. A walled-in courtyard or secret garden was created in back to offer a tranquil, private sanctuary amidst the Market’s hustle and bustle.

Schaaf was a recognizable figure in the Market or wherever she went because of her penchant for dressing entirely in orange, no matter the occasion. It’s hard to find a color photo of Lucile that doesn’t picture here in her flaming shade of choice.

There is an orange room in the Old Market residence. At one time Lucile had it entirely done over in her favorite color, complete with decorations and clothes, beautiful things, plain things, but in all instances orange things.

Antique dealer Vic Chickinelli hired her once and when he went out one day he came back to find she had painted the walls and shelving a bright orange. If Chickinelli asked her, as many did, Why orange?, her comeback would have probably been what she always said when people questioned her about it:

“Is there any other color?”

“She decided that that was the color of her life,” is how Thompson explains it.

So identified was Lucile with the color that she came to be known affectionally as the Orange Lady. At her Old Market shops she not only greeted you in full orange regalia, from head to foot, but took to wearing a clock around her waist set to ten minutes to four, or tea time, a reference to the tea party in Alice in Wonderland, a story she loved. She also loved throwing tea parties.

 

 

All in all, she fit right in with the other free spirits, artists and bohemians populating the Old Market.

“It was a good place for her,” said fellow Old Market pioneer Roger Durand, a designer and architect who opened a head shop there. “She was a real character, she was a real original, and she was a very colorful personality. Back in the early days it really took an adventuresome spirit to try and establish anything down there. It was an uphill struggle.”

For 30-some years Lucile’s 10th and Howard building was as much a warehouse for her collection of salvaged architectural remnants as it was a residence. Her dream was to incorporate these myriad details into the decor.

Working with an old-school master craftsman, Walt the Carpenter, the project made progress but then Walt took a bad fall, breaking his leg, and then her arthritis began slowing her down. However, she remained active enough to teach a water aerobics class at the YMCA.

Another daughter, the late Stephanie Schaaf, took it upon herself to fulfill Lucile’s dream. She hired a team of craftsmen to install, in some cases repurposing, hundreds of items — ranging from chandeliers to doors to stained glass windows to wrought iron gates — throughout the 7,300 square foot structure.

A kindred spirit of Lucile’s, Omaha architectural recycler Frank Horejsi, also described as an “urban miner,” said he liked what Lucile was doing with the place and he assisted Stefanie with getting the project done.

“If they had problems, I was kind of a go-to guy. It’s neat to see that old historic stuff incorporated. It’s a neat place.”

The result is a mosaic of a home of mixed and matched elements:

• Griffons from the original First National Bank Building adorn the exterior sides of Lucile’s place facing 10th Street and Jackson Street

• Crown molding from the old Cornhusker Hotel gilds the foyer

• Skylights from the Packers National Bank bathe the foyer in natural light

• Mahogany walls and stained glass cabinets from the City National Bank appoint the dining room

• Murphy bed doors from the Morris Hotel serve as ceiling panels above the dining room

• The great room, where receptions or dinner parties are held today, utilizes office doors from the City National Bank as wall panels, some with the names of the executives who toiled away behind them

• Telephone booth walls from the City National cover the ceiling

• The solid oak fireplace and leaded glass window in the sunroom hail from the Wilcox house in Council Bluffs

• Massive cabinets come from a physician’s home in Norfolk, Neb.

• French doors come from an opera house in Carroll, Iowa

And so it goes, on and on.

 

 

Roger Durand said the home is an expression of “the architectural odds and ends she found unusual uses for, and in aggregate they create sort of a world of Lucile.”

Before she moved there, the space was long abandoned, its insides an empty shell.

“What people sometimes don’t comprehend is that there was nothing here, it was a blank canvas, and it was my mom’s vision in putting things together and making it a whole unit that brought it to life,” Thompson said with admiration.

Almost everything in Lucile’s Old Market retreat originated elsewhere, salvaged off-site and brought there, like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. Only Lucile knew how they were supposed to fit together.

“She could find things and just know exactly where she was going to put the pieces in,” said granddaughter Amy Waskel, whose mother, Stefanie, became Lucile’s caregiver and legacy keeper.

Not everything Lucile collected at the Old Market place was used. There was so much inventory left over that an estate sale was held over two weekends.

 

 

The Old Market residence was not Lucile’s first salvage project. Thompson said her mother built a cabin near Merritt’s Beach using almost entirely recycled materials. There was apparently a recycle streak in the family’s DNA because Thompson said her grandparents built a farmhouse out of reclaimed materials long before that.

“The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree,” is how Thompson puts it. “Mom had the ability to visualize something not for what it was but for what it could be, and I feel I’m blessed with that also because if you look at my house you see how I intertwined everything into it.”

