November 3, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Since Omaha was founded nearly 160 years ago, many of its older buildings have seen their demise. But in at least two of Downtown Omaha’s historical structures, creative artists and imaginative entrepreneurs have replaced staid bankers and burly beer makers, enabling these pieces of history to continue on with a new purpose.

Carver Bank

An abandoned building near 24th and Lake streets became a renovated space this year for:

  • Artists in residence. Visual and performance artists receive workspace and a $500 monthly stipend for one year.
  • Art. Exhibitions, events, and workshops are available for youth and adults.
  • Participation. A cultural and economic resurgence is happening in North Omaha.
  • Environmentalism. Finishes inside are mostly made of salvaged and recycled materials, such as a gymnasium floor from a decommissioned school in Panama, Iowa.
  • Delicious food. Big Mama’s Sandwich Shop is open till 4 p.m. every day but Sunday, even serving a roast-beef sarnie called The Carver.

Carver Savings and Loan, named for scientist George Washington Carver, opened in 1946 as Nebraska’s first African-American bank. Vince Furlong, who conducts walking tours for Restoration Exchange Omaha, says that the bank closed in 1966. After housing several nonprofits, the building shut its doors in 2006.

In 2010, Hesse McGraw, then chief curator for Omaha’s Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, and Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates began talking to people in the neighborhood about the needs of North Omaha, according to Jessica Scheuerman, program coordinator for the Bemis Center.

After two years, McGraw and Gates decided to renovate the abandoned Carver Bank building. They wanted to spearhead a program with an emphasis on visual and performance artists of color or who are North Omaha-minded.

Patricia “Big Mama” Barron, the eponymous owner of the sandwich shop, says the neighborhood was excited about the renovation that began last year. “People would come by and talk about how happy they were to see something go in there.”

The Carver Bank building is owned by the City of Omaha and leased for $1 over five years to the Bemis Center, which renovated and programs the space.

The artists’ program fits in well with the City of Omaha’s long-range, public-private plan to revitalize North Omaha, focusing on the 24th and Lake Cultural Arts District.

The building’s renovation is a good example of recycling. Framing lumber torn down during the building’s demolition was reused to frame new walls. Says Barron: “I’m a person who believes in recycling things, and I hate to see old buildings torn down. That’s a part of history being torn down.”

Anheuser-Busch Beer Depot

The stable is gone. The ice house is gone. Even the beer vault is gone. All were destroyed by a fire.

What remains is a quaint, brick building that was an office when the brewery’s complex was built in 1887. At 1213 Jones Street near the Bemis Center, the building has housed The New BLK (pronounced Black) advertising agency and art gallery for three years.

“‘The new black’ is a term in fashion for the next hot thing,” says Brian Smith, who gives his title as connector, catalyst, and co-conspirator.

The building was remodeled in 1988 by its current owner, Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture, which had offices there before moving. The architecture firm added a mezzanine loft area for nonprofit offices, and the space is still set aside for that use. “A recent example was Aqua-Africa, which builds wells in South Sudan,” says Smith.

The New BLK spreads out on the main level in a modern, open, workspace. The advertising firm also runs an art gallery on the lower level, featuring emerging artists.

Gerard Pefung, born in Cameroon, is one such artist who exhibited his work at The New BLK. “He recently did a mural installation at Omaha Police Headquarters,” Smith says. “Some of our partners are active artists and some have managed artist studios in Europe.”

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