March 12, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Perhaps the most iconic image of the word “Omaha” is the one with big block letters that look a century old, scrawled across the Riley Building at 1016 Douglas St.

In fact, the advertisements were only painted on the east and west walls of the warehouse building in 1982. That’s almost 100 years after the building was built in 1889.

“We were all hoping it would last a couple years,” says designer nellie sudavičius macCullum (locals may know her now as the marketing director for Nebraska Shakespeare). Actually, the paint job hasn’t been retouched in over 30 years.

Now home to Pinnacle Bank, the Riley Building was then owned by Billie Lee Mommer, an interior designer and historic renovator. Mommer had hired macCullum’s advertising agency, Galen & nellie, Inc., in 1980 to create her own logo. Shortly thereafter, macCallum and business partner Galen Lillethorup moved into the Riley Building as well. It was then that Mommer asked macCallum to design something for the exterior walls.

“She said, ‘I want to be true to the building, but, nellie, whatever you want to do on the sides of the building, it’s yours’—ha ha!” macCullum remembers. “I incorporated things that I loved into that wall.”

macCullum started researching at what is now the Durham Museum. “I went to the turn-of-the-century telephone directory in the library. I pulled out four or five, and I went through every page looking at the advertisers,” she says.

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She took several photos of the building, trying to get them straight-on. She made big prints, which she could write and draw on by hand—mockups the old-fashioned way.

First, she enhanced the few original advertisements that could still be made out on the wall. “For instance,” she says, “on the east side there’s a ‘Burlington’ that we just cleaned up. On the top left near the front of our building was a ‘Regis Hotel.’”

Original artwork made its way into the design as well. “Another love, because I was a music and art major, I wanted to put some music up there,” macCallum says. “So on the west, you can see the beginning to Beethoven’s 5th.”

Then, of course, the big “Omaha.”

“That nice beautiful ‘Omaha’ on the west side—that, I literally ripped out of the telephone directory. I just loved the look of it. It really matched the age of the character of the building,” says macCullum. “I had so much fun doing this. I think it took me at least three months to pull all the visuals together.” .

 When the time came to actually paint the designs, macCallum contacted Ric Darrell to do the job. “I knew it was something I couldn’t do alone,” Darrell says, “so I contacted Steve Hast.” Hast was on vacation in Big Lake, Mo., so Darrell drove down to talk to him about it.

“We both knew we’d have to quit jobs to do this,” Darrell says. They decided to go for it. Darrell and Hast formed Apple Graphics, with the Riley Building as their startup project. Painting began in September of 1982.

They took giant rolls of brown Kraft paper and hung them in Darrell’s garage in Millard. A projector set up in the driveway ensured they got the scale of macCullum’s mockups right. They traced the designs with an electric perforating machine, “like a pen that electrically burns a hole through the paper. It makes a little patterned hole every six inches,” Darrell explains.

With the paper up on the exterior of the Riley Building, Darrell and Hast went over the holes with charcoal again and again, so that the marks would show up through the paint. macCullum estimates they used 50 rolls of paper.

Darrell and Hast mixed colors to match what macCullum had in mind for distressed-looking paint. “I’m just amazed that it’s lasted this long,” says Darrell, giving credit to Diamond Vogel paints.

Each wall took about a month to paint, and their deadline was getting down to the wire. “It was November by the time we were on the second wall, and we had some days where we were fighting some pretty bad weather,” says Darrell. Other challenges included late design updates and weak electricity. “The power would knock out,” Darrell explains, a problem considering their scaffolding was electric staging. “And so we’d be stuck up there. So one of us would have to shimmy down the lifeline ropes, down five stories to the ground, and go in and turn the power back on.”

All in all, Darrell says it was an exciting job.

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