Mary’s Little Italy area home and another she owns next door overbrim with the surplus of her own collecting habit. Her affliction for acquiring and holding onto things was portrayed earlier this year on TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive” reality television series.

There is a like-mother-like daughter pattern at play in the family. Other ways Mary takes after her mother is with a flair for entertaining and a wardrobe fixation, not with a certain color per se, but with hats. Mary’s fondness for hats grew to a collection of hundreds. So identified is Mary with her crowns of glory that she’s known as the Hat Lady. Until “Hoarding” she was perhaps best known as the Tax Lady for all the returns she filed for people as an IRS agent and AARP volunteer.

Mary doesn’t mind being known as a hoarder now that she’s taken steps to declutter her life with the help of professionals, friends and family, including a “Stuff” sale at the Bancroft Street Market in September.

For a long time, said Mary, her mother’s Old Market residence was overrun with artifacts that sat unboxed and uncovered, subject to the effects of not just dust but of the many critters, mostly cats and dogs, she kept. Mary’s also a cat lover.

“Stuff had been heaped in piles for so long,” Thompson said of her mother’s place.

Lucile was renowned for how elaborately she decorated her previous home in the Gold Coast neighborhood, but for the longest time the Old Market residence was more a storage and work space then a living space — more potential than realization, awaiting the day when Lucile’s vision for it would be complete.

“It wasn’t a pretty house like she was used to,” said Waskel. “Moving in here she just got down and dirty. That’s why finishing it was so important and that’s why it’s fun showing it off now and why it’s going to be fun decorating it for the holidays.”

Even though Lucile’s gone now, Waskel said she and other family members feel her presence watching over them, noting their every move. “She knows we’re not going to do it as well as she did. The joke within the family is that she’s going to be sitting there going, ‘You should do this.’ She was a perfectionist.”

Despite never decorating the place for Christmas, Lucile’s main floor bedroom was trussed up for the holidays once she became bed-ridden in 2004, and even then she liked calling the shots.

“We would decorate her room for her,” said Waskel. “We would put up a little Christmas tree for her and she enjoyed that because she enjoyed telling people how to do it and it never being right — well, not to her standards.”

An incongruity about Lucile was that she could be a stickler about everything being just so, yet she could live like an Old Mother Hubbard surrounded by artifacts strewn loosely everywhere. Her Gold Coast home was impressive, said Mary, yet Lucile shared the place with her cats and even a pet rooster. Things only got more unkempt in the Old Market.

Waskel said Nebraska Educational Television did a story on her grandmother as an example of “how not to save your antiques — like this is what you don’t do. We have a lot of damage to wood. Some of the stuff is just so far gone. The whole back area was just full of wood and dust and dirt. A lot of it was junk.”

She said it took countless man hours to clean up the mess.

“We had to finish everything,” said Waskel, who helped Stefanie in completing Lucile’s dream. “And we’re still working on it.”

Waskel, who as event coordinator at what is now called Lucile’s Old Market is tasked with booking events there and maintaining the cavernous space, has a new appreciation for all that her grandmother and mother did.

“I’m here everyday and there’s not nearly the work to do that my mom did or that my grandmother did and I still feel overwhelmed and go, How the hell did they do it?”

Lucile’s is still in the family, only now as a singular rental showplace that hosts weddings, dinners and all manner of private parties and receptions. Tours are available by appointment. Old Market Gallery Walks generally include a stop there. And it’s a featured spot on the December 11 Holiday Lights Tour

 

 

The woman for whom the building is named never saw the project completed as her eyesight declined severely in old age. Due to her diminished vision she became somewhat reclusive near the end of her life. For a long time though she was a public figure whose passions grew into magnificent obsessions enjoyed by thousands.

First, there was her fixation with Christmas displays. For the first half of her life she contented herself with the usual yuletide garnishes. But when she moved into the big home at 38th and Dewey Avenue it’s like a switch went on and she felt inspired  to trim the multi-story edifice from top to bottom, complete with fully dressed trees, wreaths, garland, candy canes, stockings, Santas and lights.

It all started with a Christmas tea organized by Lucile.

Mary Thompson remembers how what began as a small, semi-private affair for mothers and daughters grew into a public extravaganza:

“My older sister’s class was invited and we made little cut-out white bread finger sandwiches with butter and powdered sugar over them, and Mom had us stand in a receiving line to meet everybody. It became a Christmas tradition. Every year a little more was added. Pretty soon it got so that during the month of December Mom had the house decorated from top to bottom, and every year it got bigger and better.

“We invited people from church and school. Others heard about it and came. We would all dress up. The last Christmas tea we had became an open house and we probably had about a thousand people. People came from all around.”

