Self Guided Old Market Building History Walking Tour
2.0 mile walk
13 local attractions
Snack stops included
Before you get started
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Here's the story
At the end of the 19th century, Omaha was in its prime as a great railroad center, connecting the settled East with the wide-open West. The Old Market area was the epicenter of the activity, bustling with produce dealers, buyers, and transporters.
The area’s heyday continued until the 1950s, when Omaha’s westward expansion and radical changes in grocery marketing abruptly brought the activity to a halt. That’s when Sam Mercer, threatened with building condemnation notices, proposed to rescue his family’s red-brick warehouses by renovating them for new uses. Most people thought him imprudent. Today, they call him a visionary.
The son of prominent Omaha physician and landowner Nelson Mercer, Samuel Mercer was born and raised 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.
With the death of his father in 1963, Mercer took charge of Mercer Management in Omaha. He appreciated the century-old brick warehouses, some Mercer-owned, comprising the wholesale produce market just southeast of downtown.
By 1968, Mercer moved strategically to gain control of a collection of buildings in what is now the Old Market. “We knew these warehouses had possibilities,” Mercer said, “and to tear them down to construct contemporary buildings would have been like painting over the Mona Lisa.” It was Mercer’s idea to make the ground-floor space of the former Gilinsky Fruit Company into a French restaurant. It became the Old Market’s signature spot, the French Café (Now Le Boullion), with apartments above it.
More anchored attractions followed—Homer’s, M’s Pub, Mr. Toad's, the Spaghetti Works, Nouvelle Eve, the Firehouse Dinner Theater, the Bemis. With his son Mark, daughter-in-law Vera, and nephew Nicholas Bonham-Carter, the Mercers evolved this never-planned but organically developed area. Distinct features to this day include The Passageway, V Mertz, La Buvette, and The Boiler Room.
Now, it's time to get started
You can choose to start at the Durham Museum, near the Old Market, or start at the Beer Depot.
801 S 10th Street
Then: Union Station, 1931-1971
Now: The Durham Museum
Visit: step into the lobby to view the former train station
Forty thousand people came on January 15, 1931, for the dedication of Omaha’s Union Station, which had been designed in the Art Deco style to express “the distinctive character of the railroad—strength, power, masculinity.” Designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood, a chief consulting architect for Union Pacific Railroad and later the National Park Service, the Omaha station was considered among his largest and most visible railroad projects. The station reached its peak of service during World War II, when as many as 64 passenger trains carrying 10,000 soldiers and civilians passed through the station each day. Passenger service declined through the 1950s and 1960s, and Union Station closed its doors in the spring of 1971. Union Pacific briefly considered demolishing Union Station before donating the building to the City of Omaha in 1973. That same year, the Western Heritage Society was formed to preserve the building and to establish a museum for the community. Today, Union Station is home to The Durham Museum, featuring first-class exhibits that preserve our region’s history and traveling exhibits that cover subjects ranging from history and culture to science and industry.
Snack Stop: If you pay admission; there is a classic soda fountain inside
1213 Jones Street
Then: Anheuser-Busch Beer Depot, 1887 Company, 1887-1902
Now: Law Offices
Omaha was a rich brew of immigrants, and many brought with them a well-developed taste for hops, which gave rise to a half-dozen local breweries in the late 19th century. In 1887, Anheuser-Busch of St. Louis built a distribution complex in Omaha, designed by Henry Voss in the Romanesque style. The existing office building is all that remains of four buildings, which also included a stable, the bottling department, and a combination beer vault and icehouse. The complex had a refrigeration capacity equivalent to 10 railcars of beer. The company employed 16 men and six teams of horses for deliveries. Prohibition capped the beer business in 1916, but later the complex housed the Industrial Chemical Supply Co. and a furniture-stripping firm. In the 1960s and 1970s, the office building was a private residence for several different individuals. In 1989, Alley Poyner Architecture renovated the interior as office space for its own business. In 1988, a finial over the west side of the doorway was toppled by wind and then stolen—it has never been recovered.
