In a state with few destination attractions, Omaha's Old Market arts-entertainment district packs them in. The draw is not any one or two venues, but a collective of shops, restaurants, bars, galleries and creative spaces, along with the historic character of those places.
Designer Roger duRand opened one of the first businesses there, the head shop The Farthest Outpost, with Wade Wright in 1968. duRand later designed businesses and apartments there. He was struck then as he is now by the area's contiguous array of late 19th-early 20th century warehouses.
"I was really charmed by how coherent the neighborhood was. It was really intact. The buildings all had a relationship with each other, they were all of the same general age. They were all designed in a very unselfconsciously commercial style. They're very honest buildings."
If density and diversity define vital urban areas, then the Market is Omaha's most lively concentration of eclectic spots.
It's also a neighborhood whose residents add to the vibe.
"Having people live here makes it a 24-hour alive place," says Ree Kaneko, an Old Market artist, arts administrator and resident whose presence there goes back 40-plus years.
Nicholas Bonham-Carter, a nephew of the Market's late godfather, Sam Mercer, says, "The Old Market works because of the multiplicity of things going on. In other historical districts they have no residence portion at all so at night when the shops close it looks dead. But in the Old Market when the shops close you know people are living upstairs. Even if you can't see them the knowledge they're there gives it life;"
In this same year the Market turned 45 years old its guiding light, Sam Mercer, died (Feb. 5). The Mercers are longtime property owners and landlords there. When the idea for it surfaced they were perhaps the only locals with the resources and inclination to make it over on the scale required to turn the abandoned produce center into a chic oasis.
In the mid-'60s Mercer began heeding advice that the dying wholesale district could be revived for a new use. It took vision and guts as the old buildings were in bad shape and no one knew if enough entrepreneurs would take the plunge. The four-square block area became a real life assemblage or installation that creatives reclaimed and rebirthed, one building, one endeavor at a time.
Cedric Hartman and Judy Wigton put the proverbial bug in Mercer's ear. He's an internationally known lighting and furniture designer who keeps a low profile at his factory on the Market's southeast edge. She's an arts lover. Their shared appreciation for the finer things led them to open a mid-town high-end shop, The Afternoon (the Omaha store by that name today has no relationship to the earlier store).
In 1964 the business partners went on a buying trip to Chicago and discovered Old Town – a mix of quality shops in repurposed buildings.
Wigton recalls coming back and driving around Omaha's city market "looking for a likely area" to relocate The Afternoon and finding a For Rent sign. She made the necessary inquiries and, she says, "On a very cold day in Dec. 1964 we met Sam Mercer. He showed us the property. We indicated it wouldn’t work if we were the only ones down there. We wanted there to be a number of shops. He seemed very doubtful about our idea for a community of shops and restaurants."
But Wigton and Hartman persisted and kept pitching the concept.
"We became great friends. One evening we took Sam to see Jim Shugart’s wonderful house in a former Budweiser building at 1215 Jones. It made a good impression on Sam who then said that maybe what we were talking about would work. Eventually he seemed to be coming around. He certainly had a great appreciation for old buildings and also a need to fill the empty places with new tenants.
"We also appreciated old buildings. Cedric and I had special interest in architectural history. I had started the drive to try to save the old Omaha City Hall from destruction, but when we met with Mayor (A.V.) Sorenson about it, he made it clear a serious goal of his and city fathers was to get rid of old buildings. That conflict continued for years.
"All through 1965-1967 we talked about possibilities for the area."
The Market happened in spite of meek support and sometimes outright opposition from Omaha city government and business leadership. The very idea of it flew in the face of conservative, parochial Omaha.
Old buildings were razed with alarming frequency then. Aging inner city neighborhoods were neglected. The Great Suburban Boom was on and new was preferred to old. Downtown Omaha was already slipping and would soon find its once vibrant retail base gone. Flipping, reinventing, transforming massive buildings simply didn't occur here.
Bonham-Carter echoes others in arguing the Market "provided sort of the initial shove for the rebirth of downtown."
The Market's success undoubtedly made Omaha more receptive to preservation and revitalizing areas like the riverfront and north downtown. Even its example though couldn't save Jobbers Canyon and its historic buildings just east of the Market.
Hard as it may be to imagine now, the warehouses comprising the Market were mostly viewed as eyesores, not assets.
Hartman and Wigton saw things differently and their dogged pursuit of what to others seemed a pipe dream paid off.
Kaneko says few realize how vital they were to the Market coming into being.
"Nobody wanted to take on these brick warehouses. The idea was planted with Sam with Cedric's help and as these Old Market spaces were renovated Cedric provided much good advice."
Bonham-Carter, who spearheaded the creation of the Passageway in the Market, says Hartman "sowed the seeds of what could be done. He's a real genius."
Hartman was so convinced of its potential he recalls "I couldn't stop on the subject. Judy was enthused too." His motivation was to break Omaha from its dull status quo. He'd lived in Chicago and New York, studied in France, and upon returning to Omaha found "it dreadful, nothing happening here, it seemed like a very unsophisticated place to me. I was interested in seeing something happen downtown."
