September 3, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Halfway through my conversation with Kristine Gerber, she says two words that sum up why we’re here. “Buildings matter,” says the founding executive director of Restoration Exchange Omaha, a local architectural preservation and restoration organization.

It’s a simple sentence. And for Restoration Exchange, a solid foundation.

Established a year ago, Restoration Exchange Omaha is a sort of united front formed by several groups of people who believe, as Gerber does, buildings matter. One of those groups was Landmarks Inc., formed in 1965 to try to save one of the city’s historical post offices. It didn’t save the building, but it did go on to successfully advocate for the preservation of many Omaha spaces, including Union Station (now the Durham Museum), Joslyn Castle, and the Dundee Theater. A second group was Restore Omaha, of which Gerber was one of the founders. A partnership of architects, city planners, and preservation professionals and enthusiasts, Restore Omaha acted as a resource for people restoring historic homes around the city. And a third association, the one-man-run Omaha Urban Neighborhoods, brought Vince Furlong, a longtime advocate for the revitalization of Omaha’s business districts, on board.

“We decided we’re all small and we all know each other and we all know what’s not happening,” Gerber says. “There was no one out there advocating, trying to get changes made to laws. We needed to merge and form one preservation force, and we did that with Restoration Exchange Omaha.”

Together today, they’re a super-group. Restoration Exchange fights for city buildings with the spirit of Landmarks Inc., including involvement in a recent battle to keep the midtown Omaha Clarinda-Page apartment buildings’ landmark designation—and thus, the buildings—intact.

It connects homeowners with restorers and craftspeople who specialize in the intricacies of old buildings—plaster and tile roofing and finicky windows. The annual Restore Omaha Conference, originally a Restore Omaha project where home-lovers and restorers could meet and make connections, was staged again this year under the Restoration Exchange umbrella.

And the group hosts neighborhood tours, like the ones Furlong led along old streetcar stops via Omaha Urban Neighborhoods, in an effort to introduce Omahans to their city. Furlong still leads tours along North and South 24th streets and Vinton Street. On Oct. 5, the five-hour Florence Boulevard/Minne Lusa Neighborhood and Preservation Tour will take a look at 11 homes, as well as the Minne Lusa House and Miller Park Pavilion. For more on one of the featured homes, see the story on page H10.

“When Florence Boulevard first started to form, it was kind of the place to live,” Gerber explains. “People would take their Model T’s and go and drive the boulevard. People would sit on the porch stoops and visit. If you had a house on the boulevard, you had made it. But those homes, over the years, fell into disrepair.”

The homes on the tour, Gerber said, are all owned by “people who’ve gone in and said we need to save these buildings.”

That kind of saving can be intimidating. Gerber says she introduces homeowners considering restoration projects with Restoration Exchange volunteers who’ve already restored homes to talk them through the process. Restoration Exchange can also help homeowners apply for landmark status, if applicable, to qualify for tax credits.

“We want to make the whole process easier because our whole goal is to get these great old homes restored and preserved and back on the tax rolls,” Gerber says.

Not every venture Restore Exchange undertakes is successful—the Omaha City Council on July 1 voted unanimously to revoke the Clarinda-Page apartments’ landmark status.

But still, buildings matter.

“Old homes are your sense of your history,” Gerber says. “Think of the old homes you had as a kid, the memories and character. Plus, the craftsmanship that was used years ago was so well done—we can’t build homes like they did. Rather than take that away, we want to save our history from the demolition pile.” 

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