The Christmas House became a destination stop, complete with tours.

By the time Lucile stopped putting on the Christmas tea in the 1970s, she and her soiree and decorations had become so well known, said Thompson, that “people that wanted to get a hold of Mother would address mail to the ‘Christmas House, Omaha, Neb.‘ and it actually came to the house.”

Lucile didn’t stop at decorating her home. She also took charge of decorating the sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church and the big Xmas tree at the old Union Station (Durham Museum). Then there was the Christmas Shop. It’s why Lucile was known as the Christmas Lady.

“The whole situation became such a passion for Mom,” said Thompson. “This was her outlet.”

Whether people knew her as the Orange Lady or the Christmas Lady, Jeff Jorgensen said “she enjoyed both of those roles very much. She made an impression on lots of people she came into contact with. She really wasn’t eccentric at all but if you thought she was I think that probably made her very happy.” On reflection, Jorgensen added, “Maybe she was a little.” Or as Joe Montello once described her: “She wasn’t afraid to be unique in her own way.”

The phrase “let your freak flag fly” refers to the uninhibited Luciles of the world.

The decorum at the fancy tea parties was sometimes shattered by a silly or peculiar happening, like the time Lucile’s pet rooster, Lucky, turned party crasher.

“One time this woman was sitting on the couch with her coffee and cake and there comes Lucky out of the kitchen. It looks around and comes over and takes that cake right off the lady’s plate,” said Thompson.

Another time, a visitor got more than she bargained for on a tour.

“When my two kids and I were living at Mother’s home our rooms were up on the third floor, and since the bedrooms were all decorated we slept in the 7-by-12 walk-in closets,” said Thompson. “This one time I put the kids to bed and Mother phoned from downstairs that these people were on their way up. So I stepped into my closet, closed the door and sat on a chair waiting for the tour to come through. I’m sitting in there when this woman opens the door — and the look on her face was priceless. I just said, ‘Hello,’ and she stepped backward, closing the door behind her. I could hardly wait for them to leave so I could run downstairs and tell Mother.”

They had a good laugh over that one.

Faux pause aside, Thompson said Lucile had a lot of Martha Stewart in her.

“She was a gracious, grand hostess, and she set a beautiful table. She was a fabulous cook. My sister and I learned all these culinary skills from our mother. These are things we did automatically and we didn’t even think about it.”

Lucile never got to play grand hostess at her Old Market residence, but she approved of opening it up to parties and took vicarious pleasure in the first events held there a few years ago. And even though by the end she couldn’t see much besides light, she helped guide her daughter Stefanie and her granddaughter Amy in finishing out the place. All concerned are satisfied the interior is a close approximation of what Lucile intended.

Until opened as a rental space, the building’s street-level windows were boarded up, peaking the curiosity of passersby, who could only make out tantalizing tidbits. Some peepers climbed the gates for a glimpse inside a second floor window.

Thompson said some naturally mistook the residence for an antique shop. Only family, friends and area merchants and residents knew the truth. Now that it’s a much-in-demand rental space, the reputation and history behind it, and the story of the woman who made it possible, Lucile Schaaf, are becoming more widely known. Yet Amy Waskel said most first-time visitors remark “we had no idea this was here.”

“The whole thing just started with, ‘I’ve got these things, I’ve got this place, I’ve got this box, I’ve got all these things inside it, let’s put it together. It was thinking outside the box,” said Thompson, “and look at what she’s got, she’s got a box of fabulous things and wonderful memories. I’m hoping one day it’s a museum. I think more people could enjoy it if we could do more with it. But it’s an old building and it needs a lot of things done to it.”

Old and imperfect as it is, Jorgensen said, “it’s perfect for the Old Market. I mean, it’s adaptive reuse, it’s work-with-what-you-have, it’s an example of finding new faces for old places. That’s what she did. She found new life for a building and an area that needed a new reason to exist. Lucile had that vision for what it could be.”

The Mercer family of Omaha, headed by Samuel Mercer, led early efforts in transforming the former City Market into the Old Market. Mercer Management, which Sam’s son, Mark, heads, is still the primary property owner and developer there. Mark said his father felt that he and Lucile “shared a desire to see the Old Market buildings restored and reanimated by local individual businesses. He always had a cordial and friendly relation with her.”

Artist and arts administrator Ree Kaneko, who first got to know Lucile during the Old Market’s emergence in the late ’60s-early ’70s, said, “the Lady in Orange was a wonderful soul.”

Jorgensen said not having Lucile around is “a major loss.” But her world lives on at Lucile’s Old Market, 510 South 10th Street. To book an event or arrange a tour, call 341-3100 or visit http://www.lucilesoldmarket.com.

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