Once Dilapidated, a 100-Year-Old Building Is Now a Thriving Arts Center in Omaha
Nearly a century ago, in North Omaha, Nebraska, North 24th Street was a lively thoroughfare with a jangling streetcar and an array of shops, restaurants, churches, and clubs that attracted jazz musicians from all over the country. Today, many storefronts are boarded up or eerily quiet. Cars speed through, but few stop. One building stands out: The Union for Contemporary Art, housed in a tidy redbrick storefront with an oversize set of modern black doors.
On a hot Thursday afternoon in September, I step inside The Union’s cool tranquility. A woman with pixie bangs and a broad smile greets me from behind a desk. Afternoon sunlight streams through the windows and splashes over the concrete floors. After years of vacancy and an ambitious restoration and renovation project, this 100-year-old building is once again thrumming with life.
I take a look around. A young mother and her child float about an elegant gallery exhibiting large-scale works by Colombian artist Nancy Friedemann-Sánchez. Members of The Union’s artist co-op tinker on projects in the shiny new print shop, darkroom, and pottery studio. Edem Kegey Garro, a musician in a yearlong fellowship program, adjusts recordings of her soul music in a mod upstairs lounge with plywood walls, a chair swing, and sleek Mac computers. Nearby, a flurry of schoolchildren breezes down a hallway like an abrupt change in the weather, sowing chatter and laughter through the building.
I am here to attend a ceramics workshop. Inside the pottery studio, a half-dozen students gather to learn about hand-building techniques. The class is $10 for members of the public or free for co-op members, who get access to The Union for Contemporary Art’s facilities for $120 a year. In the airy studio, local ceramic artist Tracy Shell shares what she learned while studying with an eighth-generation potter in a small Japanese mountain town. Her fingers move over the clay with confidence.
“Do you see that subtle difference?” she asks, pointing to a wet pot pocked with the pattern of her fingertips. “Now it’s got some bumpity-bumpity character.”
The students try for themselves, tearing off chunks of clay. “This is my stress reliever: art,” says one woman dressed in pressed slacks and a button-down. I ask a local man who is new to The Union if he will consider becoming a co-op member. He responds with enthusiasm. “It’s almost like, how could you not?”
A mere three years ago, this compound, comprising three structures—the Blue Lion Building, the Pratt Truss Building, and an old garage, now collectively known as the Blue Lion Center—was desolate and forgotten. It sat vacant for six years, collecting water, dust, and mold. But Brigitte McQueen Shew, the founder and executive director of The Union, saw great potential.
Shew, an entrepreneur, curator, and former Teen People magazine employee, founded The Union for Contemporary Art in 2011 in response to what she viewed as two great needs. Omaha is an affordable place for artists to live and work, but there are few facilities or gallery spaces for locals to exhibit their work. She also saw a need for positive development and empowerment in North Omaha, a historically marginalized African-American community that had been segregated largely because of racially biased housing policies in the middle of the 20th century.
“I put it together in my head,” she says. “What if there were an arts organization that was located in North Omaha, which at the time was—and still is—kind of a crazy idea, and we use the arts as a vehicle for social justice?” With no nonprofit experience but plenty of support from local artists, she put the wheels in motion to start The Union seven years ago.
Originally The Union occupied a 3,000-square-foot former food bank a few blocks down North 24th Street that had all the charm of a concrete bunker. The organization quickly outgrew the space. It was so crowded that children in the youth arts programs played just a few feet from staff desks.
“We were bursting at the seams,” says board chair Drew Weitz. “We were actually pulling out closets to make more program space.” On her way to work each day, Shew happened to pass by the empty Blue Lion Center. Occasionally she pressed her face up against the windows, imagining the possibilities of moving in. One day, she Googled the address and discovered that the whole structure was for sale for nearly $700,000, a stratospheric sum for a relatively new nonprofit. She visited the dilapidated building anyway, with a real estate agent and members of the board of directors.
Water had leaked in and stood festering in puddles. Mold dotted various surfaces, and dirt and debris lined the floors. But Shew loved it. “My board was terrified,” she says. “They were honestly just staring at me like I was insane.” After running around for several months trying to figure out some way to purchase or lease the building, a serendipitous connection to the Sherwood Foundation, which funds initiatives promoting social justice in Nebraska, provided a flicker of hope. The foundation bought the Blue Lion Center in 2014; invested about $5 million in revamping the electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems; and signed a long-term lease with The Union. Meanwhile, Shew oversaw a successful $5 million campaign (set to wrap up later this year) to renovate, furnish, and supply the 16,000-square-foot space and secure three years of operating expenses.
Part of the reason Shew fixated on this building was its significance in the community. Over the years, it housed an auto repair shop; an agricultural supplier; a candy shop; a jazz club; and the offices of two African-American community leaders, dentist Craig Morris and doctor J.H. Hutten. Most recently, it was a workforce development office for a nonprofit agency. A renovation in the early 1980s merged the three buildings into one. Carpet and drop ceilings were installed, and the old brick walls were covered up in an attempt to make the space seem less industrial. As a result, it felt cramped, dark, and dated.
Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture (APMA), the Omaha firm that oversaw the renovation, had worked in the neighborhood before. One of the firm’s designers, Chris Jansen, set about securing a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, but wound up gaining steam and securing one for the entire North 24th and Lake Streets Historic District. Meanwhile, APMA’s Kylie Von Seggern and Nancy Novak masterminded a renovation that would honor the building’s historic character while creating the facilities Shew had daydreamed about.
