December 1, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Leo A Daly

Chris Johnson graduated from college and looked left.

Then he looked right.

With sheepskin in hand—a degree in architecture from Iowa State—he went chasing his first job in the field.

But not at home.

“I thought the best design only occurred on the West Coast or East Coast,” Johnson says.
Turns out what he was looking for was right in front of him all along—Leo A Daly, one of the largest planning, architecture, engineering, interior design, and program management firms in the world.

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But Johnson, a native Omahan, didn’t know that Leo A Daly.

“It was almost embedded in me that they’re an Omaha firm just doing Omaha work,” Johnson says. “I wasn’t sure of their national or international design presence.”

He dug deeper.“Holy cow,” he recalls discovering, “there’s a great design firm right here doing things all over the world.”

Johnson joined Leo A Daly in 1990 and today is a vice president and managing principal in Omaha. His years with the firm are but one chapter in its extensive history. It was begun in 1915 by Leo A. Daly Sr. and remains in family hands with his grandson, Chairman and CEO Leo A. Daly III.

Early on, the firm indeed was Omaha-centric, its work featuring more than a handful of projects in and around the city for the Catholic church.

“Look at some of the turn-of-the-century Catholic churches and, more often than not, you’ll see Leo Daly on the cornerstone,” Johnson says.

But it was a much larger Catholic project that helped Leo A Daly become much larger—Boys Town.

The firm’s first major planning assignment came in 1922, creating the Boys Town master plan for Father Flanagan’s 160-acre campus that then was 10 miles west of Omaha. The relationship continues today as Leo A Daly has designed 90% of Boys Town buildings.

Leo a Daly's original rendering for Boys Town (1922).

Leo a Daly’s original rendering for Boys Town (1922).

Others in Omaha and beyond began to take notice.

“Boys Town really began to grow Leo Daly into a regional and national architecture and engineering firm,” Johnson says. That led to work for the healthcare market. Then came work for the federal government related to national defense.

Eventually, Leo A Daly went global. Today the privately held company’s portfolio includes projects in nearly 90 countries and all 50 U.S. states. Clients include public, private, and institutional organizations in sectors including aviation, commercial development, higher education, transit, and transportation. And while other firms in the industry increasingly become specialized, Leo A Daly has intentionally stayed multidisciplinary.

“We want to think holistically about these facilities, both during design and when they are operational,” Johnson says. “We really learn a lot from each other as far as innovation.”

That’s helped give the firm staying power. So, too, has a quality staff, Johnson says, and a marketplace that rewards “quality and innovation,” a statement backed by more than 500 design awards.

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The company has more than 800 design and engineering professionals in 32 offices worldwide—Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, Atlanta, Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, an engineering, infrastructure consulting, and program management division of Leo A Daly, is in 18 cities.

But corporate headquarters remain in Omaha at almost its geographic center on Indian Hills Drive. The office boasts one of Omaha’s finest art collections, which has been amassed by the Daly family over the years.

“You’re really working in an atmosphere that elevates your game,” Johnson says of his surroundings.

Thank goodness for that Omaha presence. The city would be unrecognizable without such icons as First National Tower, Mutual of Omaha, Memorial Park, and other landmarks.

And Leo A Daly is building today the icons of tomorrow. Recent projects include the mixed-use development in downtown’s Capitol District, Nebraska Medical Center’s Nebraska Biocontainment Unit, and the relocation of Creighton University Medical Center to CHI’s Bergan Mercy Campus.

Also notable is the company’s transformation of the 1898 Burlington Passenger Station into a state-of-the-art television station for KETV. Among the project’s chief designers was Leo A Daly architect Sheila Ireland. Objectives included an initiative to keep the past visible where possible, allowing the building to tell its own story. Throughout the building are signs of the original 1898 Greek Revival design, its dramatic 1930s renovation, and updates from the 1950s. In one space, plaster from a bygone era has been cleverly framed as wall art. Even signs of the station’s 40-year vacancy remain visible.

Perhaps only a firm that’s been around nearly as long the station is wise enough, bold enough, to take such an approach.

“It’s exciting to work at a firm that has as much history with the city of Omaha as Leo Daly has,” Ireland says.

She hopes her work on the Burlington Station will help it last “hopefully for another 50 to 100 years.”

Chances are Leo A Daly will still be here—in the middle of it all.

Visit leoadaly.com to learn more.

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