Snack Stop: Uptream Brewery serves craft beer and full menu created on site
614 S 11th Street
Then: Omaha Bemis Bag Company, 1887-1902
Now: Vintage Ballroom
A growing export trade in flour and accessible railways attracted the J.M. Bemis and Company, bag manufacturers, to Omaha in 1887. The business had its start a quarter-century earlier in St. Louis when bags became a thrifty alternate choice over boxes and wooden barrels. By 1900, Bemis Bag’s six factories made it the largest bag manufacturer in the world. Local architects Louis Mendelssohn and Harry Lawrie chose the Commercial style developed in Chicago in the 1880s for the Omaha plant. Construction by Harte and Lindsay was accomplished in three phases from 1887 to 1902. The original five stories fronted only 66 feet on 11th Street. A three-story building was added to the west in 1897, and the factory complex was completed with the addition of six stories to the south in 1902. In 1977, Bemis Bag moved and gave the site to the City. In 1983, it was sold to the Mercer family and converted to living spaces for the Bemis Project, a not-for-profit artists’ colony. A 1999 fire severely damaged the original building.
514 S 11th Street
Then: Omaha Firehouse, 1903-1904
Now: Upstream Brewing Company
In 1903, George Fisher and Harry Lawrie designed Fire Substation No. 1 in the then-popular Chateauesque style. The gabled third floor gave the building the look of a French chateau. On April 9, 1917, firefighters were sunning themselves out front when a bystander rushed to tell them that their building was on fire. The two alarm fire destroyed the third floor, which housed the hayloft for the horse-drawn engines. The top of the building was removed, and it was remodeled with a new maintenance facility called a “fire shop.” It continued to operate as a firehouse until lack of manpower during World War II forced it to close. In 1972, the building was reopened with applause as the Firehouse Dinner Theater, and live shows were staged there until 1991. In 1996, architect David Erickson converted the firehouse into a restaurant and microbrewery, the Upstream Brewing Co., with the original 1903 cornerstone as an interior showpiece. The patio on the east side of the building became home to a stone trough that once treated thirsty horses and dogs at Capitol Avenue and 17th Street.
1209 Jackson Street
Then: Fairmont Creamery Ice Cream
Now: Hollywood Candy
The original Fairmont Creamery at 12th & Jones in downtown Omaha dates back to 1898. It was the hub of a Fortune 500 operation churning out tons of butter, eggs, other dairy products and snack foods. The adjacent building at 12th & Jackson was the cold storage and production facility for ice cream and other products. That corner on Jackson Street was the site of the first home in Omaha which later became the first hotel. You can find the plaque on the corner of the current business.
1323 Jackson Street
Then: Skinner Macaroni Building, 1914-1915
Now: Skinner Macaroni Lofts
Increasing business led the Skinner Manufacturing Company to build this six-story brick building in 1914. Designed by architect Harry Lawrie, it was doubled in size with the addition of 66 feet to the east a year later. The new building was Skinner’s third plant. Brothers Paul F. and Lloyd M. Skinner, who used national advertising as early as 1912, founded it in 1911. Skinner was a leading manufacturer of macaroni and cereal products. Omaha was close to the durum wheat supply, the only wheat that can be used for a top-quality product. Skinner conserved wheat during World War I by originating Kornroni, an economical macaroni product made from corn and wheat. In 1925, it developed Raisin Bran to supplement revenues, and in 1927, it introduced Cheeseroni, one of the first macaroni and cheese products. Skinner moved to a new Omaha plant in 1961, and Commercial Optical Company occupied the building soon after. In 1996, Emil Vohoska completed 74 new living spaces here, transforming the building into the Macaroni Apartments.