One afternoon on my visit to Omaha, Shew and the designers offer me a tour. (Shew carries her remarkably serene 7-month-old daughter with her; according to staff policy, children are welcome in the offices as long as everyone can work productively.) They explain how they took out drop ceilings, musty carpet, and many of the interior walls to open it up and show off the original vaulted spaces. They also removed bricks from window openings that had been filled in, and installed huge sheets of curtain glass on the Pratt Truss and garage buildings. The existing concrete floors were cleaned and polished. New wood floors were installed in the staff offices and in the Wanda D. Ewing Gallery, a museum-caliber exhibition space named for a local artist, one of Shew’s closest friends, who died in 2013. To house the kiln and pottery cleanup space, they created round rooms out of inexpensive roofing materials. And the garage was turned into a performance space for the Performing Arts Collective, which stages productions that explore the diversity of the African-American experience.
Upstairs, studios for the five annual fellows are lined with plywood walls for tacking up artwork. (At the time of my visit, the fellows include a textile artist, a fashion designer, an installation- and print-maker, and a duo of collaborative multimedia artists, in addition to musician Edem Kegey Garro.) Each window opening is a slightly different size, forcing the construction crew to get creative when installing the glass. A simple residential studio on the same floor hosts visiting artists.
Three rooms in the basement, brightened with light wells, house children’s programs. On Saturday mornings and afternoons on Tuesday through Friday, kids learn drawing, painting, sculpture, cooking, and other skills. (Students from four local ZIP codes participate in the program for free.) In a gleaming kitchen, staff members prepare meals for the kids using produce from The Union’s garden, which also offers free veggies to food banks, seniors, and others in the community.
Naturally, the building’s transformation into a living organism of art and activity was not without some headaches. “We wanted to keep everything in its raw state, but when we got in here, there was some breath-holding for a while,” says Nancy Novak as she shows me the fiber-arts studio in the southeast corner of the building. Four sewing machines sit primly on a butcher-block worktable. The room feels bright and inviting, and I find myself wishing—for perhaps the first time in my life—that I knew how to use a sewing machine. But before the renovation, water had leaked into this room for years, causing catastrophic damage.
“You could touch the wall and your finger would go through the brick,” says Shew. “It would just crumble.”
“There was a lot of water in here,” says Novak. “I think we were all worried.” She looks to the others, who burst into laughter. “Yeah, we were worried!” Masons saved the corner by shoring up the roof and taking the wall down brick by brick until they found solid material on which to rebuild.
The team also salvaged other historic details. For example, in the reception area, an exposed-brick wall still exhibits the remnants of a nearly 100-year-old mural. In the northwest corner of the building, which fronts the intersection of Lake and North 24th, workers restored a diagonal entrance by removing the brick that covered it up and re-creating an original black-and-white tile mosaic on the floor.
While the organization and its renovation have been largely well received, some resistance arose in the community during the planning stages. Some locals believed the space should be used for a business and technology center, which they thought would be more likely to bring in jobs. Others were concerned that The Union would wreck a beloved building and invite gentrification that would push out longtime residents.
“You don’t have to tear down old structures like these in order to progress as a community,” says Shew. “I hope that The Union can serve as a reminder to folks that there’s still goodness here. We should be thinking about what can be done with what we have.” Shew believes that the deep history of The Union’s new home provides a sense of context for the organization and “breathes life into everything that we do.” Once locals get into the building and feel welcome, they often begin to understand the value of The Union.
“We’ve had naysayers, but they never came and saw what we do,” says Dawaune Lamont Hayes, who grew up in North Omaha and now serves as The Union’s communications manager. “Anyone who walks through our door instantly falls in love.”
The Union’s staff is also making a concerted effort to reach out to the community. They regularly offer the space to other neighborhood organizations with similar missions to use for meetings and benefits. Hayes even calls members of the community to invite them to The Union.
A tool library with implements for carpentry and home improvement is open to everyone. Performances are free on a first-come-first-served basis, and those who wish to join the co-op can pay on a sliding scale, if needed. The team is also working on making the contemporary entryway less intimidating by creating a sandwich board and sidewalk art.
Other developments are starting to pop up as a result of a revitalization plan spurred by a host of local nonprofits and foundations and adopted by the city in 2011. (The Union was not part of the plan; it was developed independently.) A few blocks south, the Fair Deal Cafe, a 1950s-era soul-food diner, has been brought back to life in a new location, and a complex of shipping containers housing micro-boutiques, designed by APMA, opened in 2016. Now, people who never ventured into the neighborhood are coming to dine, see plays, participate in workshops, and view the exhibitions.
“There used to be no cars parked on 24th Street in this neighborhood during the day,” says Kristine Gerber, the founding executive director of Restoration Exchange, a local organization devoted to historic preservation. “With the opening of The Union and new shops and restaurants, it’s made people start looking in this area more.”
Admittedly, when I first heard about The Union, I wondered how the arts, a historic building, and social-justice causes could all cohere neatly in one organization. But on my last night there, I began to understand when I attended the opening of the play Bourbon at the Border. The plot follows May and Charlie, characters who experienced extreme racial violence as activists traveling to Mississippi during the 1964 Freedom Summer voter registration drives. The play explores the post-traumatic stress that infects every fiber of their lives, and the actors inhabited their roles in ways that left me feeling both pensive and raw.
The play stuck with me and sparked many conversations in my own Colorado town, some 900 miles away. Even weeks later I was still reflecting on it, calling to mind Brigitte McQueen Shew’s answer when I asked her about the connection between the arts and social justice.
“So much of social justice, when you really dig down into it, is conversation,” she said. “It’s getting people to see things in a different way, to have people feel empathy. Every production that happens in our theater [is] an opportunity to dig into an issue. It opens the door to have those conversations, to get people to think about it, and make people realize that they can have an impact and be a part of the solution.”