At the end of the 19th century, Omaha was in its prime as a major railroad center, connecting the settled East with the wide-open West. The Old Market area was at the height of its splendor — bustling with produce dealers, buyers, and transporters.
The bustle continued until the 1950s, when Omaha’s westward expansion and radical changes in grocery marketing abruptly brought the activity to a halt. That’s when Sam Mercer, threatened with building condemnation notices, proposed to rescue his family’s red-brick warehouses by renovating them for new uses. Most people thought him imprudent. Today, they call him a visionary. His work ignited the rebirth and re-imagining of the district.
Though Mercer passed away in February 2013, his legacy in the Old Market lives on. Preservation and maintenance of the architectural integrity of the buildings remains a guiding principle.
Old Market Historic Tour
The Old Market is filled with historic sites and buildings. Several of these have been specifically identified and researched. As a result, an Old Market Historic Walking Tour, with plaques identifying points of interest, was created in 2003.
Audio Walking Tour Download
Download the podcast for the Old Market audio tour by searching “Omaha’s Old Market Walking Tour” on iTunes.
Anheuser-Busch Beer Depot, 1887
Now: The New BLK Ad Agency & Art Gallery
1213 Jones Street
Omaha was a rich brew of immigrants. With them came a thirst for beer. To satisfy the booming demand, six breweries were started in Omaha in the late 19th century. In 1887, Anheuser-Busch of St. Louis built a distribution complex in Omaha, designed by Henry Voss in the Romanesque style. The existing office building is all that remains of four buildings, which also included a stable, the bottling department, and a combination beer vault and icehouse. Prohibition capped the beer business. Later the complex housed a chemical supply company and a furniture-stripping firm. In 1989, Alley Poyner Architecture renovated the interior as office space for its own business. In 1988, a finial over the west side of the doorway was toppled by wind and then stolen—it has never been recovered.
This building has carried the Baum Iron name since the early 1900s. At one time, the firm was the largest wholesaler of iron products in the Midwest, dealing in iron, steel, and heavy hardware. The cast-iron storefront for the structure in the Italianate style was made in St. Louis and assembled on-site in Omaha in 1880. Originally three stories, the fourth floor was added in 1891.
A growing export trade in flour attracted the bag manufacturer, J.M. Bemis and Company, to Omaha in 1887. The business had its start a quarter century earlier in St. Louis when bags became a thrifty alternate choice to boxes and wooden barrels.
By 1900, Bemis Bag was the largest bag manufacturer in the world. Local architects Louis Mendelssohn and Harry Lawrie chose the Commercial style developed in Chicago in the 1880s for the Omaha plant. A three-story building was added to the west in 1897, and the factory complex was completed with the addition of six stories to the south in 1902. In 1977, Bemis Bag moved and gave the site to the City.
In 1983, the building was sold to the Mercer family and converted to living spaces for the Bemis Project, a not-for-profit artists’ colony. A 1999 fire severely damaged the original building.
The initial “B” identifies this as the headquarters for the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad, which was designed by A.R. Dufrene. In 1899, famed local architect Thomas Kimball was hired to remodel the structure to resemble the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Building in Chicago. Among other changes, Kimball added an interior courtyard, elevator, and a floor of octagonal glass bricks, which allowed light into the basement. In 1966, the Burlington Railroad left the building and sold it to the city. After sitting vacant for 17 years, the building was restored for office space, becoming one of the first successful renovations of a 19th-century building in Omaha.
The Hotel Howard was constructed in 1909 in the Classical Revival style. From its beginnings, the Howard benefited from the flourishing produce trade and the proximity to trains and wholesale businesses. Early in the morning, produce was piled on the sidewalks in the area. Peddlers would then come and load their wagons with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. The Howard served as a hotel until 1969, when the area was just beginning to show signs of revival as a tourist attraction.
In 1970, the ground floor became one of the Old Market’s earliest entertainment venues when Mr. Toad, an indoor-outdoor pub, was opened. The name “Mr. Toad” came from a character in the English book, The Wind in the Willows.
Next issue: Look forward to Omaha Magazine November/December where J. P. Cooke Buildings (now J.P. Cooke Company), Millard Block (now Rock Bottom Brewery), Morse Coe Building (now First National Bank of Omaha branch & Scooters coffeehouse, Mayfield Apartments), Omaha Firehouse (now Upstream Brewing Company), and Skinner Macaroni Building (now Skinner Macaroni Lofts) will be featured in “Obviously Omaha.”