Tag Archives: The Passageway

Choose Your Own Adventure

August 27, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ted and Wally’s. Tannenbaum Christmas Shop. The Passageway. These are staples of Omaha’s historic Old Market neighborhood. But what if you looked beyond the traditional to find the hidden heart of downtown? Do you dare venture down the road less traveled to find the secret spaces and hidden gems of the Old Market?

You are traveling down 10th Street, looking for an outdoor space to spend the warm, fall afternoon, when you stumble upon Lucile’s Old Market. This historic, two-story, brick building is wrapped with an iron gate and was originally owned by Lucile Schaaf, an architectural salvager. You remember being told there is a courtyard somewhere near her home, but all you see is a 10-foot-high brick wall.

You sneak down the alley between Jackson and Howard streets, only to find a large, locked, wooden gate. Disappointment seizes you, until you notice an iron grate in part of the brick wall. You decide to take a peek.

Terracotta landscape pavers line the three-tiered garden, and ivy consumes each wall. Grass and beautiful flowers overflow the 2,600-square-foot space, sharing occupancy with architectural pieces like two griffin wings, salvaged from the old First National Bank building. The wings form a walkway to the third level of the garden.

You hadn’t noticed, but the owner of Lucile’s, a man named Brian, has come up behind you.

“We have the only private backyard in the Old Market that includes grass and flowers. It’s just priceless; it’s literally priceless,” Brian says. He goes on to tell you that the courtyard is only accessible if you have a private event at Lucile’s. You decide to go on with your day, content with having enjoyed a view into the small paradise.

You’ve had enough of walking around, and decide that catching a movie sounds nice. Unfortunately, there is no movie theater in the Old Market. But you have heard about a tiny theater inside Fairmont Antique & Mercantile Store on 12th and Jackson streets.

Winding through stalls of vintage signs and retro clothing, you come across the theater, a walled-off section complete with marquee, deep in the heart of the store. It plays movies on Saturdays and Sundays. You recall what a friend, Alicia Smith Hollins, told you about her experience seeing Jack White play in the theater last August.

“The small, vintage venue felt more like where you should see Jack White play than a big auditorium. It was the coolest thing I have ever seen in Omaha,” says Smith Hollins, who was previously unaware that the theater existed.

After sitting through The Goonies, you are ready for a night on the town. You call up a few friends and decide to go bar-hopping. However, none of you are keen on anything rowdy or loud, so you attempt to confirm rumors about a speakeasy-type place. It’s hidden under the Indian Oven restaurant at 10th and Howard streets.

When you and your friends arrive at the restaurant, you notice that two horse statues are lit in the window. You’ve heard that this means the basement bar is making drinks that night. You enter the basement to find a cozy, newly renovated space.

“It’s a calm atmosphere that’s about celebrating the drinks and the conversations going on,” says Binoy Fernandez, the I.O. Speak’s owner and bartender. He talks with passion about how the I.O. Speak focuses on craft cocktails, drinks that go beyond standard two-ingredient mixers and that take a little longer to concoct.

Fernandez chats with your group to find out what each of you are looking for in a drink tonight. This is standard practice in the bar, he explains. Based on what customers enjoy drinking, he can provide recommendations from his list of pre-Prohibition and Prohibition-era drinks. For such special cocktails, he and other bartenders only use fresh-squeezed juice and syrups, bitters, and even ice made inhouse.

“[Old Market residents] are a great set of people that have, throughout the years, shown a willingness to try new things out, and, in a large way, to be the trendsetters of what’s happening in the Omaha community,” Fernandez explains as he makes your drinks. “Them, and the history of the Old Market, when speakeasies were running down here, make this the perfect place for my concept.”

You head home from the bar, content in knowing that you took the road less traveled. You found the Old Market’s diamonds in the rough.

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.