1311 Howard Street
Then & Now: J. P. Cooke Buildings, 1885-1889
Omaha’s first municipal swimming pool, “The New Natatorium,” originated in the basement of the westernmost of these three buildings, and vestiges of it can still be seen there. The ornamental work at the building’s top announces that E. Homan Thayer constructed it in 1889. The cast-iron façade is considered a classic, and the immense windows suggest the then-contemporary development of the curtain wall and skyscraper in Chicago. Skinner Manufacturing’s first plant was located here briefly in 1911-12, and later it was home to Peterson Litho & Printing Co. In the early 1960s, J. P. Cooke & Co., makers of a variety of rubber and metal stamps, moved here. It succeeded the Cooke Time Stamp Company, founded in Omaha in 1887. The construction of the properties abutting to the east began about 1885. The notable occupant of these buildings was Tribune Publishing, which printed the Daily Tribune, at one time the only German-language daily in the West. It was one of the few German papers that survived the harsh feelings occasioned by Germany’s participation in World War I.
1212 Howard Street
Then: The Overland Hotel
Now: Overland Hotel Apartments
The Overland Hotel originally was a two-story building with the main floor in 1889 occupied by P.J. Karbach & Sons, builder of carriages, donkey carts, and wagons for vendors of Jobbers Canyon and early businesses. Workers from these businesses, and from the Union Pacific Railroad, occupied the upper level hotel rooms. Over the years, the building housed numerous owners and uses. In 1903, a third level was added for more hotel rooms. Around 1934, the Barrel House Saloon occupied the main floor corner. Affordable Piano & Organ Company and the Nebraska Department of Labor came in the 1940s. The two top floors remained a hotel until present. Randy Ashley, the current owner of this historically significant hotel and building, has renovated the main floor.
1123 Howard Street
Then: Morse Coe Building, 1892-1893
Now: First National Bank and Mayfield Apartments
Architects Findley and Shields designed this five-story brick building, built in 1892-93 for $40,000. Footwear wholesalers W.V. Morse & Co. and Charles A. Coe and Company combined to manufacture a thousand shoes daily here, with sales focused on the western half of the country. By 1900, Morse had taken over the business and used the first three floors for its wholesale boot business and rented the upper floors to the Byrne and Hammer Dry Goods Company for the manufacture of textiles. Throughout the years, the upper levels served as warehouse space for several wholesale commodities, including coffee, groceries, and draperies. Manufacturers and wholesalers occupied the lower levels, among them Brady-Lewis Manufacturing Co., the maker of Oma-alls. They were also producers of furniture, window shades, and veterinary supplies. In the 1950s, Mayfair Textiles, a wholesale distributor of fabrics, became associated with the building, later expanding to showcase a retail business on the lower levels. When that business moved west in 1999, the building was redesigned for luxury apartments, preserving the historic integrity of the structure, including the original fire escape.
Old Market Passageway
Howard Street near 11th Street
This was originally an alley where sellers would store produce in the lower level for cooler temperatures. It was covered in the 1970s by the Mercer family. They created a beautiful unique space for restaurants, shops and art galleries.
Photo break: this is the most photographed locations in the city
1002 Howard Street
Then: Hotel Howard, 1909 Building, 1892-1893
Now: Mr. Toad's Pub
The Hotel Howard was constructed in the Classical Revival style in 1909, shortly after the death of Dr. Samuel D. Mercer, owner of many buildings in the area, and the patriarch of the family that later was instrumental in establishing the Old Market Historic District in Omaha. From its beginnings, the Howard benefited from the flourishing produce trade and the proximity to trains and wholesale businesses. Early in the morning, produce was piled on the sidewalks in the area, and peddlers would come to load their wagons with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. During Prohibition, people bought hops to make their own home brew. The Howard served as a hotel until 1969, when the area was just beginning to show signs of revival as a tourist attraction. In 1970, the ground floor became one of the Old Market’s earliest entertainment venues when Mr. Toad's, an indoor-outdoor pub was opened. The name “Mr. Toad” came from a character in the English book, The Wind in the Willows. Later the Mercer family restored the upper floors for living spaces.
