Omaha Art Deco heritage highlights modern-day city

Standing at the foot of the marble staircase leading to the entrance of the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, I’m tempted to charge up two at a time, Rocky Balboa style. I’m no Rocky, but it’s easy to see how a building with such majesty and grandeur can inspire heroic acts. Covered with pink marble from Georgia, the museum stands as a celebration to the grand era of Art Deco and monumental architectural expression.

Omaha came of age in the 1920s as the center of newspaper, meat packing and railroad empires. Today, the faded glory of those days has been re-imaged and is more glorious than ever, both for residents and visitors alike.

With a history of wealthy contributors and the current headquarters of four Fortune 500 companies, the city of 415,000 shines with the benefits of philanthropy, civic-minded foundations, and visionary city planning. The Joslyn Art Museum, Durham Museum and historic Old Market district prove the past can hold the key to the future.

The art museum was a gift from Sarah Joslyn to the citizens of Omaha in 1931 in memory of her late husband, George, the richest man in Nebraska. George made his wealth as founder of the Western Newspaper Union, which supplied copy to 12,000 newspapers across the nation. Both aspired to share their passion for music and art with others. After George died, Sarah commissioned a 1,000-seat concert hall surrounded by art galleries.

The team of architects infused the Art Deco design with Native American motifs and pioneer themes from the Great Plains. When completed, it was considered one of the finest 100 buildings in the nation.

At the top of the stairs, I swing open the massive door and step into a towering foyer with black marble columns and an enclosed courtyard with a tile fountain. Art galleries open to the sides with the concert hall at the end.

“The museum received a number of important collections of classic European and Western United States art,” Judy Schafer, our docent guide, told us. She explained important paintings from the Renaissance masters through French studio art of the 18th and 19th centuries to the development of 19th century impressionism.

“The museum has about 12,000 works in its permanent collection,” she said.

An addition built in 1994 doubled the size of the museum and houses the Western and Indian art collections, contemporary art and traveling exhibits. “The Great Illustrated West,” a special exhibit through 2012, displayed photographic prints that Andrew Russell took in 1868 during the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad from Omaha to Utah, where the Golden Spike connected the transcontinental railroad.

At the confluence of rivers and railroads, Omaha became the fourth largest railroad and commerce center in the nation. In its heyday, 13 sets of tracks separated the grand depots of Union Pacific and Burlington railways. In 1971, the last train departed Union Station and the Burlington depot closed in 1974. The Burlington terminal, built in 1898 in Italianate style, was gutted and remains boarded up.

Fortunately for Omaha, generous benefactors saved and renovated Union Station to its original splendor and opened it to the public as the Dunham Museum. Rows of ceiling-high cathedral windows with glazed pink glass and massive one-ton, brass chandeliers illuminate the cavernous, 160- foot-long Great Hall. Art Deco designs decorate the 60-foot-tall ceiling and walls and a checkered terrazzo floor with sunburst patterns complements the dark oak woodwork.

“This is one of the finest examples of Art Deco in the Midwest,” Swawna Forsberg, the museum marketing director tells us. “In 1995, Chuck and Margre Durham raised $25 million for renovation. All the furnishings are original. You’re stepping into what the station looked like when it opened in 1931. Just imagine 64 steam engines pulling in and 10,000 people rushing through here every day.”

The awe-inspiring building is only half the attraction of the museum, called the Western Heritage Museum before the renovation. It now qualifies as an affiliate of the Smithsonian Museum, which provides world-class exhibits.

Downstairs at track level, a row of passenger cars stands ready for boarding, or exploring, and a stage coach, steam engine, and Ford Model A illustrate changes in transportation. The museum galleries trace the development of the Great Plains and changing lifestyles from Lewis and Clark through the Railroad era. One exhibit displays a typical household in the 1950s complete with a Formica kitchen table and black and white TV.

“The Swanson TV dinner was invented in Omaha in 1953,” Forsberg tells us.

The Durham Museum sits at the edge of Omaha’s historic Old Market. Once the heart of downtown and center of commerce and manufacturing, the district of red-brick warehouses fell into disrepair. But instead of blight, city planners saw opportunity. Now the four-by-five block area thrives as a vibrant entertainment district. The 100-year-old buildings house restaurants and brewpubs, art studios and galleries, antique and boutique shops, clubs and coffee houses.

“After downtown Omaha burned down twice, the city mandated that buildings had to be brick,” Brian Magee, owner of Upstream Brewing Company told us.

“Our building was built in 1904 as a fire station. The size is perfect for a microbrewery.” The popular two-story eatery blends burgers with an upscale menu, flat screen TVs, pool tables, and of course a thirst-quenching selection of beers.

After exploring the Old Market shops and galleries, I discover an unexpected treasure, Ted and Wally’s homemade ice cream.

Two churns, powered by electricity and cooled the old-fashioned way with ice and rock salt crank the daily choices from a repertoire of 450 flavors. Each day features 10 new flavors, such as Salty Seahorse, Cosmic Coffee Crunch and Sweet Potato Pie, so you never know what delights await.

After sampling several offbeat flavors, I choose a scoop of “Quit Yer Job and Eat Chocolate.”

Luckily, Omaha’s planners, philanthropists and businesses don’t take Ted and Wally’s advice literally. Omaha has turned its rich heritage into a vibrant present and promising future.

George Oxford Miller is a free-lance travel writer and photographer and long-time contributor to Houston Woman Magazine.

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