April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Vera Mercer

Continental bon vivant Samuel Mercer, who passed away in early February, was not a typical Nebraskan. Though he grew up to become the Old Market’s undisputed godfather, he started life as the son of prominent Omaha physician and landowner Nelson Mercer. Young Sam was born and raised in privileged circumstances in London, England, and educated at Oxford and Yale. After living in Washington, D.C., he based his law practice in Paris, where he mostly lived the rest of his life, holding dual citizenship.

In Paris, Mercer cultivated relationships with avant garde artists. A watercolorist himself, he made artist Eva Aeppli his second wife. On his handful of trips to Omaha each year, Mercer cut an indelible figure with his shoulder-length gray hair, his trans-Atlantic accent, and his waxing on far-ranging subjects. He spoke perfect French.

“He projected an aura of unpretentious aristocracy…I liked him immediately and enormously,” says designer Roger duRand, who with Percy Roche opened the Old Market’s first business, The Farthest Outpost.

With the death of his father in 1963, Mercer took charge of the Mercer Management company here. He appreciated the century-old brick warehouses—some Mercer-owned—comprising the wholesale produce market just southeast of downtown. But it was designer Cedric Hartman who first advocated doing something with those buildings, which by the mid-1960s were largely abandoned and in disrepair.

Hartman, an acclaimed designer of lighting and furniture pieces made at his Marcy Street factory, recalls the genesis of the Old Market. He and Judy Wigton were partners in a high-end gift shop. Like Mercer, they admired the dying produce district’s buildings and in 1964, began meeting with him about these structures as potential sites for exciting, new ventures, such as fine shops, galleries, and restaurants.

“He projected an aura of unpretentious aristocracy.” – Roger duRand

“We were quite surprised to find such a person,” says Hartman. “He was a very smart, very worldly, and sophisticated character with great personal charm. We were both wowed by him, and in his way he was with us.”

Wigton says, “He certainly had a great appreciation for old buildings and also a need to fill the empty places with new tenants.”

“He did respond to us in a great way,” Hartman notes. “We were a couple of really artsy kids, and he was really artsy, so it couldn’t have been a better association. He was a kindred spirit in so many ways.”

Those early encounters formulated the vision for what became the Old Market.

“I remember we walked around the streets trying to imagine what could be done. I’d say, ‘Now look at this building; we could do this with it,’ and he’d just respond right in kind,” says Hartman. “I couldn’t have done that with anybody else. He hooked into all this stuff really fast.”

By 1968, Mercer moved strategically to gain control of a collection of buildings in what is now the Old Market. “Sam did not want anything said about the project until he could acquire options on enough other properties in the area to ensure the success of the redevelopment,” says Wigton.

It was Mercer’s idea to make the groundfloor space of the former Gilinsky Fruit Company into a French restaurant. There, Hartman designed the Old Market’s signature spot, the French Café, as well as apartments above it. Ree Kaneko, a fellow Old Market pioneer, says the restaurant, opened in 1969, was “very important” in helping solidify and legitimize the Market.

“He certainly had a great appreciation for old buildings and also a need to fill the empty places with new tenants.” – Judy Wigton

“It was a risky thing for him to do,” Hartman says. “Who knew if that would work? However, it was a great success.”

More anchor attractions followed—Homer’s, M’s Pub, Mr. Toad, Spaghetti Works, Nouvelle Eve, the Firehouse Dinner Theater, the Bemis. Designers duRand and Hartman advised Mercer and his son Mark, daughter-in-law Vera, and nephew Nicholas Bonham-Carter on this never-planned but organically developed area. The Mercers created one of the Market’s most distinct features, The Passageway, and later opened their own distinguished enterprises—V Mertz, La Buvette, and The Boiler Room.

“We worked to shape the Old Market neighborhood in the most authentic and benign ways possible, gently guiding new tenants away from the clichéd and vulgar, and to more thoughtful and honest approaches to development of the beautiful old structures,” says duRand. “Even though Sam lived and worked in Paris, his presence was in every decision of significance in nurturing the Market. He made frequent visits to Omaha in the early days and was instrumental in bringing the city fathers around to acceptance, then eventual approval, and finally enthusiasm for the preservation and rebirth of our neighborhood. His passing leaves a permanent and poignant void.”

Sam Mercer viewed the Market as an evolving social experiment and art project aligned with his own desires. Mark says the family has continued that philosophy by encouraging unique ventures that “fit our tastes and interests.” He and Vera say creating new things is their passion. They vow to retain the vibrant charm of this historic neighborhood that Mercer lovingly made happen.

Samuel Mercer passed away Feb. 5 at his home in Honfleur, France. He was 92. Services were held at Trinity Episcopal Church in Omaha.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.