June 21, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

At the Omaha Conservatory of Music, the modern history of music in Omaha is being written every day. Thousands of students take advantage of brand-new facilities as they study their musical instruments, attend music classes, and participate in concerts.

It was a labor of love for many arts-minded donors in the community to bring together a place where young people can explore music.

The space is remembered by many community members as the former home of Temple Israel. They vacated the space in 2013 to move to the Tri-Faith campus, located at 132nd and Pacific streets.

OCM eyed the empty building for a while, says Mark Kresl, the conservatory’s director of development.

Kresl says that they put the building on their dream list of places when Temple Israel first announced their move. This was based on the central Omaha location and the large size of the building. However, OCM was not financially prepared to make a large purchase at that point. Bluestone Development bought the property at that point, with plans to put up apartments, but neighboring Fairacres balked at this idea. In 2014, Bluestone put the property back on the market, and the board decided the time was right to move—in part because the lease was up at their then-current location, the basement of Westside Community Conference Center.

The committee worked quickly to secure the funds to pay for the building and renovating it from a place for cantors to a place for choir members. Paul Smith, a founder, current board member and former board chair with the conservatory, headed up a capital campaign that so far has raised $16.6 million.

The project totaled about $19 million, and they have yet to raise about $1.7 million so they can retire the loan.

Smith and his committee reached out to the community’s major arts funders. Among these are notable names such as The Sherwood Foundation, The Holland Foundation, and Cindy and Mogens Bay. They also spoke with other community members who don’t support the arts as often, but who the OCM thought would help. Smith says the conservatory’s community history as a changemaker for youth helped donors to get behind supporting the organization.

The space is thoroughly modern, but remains architecturally linked to its past as a home for Temple Israel. Remnants of the building’s former tenants can still be seen throughout the space.

When remodeling, keeping the building tied to its past as a religious center was an important consideration. Omaha Conservatory of Music executive director Ruth Meints says Temple Israel served as an iconic building in the neighborhood. It had a history of bringing people together.

“We felt like we wanted to continue that history of community,” Meints says.

Artifacts from the original temple remain tucked throughout, including an inscription on the cornerstone. Ornate wooden seats, which the conservatory reupholstered, were left behind. They are now used as seating in an area where students often wait to be picked up by their parents.

The temple’s sanctuary was transformed into the Simon Concert Hall, which seats 525 people. It gets its name from the Simon family, who contributed money to help the conservatory makes its move. And the temple’s former chapel now serves as the Smith Recital Hall, named after donors Paul and Annette Smith. Original stained glass windows and mid-century modern chairs were kept in the chapel area. The space also retains the temple’s original carved wooden doors.

The classrooms that served as the temple’s religious school were subdivided into smaller spaces for lessons and practice. The walls of the rooms feature four to six layers of damped drywall to deaden outside sound.

But, by and large, the structure of the temple was perfect for the conservatory as is.

“We really didn’t change the footprint very much,” Meints says.

That footprint now hears the footsteps, and feet tapping out a beat, from musicians learning to their chosen art form.

“When people understand the importance that a young person’s encounter with music has on their success in life and their understanding and love for culture, I think that it’s a very compelling case,” Paul Smith says. “I think it kind of sells itself why we want something like this in our community.”


Visit omahacm.org/support for more information.

This article was printed in the July/August 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Mark Kresl, Omaha Conservatory of Music

Mark Kresl, director of development at the Omaha Conservatory of Music