Snack Stop: Dolci on the opposite corner has some sweet treats
524 S 10th Street
Then: Windsor Hotel, 1885-1887
Now: Windsor Square Apartments
The Windsor Hotel, designed in the Italianate style, was constructed in two phases—the east wing was completed in 1885, and an addition to the west was finished by 1887. It was designed to be a workingman’s hotel, and with its proximity to both the Union and Burlington train stations, it became known as a railroader’s hotel. Railroad passengers stopped at its restaurant and bar during layovers. The Windsor overlooked the stalls of the noisy open-air Public Market to its west from 1903 until the Market folded in 1964. Renamed the Windsor Inn, it was the last hotel in operation in the Old Market when it closed on June 30, 1979. In 1985, Emil Vohoska and Pete Drake completed their renovation of the building as the Windsor Square Apartments. Nearly a decade later, Vohoska memorialized his grandson, Sam Zmolek, by adding the “Lion Fountain” to the south side of the building. Four-year-old Sam had died of leukemia in 1994. In that year, the Windsor became next door neighbors to the revived “Farmers Market” during summer weekends.
1101 Harney Street
Then: Millard Block, 1880-1881
Woodmen of the World is a fraternal organization based in Omaha, Nebraska, United States, that operates a large privately held insurance company for its members. The organization was founded in 1890 in Omaha, Nebraska, by Joseph Cullen Root. The organization owned a 19-story tower at 14th and Farnam streets and was the tallest building between Chicago and the West coast when it was dedicated in 1912. Today, Woodmen of the World provides financial solutions to approximately 800,000 members in the US. These include life insurance and annuities, cancer insurance, and access to mutual funds, 529 College Savings Plans and other financial services. Members are also eligible to receive a wide array of fraternal benefits. Another aspect of the organization's patriotic mission is the annual In Honor and Remembrance program, which pays tribute to the heroes
Snack Stop: Have a seat at the Jams bar for a drink and a small plate
1221 Harney Street
Then: Baum Iron Company Building, 1880
Now: Baum Hydraulics Co.
This building has carried the Baum Iron name since the early 1900s. At one time, that firm was the largest wholesaler of iron products in the Midwest, dealing in iron, steel, and heavy hardware, and doing business in Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Iowa, and Kansas. The cast-iron storefront for the structure in the Italianate style was made in St. Louis and assembled on-site in Omaha in 1880. Originally three stories, the fourth floor was added in 1891. The original owners were Steele, Johnson and Co., wholesale grocers. After the addition of the fourth floor, the wholesale hardware and cutlery firm of Lee-Clarke-Andreesen used the building. After purchasing, Baum Iron Company occupied the property in 1905. David Allen, manager of Baum Iron, was a familiar sight in 1980s Downtown Omaha as he walked to work from his home at 37th and Dewey Street.
Snack Stop: Craft at 1213 Harney serves sliders and beers
1004 Farnam Street
Then: Burlington Headquarters
Now: Burlington Office Building
Visit: step into the lobby atrium if the building is open
The Burlington Headquarters Building, also called Burlington Place, is a four-story brick building was originally designed by Alfred R. Dufrene and built in 1879 next to Jobbers Canyon. The building was constructed for the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad at a cost of $40,000. The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad took ownership when it took over that company. The first floor was leased by a wholesale grocer and a wholesale notion dealer, with upper floors used as headquarters for the railroad.
It was redesigned by noted Omaha architect Thomas R. Kimball in 1899, and vacated by the railroad in 1966. He added the skylite atrium and elevator.
The building was constructed for the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad at a cost of $40,000. The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad took ownership when it took over that company. The first floor was leased by a wholesale grocer and a wholesale notion dealer, with upper floors used as headquarters for the railroad.
The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, designated an Omaha Landmark in 1978, and rehabilitated in 1983. Today it is office space.
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You're all done. You now know more than most.
Enjoy the rest of your time in the historic Old Market
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