Tag Archives: The Farthest Outpost

Sam Mercer

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.

Roger duRand

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Omaha designer Roger duRand didn’t invent the Old Market, but he played a key role shaping the former wholesale produce and jobbing center into a lively arts-culture district.

His imprint on this historic urban residential-commercial environment is everywhere. He’s designed everything from Old Market business logos to chic condos over the French Café and Vivace to shop interiors. He’s served as an “aesthetic consultant” to property and business owners.

He’s been a business owner there, himself. He once directed the Gallery at the Market. For decades, he made his home and office in the Old Market.

The Omaha native goes back to the very start when the Old Market lacked a name and identity. It consisted of old, abandoned warehouses full of broken windows and pigeon and bat droppings. City leaders saw no future for the buildings and planned to tear them down. Only a few visionaries like duRand saw their potential.

 “I had in mind kind of an arts neighborhood with lots of galleries and artist lofts.”

He had apprenticed under his engineer-architect father, the late William Durand (Roger amended the family name years ago), a Renaissance Man who also designed and flew experimental aircraft. The son had resettled in Omaha after cross-country road trips to connect with the burgeoning counter-culture movement, working odd jobs to support himself, from fry cook to folk singer to sign painter to construction worker. He even shot pool for money.

He and a business partner, Wade Wright, ran the head shop The Farthest Outpost in midtown. A friend, Percy Roche, who had a British import store nearby, told them about the Old Market buildings owned by the Mercer family. Nicholas Bonham Carter, a nephew of Mercer family patriarch Samuel Mercer, led a tour.

“We trudged through all the empty buildings, and I was really charmed by how coherent the neighborhood was,” says duRand. “It was really intact. The buildings all had a relationship with each other. They were all of the same general age. They were all designed in a very unselfconsciously commercial style.

“They were such an asset.”

Remnants and rituals of the once-bustling marketplace remained.20121119_bs_4319 copy

“When I first came down here, the space where M’s Pub is now was Subby Sortino’s potato warehouse, and there were potatoes to the ceiling,” recalls duRand. “Across the street was his brother, John Sortino, an onion broker. There were produce brokerage offices in some of the upper floors. There were a couple cafes that catered to the truck drivers and railroad guys. There was a lot of jobbing with suppliers of all kinds of mechanical stuff—heating and cooling, plumbing and industrial supplies. The railroad cars would go up and down the alleys at night for freight to be loaded and unloaded.

“A really interesting urban environment.” He thought this gritty, rich-in-character built domain could be transformed into Omaha’s Greenwich Village. “I had in mind kind of an arts neighborhood with lots of galleries and artist lofts.”

That eventually happened, thanks to Ree (Schonlau) Kaneko and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.

duRand and Wright’s head shop at 1106 Jackson St. was joined by more entrepreneurs and artists doing their thing. The early Market scene became an underground haven. “In 1968, it was really artsy, edgy, political, kind of druggy,” says duRand.

Experimental art, film, theatre, and alternative newspapers flourished there. City officials looked with suspicion on the young, long-haired vendors and customers.

“We had all kinds of trouble with building inspectors,” who he says resisted attempts to repurpose the structures. “The idea of a hippie neighborhood really troubled a lot of people. This was going to be the end of civilization as they knew it if they allowed hippies to get a foothold. It was quite a struggle the first few years. We really had a lot of obstacles thrown in our path, but we persevered. It succeeded in spite of the obstructionists.

“I do have a sense of accomplishment in making something out of nothing. That was really the fun part.”

“And then it became more fashionable with the little clothing stores, bars, and gift shops. Adventuresome, young professionals would come down to have cocktails and to shop.”

The French Café helped establish the Old Market as viable and respectable.

The social experiment of the Old Market thrived, he says, “because it was genuine, it wasn’t really contrived, it evolved authentically,” which jives with his philosophy of “authentic design” that’s unobtrusive and rooted in the personality of the client or space. “Sometimes, the best thing to do is nothing at all. The main criterion wasn’t profit…It was for interesting things to happen. We made it very easy for interesting people to get a foothold here.”

Having a hand in its transformation, he says, “was interesting, exciting, even exhilarating because it was all new and it was a creative process. The whole venture was kind of an artwork really. I do have a sense of accomplishment in making something out of nothing. That was really the fun part.”

He fears as the Market has become gentrified—“really almost beyond recognition”—it’s lost some of its edge, though he concedes it remains a hipster hub. “I’m a little awed by the juggernaut it’s become. It’s taken on a much bigger life than I imagined it would. I never imagined I would be designing million-dollar condos in the Old Market or that a Hyatt hotel would go in.”

duRand and his wife, Jody, don’t live in the Market anymore, but he still does work for clients there, and it’s where he still prefers hanging out. Besides, all pathways seem to take this Old Market pioneer back to where it all began anyway.

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