He says there was resignation nothing would really ever change."Most people droned, 'It seems like nobody will ever do that here, this is Omaha, forget it.'" He wasn't deterred. "I just kept talking it up."
In Mercer Hartman and Wigton found the receptive audience they craved and someone in a position to do something about it.
"We were quite surprised to find such a person," says Hartman."He was very smart and a very worldly and sophisticated character with great personal charm. We were both flabbergasted, dazzled by his personal style. We were taken with him and in his way he was with us.
"He did respond to us in a great way and I think he was genuine. We were a couple of really arty kids and he was really arty, too, so it couldn't have been a better association. He was a kindred spirit in so many ways."
Hartman recalls walking around the Market with Mercer when it was a warehouse graveyard "trying to imagine what could be done."
With Mercer on board Wigton helped raise public awareness of the proposed redevelopment by hosting luncheons at the old Omaha Club where Mercer bent the ear of stakeholders and tastemakers.
"Sam was invariably charming and interesting and would lay out the possibilities in a very persuasive way. I especially remember a lunch there with (the late columnist) Robert McMorris which seemed to result in dozens of favorable stories in the World-Herald. Another was with city planning director Alden Aust, whose advocacy became invaluable."
The initial businesses in the fledgling district opened in 1968. Percy Roche's British Imports was the first.
Omaha businessman Tom Davis invested in several ventures there.
"It was very much a combination of the right people in the right place at the right time," says Wigton "And then it was very fortunate that Sam’s family, Mark and Vera Mercer and Nicholas and Jane Bonham-Carter were able to move here when they did and keep everything going. It hasn’t been easy and I don’t think any other family could have done it."
Wigton suggests, and others agree, that "perhaps it really began to come together" when the French Cafe was born in 1969. But even that anchor, signature eatery only happened because Hartman was in the right place at the right time. He spotted a condemnation notice posted on the Solomon Gilinsky Fruit Market building and contacted Mercer.
"That's a building I promoted finding. It was not a Mercer property, it belonged to the Gilinsky family. I said, 'Sam, we really ought to buy this building.'" Hartman's concern was that if the structure, situated mid-way on Howard St., were razed it would interrupt the flow of what they hoped to do with the other buildings.
"If we were working on separated buildings and somebody would do something else that didn't quite fit in that could have destroyed the atmosphere for the whole place," says Bonham-Carter.
Mercer and Gilinsky made the deal but even then last minute fast talking was required because, Hartman says, Gilinsky had a contract with a wrecking firm to take the building down. Demolition was set for the following morning. After some frantic calls the order was canceled.
The idea to open a French restaurant there was entirely Sam's. Hartman designed the space. He admires the chance Mercer took.
"It was a risky thing for them. Who knew if that would work?"
Kaneko says if Hartman hadn't prevailed on Mercer at that critical juncture there might not have been a French Cafe or Old Market.
She says "credit for building the Old Market belongs to many people over the years who put their ideas, dreams and patina on the spaces in these handsome, left behind buildings. Yes, it's true the Mercer family had the financial ability to make lots of things happen and the flare to do it right, but I would guess had it not been for Cedric Hartman who called Sam Mercer in Paris to inform him that a building in the middle of the block of Howard St. was about to be torn down that maybe it would not have happened at all.
"Paris is a long ways away for one to keep an eye on what's happening down the block. The idea was planted with Sam…And so it started this way – the idea, the saving of a structure, then the investment in the renovation and all the wonderful ideas and people that followed.
"So many interesting people shaped this area with their ideas and energy. Each person added to the growth of the dream. They were the fiber of the place. They came to work here, they lived here, they ate here, they hung out here. They were neighbors…they were friends."
Bonham-Carter says, "I think everyone who was down here was in some way or another very unique and we couldn't have done it without them."
The Edison Exposure and Omaha Magic Theatre were cutting-edge venues. The Antiquarium and Homer's were counter-culture bastions.
The French Cafe helped legitimize or mainstream the district.
"It was getting the so-called aristocracy of Omaha to come down to our area. It was very sophisticated and its image rubbed off on the rest of the Old Market. so I think it was very important. And it generated traffic. It became sort of a magnet," says Bonham-Carter, who helped shepherd the Cafe its first couple years.
Bonham-Cartern notes that the Market ultimately benefited from the family having meager development funds because it reinforced leaving the buildings largely alone, to retain their historic integrity. "We had a lot of bricks and mortar but not much money," he says, "so we were always having to sort of economize and so as a result that probably made it less likely for us to make some expensive mistakes."
The last thing the family wanted was to make the Market a glossy theme park whitewashed of age.
For Kaneko the great attraction was "space, space and more space. It's just what artists needed. And at that time the visual arts were the poor sister in town. So this was a big deal." She was among the early vanguard to move in as working artists. She says despite a lack of creature comforts they felt impassioned.
