The following was written by Ben Bonebrake as part of his work on historical preservation in Omaha.
If an architectural firm was working to destroy multiple century-old buildings with a substantial architectural significance it would challenge our basic instincts about being an architect. I had a similar reaction when I heard Omaha Performing Arts Center, a private organization dedicated to promoting the arts, would be working to work with HDR, an Omaha Architectural firm, to remove three historic buildings from downtown Omaha in 2015. In the end, only a failure to coordinate between these firms and the city saved the buildings, Omaha needs a more transparent approach to historic preservation.
In late 2015, HDR had out-grown its headquarters as the company grew to almost 10,000 employees worldwide from just over 1,500 20 years prior. This growth, combined with the end of their current lease in 2018, led to HDR to look for a place to locate their new world headquarters. HDR was clear from the beginning that they never considered leaving Omaha. ConAgra had just moved from downtown Omaha to Chicago, and HDR offered 1,000 Omaha area employees, a $200 million investment, and a good sized (16-20 stories) office tower to the downtown area. The property targeted by HDR was being used as a surface parking lot by Omaha Performing Arts (OPA) for the Holland Performing Arts Center. OPA valued the parking for their patrons. The Holland was willing to sell the land in exchange for land located to the East, but needed the city’s help, as there were three century-old buildings that would need to be bought out and demolished. The buildings were The Christian Specht Building, the Happy Hollow Coffee Building, and the Alvine Engineering Building.
The Christian Specht building is the only one of the three to be registered on the National Register of Historic Places as well as listed as a local landmark as of 1977. Built in 1884, it is an Italian Renaissance Revival style building and has a cast-iron façade. It is one of only a few buildings in all of Nebraska to be built with this feature and the only one that still remains. The Alvine Building was originally two separate buildings known as the Marshall Paper Co. Building and the T.H. Smith Co. Building. They have since been combined into a single building with one address. Built from 1891-1892, both of these buildings were designed in the Renaissance Revival style. The Marshall Paper Co. Building was originally four stories tall but lost two of them in a fire in the 1940s. The Happy Hollow Coffee Building was built approximately in 1900. Like the other buildings, the Happy Hollow Coffee building was also built in the Renaissance Revival style and was recognizable for its historic painted advertisements and iron-gated patio. All of the buildings were in great shape and occupied, serving the Omaha area by providing jobs and residential units.
The Omaha city council announced that they had successfully mediated a deal with OPA, HDR, and the owners of the three, century-old buildings. The city would purchase the three buildings for a total of nearly $11 million, which they would then give to OPA in exchange for OPA selling their parking lot to HDR for development. Local speculation was that the buildings would be demolished for an expansion or additional parking. However, for reasons that were never fully disclosed, the agreement fell through. OPA did want more than the previously agreed upon $3 million for the parking lot. Additional factors mentioned by HDR were the increasing costs arising from trying to build on OPA’s property as well as the timeline for their current lease. After much time, effort, fuss, and fervor over the prospect of a new major employer downtown, HDR scrapped their plans for a downtown headquarters, eventually settling on a site in Aksarben. The Omaha City Council ended up killing the initial agreement to buy the three, century-old buildings.
While, in the end, the three century-old buildings were saved from demolition, it was not because of the efforts of HDR, OPA, or Omaha. Rather than reasoned debate about the significance of these buildings and their legacy, only timing and bad negotiation saved the buildings. For this reason, it is important for citizens to not rely on organizations with varying interests to protect such structures, and must work to protect such structures on a personal basis.