Rebirth of a LandmarkSep 06, 2014 09:00AM ● By Melissa McElroy
The Holland Basham Architects building, once the Beth El Synagogue, is the crown jewel of this thriving Midtown neighborhood. The massive 1938 Art Deco brick building commands an impressive, monumental presence. Awe-inspiring, vaulted ceilings. Clean lines. A front entrance with a towering arch atop a steep staircase. Abundant windows provide a shower of natural light.
The structure was designed by John and Alan McDonald, the renowned father-son architecture team that designed many of Omaha’s landmarks, including Joslyn Castle, Benson High School, and Joslyn Art Museum.
The Holland Basham firm was created in Tim Holland’s basement, where a single, pivotal project launched their business. They initially rented a downtown office. After seven years and a growing roster of clients, they needed more space. The current space is so large that they currently rent out space to some long-term clients, including the League of Women Voters.
Keith Basham says that in addition to more space, they were looking for something particular. “We didn’t want to be another generic architecture firm in a generic building.”
There were numerous obstacles to overcome in acquiring the space. When the firm first considered buying the historic structure, it was in shambles. Fortunately, restoring buildings is one of the team’s strengths. They had to overhaul the entire infrastructure. Because of zoning issues, turning the building into an office was a gargantuan effort. It required six months of work with the city of Omaha and the planning board.
There were also concerns about transforming a former synagogue into an office space. In addition to being respectful of the architecture, it was important to the firm that they respect the history and the religious relevance of the building. They reached out to the Jewish Federation and The Jewish Historic Society of Nebraska to accomplish this, even donating some the old lighting fixtures. They also gave the local synagogue damaged religious texts to be buried, the proper way to dispose of them according to Jewish law. This respect they showed earned support from religious leaders, who favored the building going to good use rather than being torn down, which was one of the proposals prior to the one presented by Holland and Basham. People all over the country still visit the building to pay homage and to remember important rites of passage that occurred there: weddings, bar mitzvahs, and bat mitzvahs.
Technology, sustainability, and thoughtful restoration are three concepts that drive the firm, Holland says. They played a key role in The Midtown Crossing project and restoring the Midtown area. Holland says such projects have a ripple effect, sparking reinvestment in the community.
They were among the first to get a 3-D printer and a drone to survey work sites. The choir room turned conference room boasts modern technology that allows for live work sessions across the globe.
Holland says that all those values are embodied in the building they now occupy.
“We wanted to create a space for ourselves that inspired,” he says. “We wanted a space that inspired clients.”