"It was a no-man's land but very exciting because you were making a change happen. We felt we were doing something very important and very radical. We were saving this wonderful architecture and bringing new life to these discarded places. We had nothing but our dreams and hard work and intense desire to make it happen."
duRand, who was there even earlier, says, "It was exhilarating really because it was all new and it was a creative process. The whole venture was kind of an artwork really. Making something out of nothing – that was really the fun part."
He recalls the Market as "a really interesting urban environment" where hippies and artists commingled with blue collar laborers. Some wholesalers were still operating. Cafes catered to truckers and railroaders. "A lot of jobbing went on – suppliers of all kinds of mechanical stuff. The railroad cars would go up and down the alleys at night where freight was loaded and unloaded."
For years Sam's son Mark Mercer and his wife Vera Mercer have stewarded the family's various holdings and ventures. Mark developed V Mertz restaurant in the Passageway. The couple later created La Buvette and The Boiler Room. They're now developing a new eatery at the site of the French Cafe, which closed last year. Mercer says their guiding philosophy is the same as Sam's was:
"We want to create things that are attractive and different than other places that have been infected by chains and franchises or things like that because than it'd be just like anywhere else. We pick things we think to rent to or to do ourselves that fit our tastes and our interests."
"Something that has made the difference between the way we did it and the way other people would do it is that we determined the only businesses we would get there would be home grown, locally owned," says Bonham-Carter. "I think we are today exactly where we hoped we would be in having a pretty good mix of tenants down there."
Kaneko says, "The Mercers are wonderful at allowing things to take shape. They know it is a slow process, so if you come to them with a good idea and they believe it fits with their dream for the Old Market you could probably have a good chance at succeeding. They have a great sense of the mix of things that need to happen to make the Market exciting."
duRand says the Market succeeded "because it was genuine, it wasn't really contrived. it evolved authentically. The main criterion wasn't profit it was for interesting things to happen. The Mercers made it very easy for interesting people to get a foothold here. A lot of times the rent was negligible. You could give receipts for improvements in lieu of rent money, and it helped everybody. It helped people on a shoestring build something for themselves and the owners got improvements at no expense to them, so it was a win-win."
"For a long time," he says, "Mercer Management kept the rents low and took a percentage of profit so that if people were struggling it didn't cost them so much to be here and then if they were successful the Mercers shared in that success. It was a nice formula."
Mercer says it didn't take long for the Market to attract tenants.
"It really did take off pretty quickly in the sense of these groups of artists and the French Cafe and then M's Pub in 1972, and the galleries. Rusty Harmsen did the Toad and Spaghetti Works. Then a little bit later we did the Passageway and V Mertz.
"A lot of people were excited because maybe there wasn't something like that in Omaha, a place where you could combine music and art and new kinds of food. We didn't have any French restaurants in Omaha at that time. There was a hunger too for a pedestrian area and arts and books and different kinds of movies that could combine. So it all seemed to get established in a couple-three years, although there were still problems with how to deal with building code inspectors. But it seemed it had gained enough momentum by then to attract people and as long as people were coming and finding it exciting…"
Kaneko says, "Things were happening and being presented in the Old Market you could not find anywhere else in the region." Arts were always a part of the scene but the early emphasis was all local artists. The Bemis artist residency program she founded in 1981 with Jun Kaneko, Tony Hepburn and Lorne Falk introduced artists "from all over the world who added to this conversation," she says. "The spillover into the community has been the benefit. Hard to measure but it's alive and it's there. The more artists and creative people in your community from all walks of life, makes for a much better place to live."
It's helped that the Mercers are art lovers. Sam painted as a hobby. Vera's a noted photographer and painter. Mark's designed the family's restaurants.
Not everyone agrees with the direction the Market's gone. duRand feels it's over-gentrified compared to its counter-culture roots. Underground newspapers were published there. Edgy film, theater and art happened there. The drug culture flourished there.
Mercer concedes it may have been more adventurous early only.
"Maybe in the beginning it was a little more rebellious and exciting in finding different things," he says. "In the early days it was, well, newer. Maybe a little more controversial and a little more avant garde."
Hartman despairs the Market's overrun with bars and restaurants.
Bonham-Carter feels it might be time for another big project, adding that "a little extra sprucing up might be nice to do over the years – tuck pointing here and there. We don't want it to look too worn out or too overdone." The recently announced $12.8 million Jones13 apartment project at 13th and Jones may be the next large scale endeavor. It's being developed by a private company.
Mark Mercer says, "As long as we can I guess we'll keep trying to do new things and find new things that will enhance the Market, enhance the area," Vera Mercer says the passion still burns. "I think we are as excited as before about doing something new. We are still looking for new things." As for who will carry the torch in the future since the couple have no children, he says, "We have to think more about that."
Kaneko, who with her husband, artist Jun Kaneko, has developed an arts campus there says the district illustrates how the arts act as a catalyst for renewal. Looking ahead, she says, "The next period of time in the Old Market's life is what I call cultural in-fill. A time of refinement. If we are lucky and if we are wise we will maintain the quality, respect and excitement that this urban area needs and this city deserves."
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.