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Omaha Magazine

The Old Market: 50 years Wasn’t The Beginning

Feb 25, 2021 09:13AM ● By Tamsen Butler
old market black and white 1900's photo

Design by Matt Wieczorek Photo from Durham Museum

The Old Market marked 50 years as an entertainment district in 2020. 

Long before it became a popular place to eat, shop, and live, the area was a hub where produce was sold. Warehouses were replaced by the current trendy shops and restaurants; before that (1850s-1870s), the area was mostly residential.

The Old Market’s first big challenge arose in the late 1800s when city officials in Omaha decided they wanted to build a Market House, a large building where vendors could sell produce directly to consumers at Capitol Avenue from North 12th to North 14th avenues. These market houses were common in larger cities at this time—and as Omaha’s population grew (Nebraska’s population doubled from 1880-1890) many people wanted to mimic larger cities—but opponents said the existence of the Market House would threaten the Old Market’s status as a hub for produce distribution. 

Old Market vendors, led by landowner Dr. Samuel D. Mercer,  banded together to oppose this Market House, which was built in 1903. Mercer owned many buildings in the downtown area, including a building that was then used as a marketplace. Many vendors refused to sell at the Market House and it wasn’t the public hit officials had anticipated, closing within a year. In 1907, the building was repurposed for use by the Nebraska National Guard and by 1909 was used by the zoo as a place to house some animals in the winter months. The structure was demolished in 1910. 

Throughout this time, Omaha continued to build, and the district where the markets sat continued to be a mainstay of the city. Dr. Nelson Mercer, Samuel’s son, continued developing the area in the 1870s. The area saw vibrancy until the 1950s, when changes to the grocery industry brought the market to a halt. The area began to decline, but in the 1960s, the Mercer family—which owned many buildings in the Old Market—set out to transform it into an entertainment district. The first retail shop opened in 1967. By 1968, Roger DuRand owned a head shop at 1106 Jackson St. The French Cafe (now Le Bouillon) opened in 1969. Many people were critical of the transformation and thought it was strange.

One move that was particularly regarded as strange was the making of the photographic, much-loved Passageway. In 1973, Nelson Mercer’s nephew, Nicholas Bonham-Carter, had an idea as he looked at the building the family owned on the northeast corner of 11th and Howard. To the east of that building was another Mercer-owned property with an alley running between them.

Bonham-Carter excavated the alley below grade and opened both buildings’ basements, paving the floors with brick salvaged from the old road to Fort Calhoun. The resulting passageway was roofed over and shops built on balconies on both sides from the basement level to the top floors. 

In January 1979, paperwork was filed to nominate the Old Market for a designation as a historical district with the National Park Service. A handwritten addition to the typed application listed the Old Market to be, “bounded by 13th, Farnam, 10th and Jackson St.” The application further states the boundaries were ”chosen to maintain uniformity. Demolition in blocks to the north, west, and south has destroyed the integrity of those areas.”

The application also noted that east of the Old Market “there is a potential historic district of 20th century jobbing houses” which was to be “nominated at a future date.” That district, known as Jobbers Canyon, was packed with warehouses and was described as “canyon-like created by the massive brick jobbing houses” in the nomination form to the National Park Service. The area joined the ranks of designated historic districts in 1986 but had a large portion of the buildings torn down in 1989 for the construction of Conagra’s campus, a move that garnered national attention as Jobbers Canyon became the first whole district to be demolished since the national preservation act was passed in 1966,

Though Jobbers Canyon’s designation as a historic district didn’t save it from demolition, the Old Market boasts some buildings that have withstood the test of time. 

Omaha Fire Station No. 1

Originally constructed in 1904 for the cost of $30,000, the building in which Upstream Brewing Co. now resides was once Omaha Fire Station No. 1. The ground floor consisted of stables and stalls for the horses of the fire squad. The second floor housed the sleeping quarters and recreational space for the firefighters. 

Despite a fire that damaged the roof in 1917, the building remained the city’s firehouse until the 1940s. It changed hands a few times, acting as a warehouse and garage until 1972 when the top two floors were put to use as a community theater aptly named the Firehouse Dinner Theater. Fire then damaged the stage in 1975 due to an arsonist, but the building survived. The theater closed in 1991, and four years later the building was purchased by Brian Magee, who opened the Upstream Brewing Co.

Windsor Square Apartments

The Windsor Hotel once held the distinction of being the oldest operating hotel in the Old Market. Built in 1885, the retail spaces of the hotel once hosted “saloons, barber shops, pawnbrokers, and cafes,” according to the nomination form designating the Old Market as a historical district. The hotel closed in 1979, which was the same year the request for historical district designation was made. Despite several renovations throughout its years in operation that compromised the original architectural features that made it historically significant, the building is still considered an important part of the Old Market’s past.

The building reopened as apartments in 1985. The south side of the building features a lion fountain that was installed around 1994 as a memorial to the building owner’s grandson, who passed away at a young age.

The Old Mercer Block

Built in 1890, the Mercer Hotel building only served as a hotel for approximately 10 years. In 1900, the building was renovated into warehouse space. The exterior details remained mostly intact despite the radical change in use, from hotel to candy warehouse to a printing company to a furniture warehouse. The French Café opened on the block in 1969 and is largely credited as the catalyst that revitalized the building. M’s Pub followed in 1973.

In early 2016, an explosion and fire ripped through the building, caused by a gas leak. M’s Pub reopened late 2017.

The Old Market—and the businesses located there—have a history of overcoming obstacles while evolving and thriving. It’s an entertainment district with the dichotomy of being rich in history while maintaining its status as one of the trendiest neighborhoods in the state. 

Visit oldmarket.com for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2021 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click to subscribe.