May 20, 2016

ReSpecht Omaha History: Saving the Specht Building

  • By: Katherine Flynn
Protesters rally in support of Omaha's Specht Building on November 22, 2015

photo by: John Ficenec

Graphic designer and Omaha native Quentin Lueninghoener designed a branding campaign around the 1884 Christian Specht Building.

Note: This Place Matters is a campaign that the National Trust started in 2009, before Black Lives Matter had come into being as a movement. Out of respect for Black Lives Matter and the important message behind it, we retired the campaign in June 2020. We encourage National Trust supporters to instead celebrate places that are important to them using the hashtags #SavingPlaces or #TellTheFullStory.

There are rumors that the 1884 Specht Building in Omaha, Nebraska, is haunted by the ghost of metal magnate Christian Specht.

While some paranormal enthusiasts might argue that it was his ghostly presence that persuaded Omaha Performing Arts to drop a $10 million land acquisition deal with the city that would have allowed them to tear down the Specht Building and two adjacent historic structures and turn the vacant area into a parking lot, members of Restoration Exchange Omaha have a slightly different version of events.

Local graphic designer Quentin Lueninghoener, an Omaha native, is the owner of design firm Hanscom Park Studios and a volunteer at Restoration Exchange. He designed a small-scale branding campaign around the Specht Building to rally support and raise awareness for the Italian Renaissance Revival structure, which is one of the most intact iron-front buildings left in the state of Nebraska. (The Specht also received a boost from the National Trust's This Place Matters campaign.)

We spoke with Lueninghoener about his ReSpecht designs, the larger community effort to save the building, and what local preservationists everywhere can learn from it. As for whether or not he thinks it's haunted, you'll have to ask him yourself.

Do you have any personal connection to the Specht building, outside of appreciating it as part of the historic fabric of Omaha?

No, I don’t have any personal connection at all, but I’ve always loved the building. The rest of that block was torn down about ten or twelve years ago to make way for the [Omaha] Performing Arts center, which then wanted to take these other three buildings for a parking lot. There was a pretty big outcry when that happened, and that was about the time that I was graduating college and started paying attention to how opaque and corrupt that whole process was, to the point that they [Omaha Performing Arts] tore down a building that they didn’t have permission to and said it was an accident. But I don’t think very many people here believed that.

Did you study anything related to historic preservation in college?

No, I didn’t. I was a journalism major and was always more interested in the visual side of things, so I focused on graphic design and worked for newspapers for a while after college. I’ve always liked historic buildings, though—I grew up in an old Craftsman house, and have always appreciated old versus new.

The Specht Building in Omaha, Nebraska

photo by: Restoration Exchange Omaha

The Specht Building was listed on the National Register in 1977 and named an Omaha landmark in 1981.

Can you tell me about your creative process behind the ReSpecht Campaign?

About the time that news broke that the Performing Arts center was going to try to take these buildings, [Restoration Exchange] Omaha had a board meeting that I sat in on. I’ve worked with the director on a few things in the past, and she saw me there and asked if I would help with a logo.

When I was doing it, there were a few limitations that I put on myself: I wanted it to be simple and black and white, but it would be easy for people to print copies of, and it would be inexpensive to make signs for. I wanted it to be simple enough that I could replicate that same look in future campaigns.

I moved back to Omaha in ’09, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that we’ve lost three or four pretty notable buildings, and each had a campaign to save them that failed. In each of those cases, there were disparate little groups of Restoration Exchange people and neighborhood people. They [the campaigns] all had these homemade looks that were not really all that professional, but more than anything, it made them all look like different campaigns. And so, when I did the Specht logo, I wanted to do something that I could easily replicate for other buildings, so that we’d bring all of those campaigns under the same umbrella.

The Specht got a lot of press, it got a lot of notice in the city. I thought that any of the smaller buildings that people are trying to save could glom on to the success of the Spehct building, that would probably help. Since then, I’ve done a logo for an old school that’s been threatened that’s done in the exact same simple black-and-white grid style.

You and some other advocates attended city council meetings on behalf of the Specht. How was your message received by city officials?

Not particularly well. The city, for the most part, acted like they were in the pocket of the performing arts group. In the end, it was the pressure that the performing arts group was under that prompted them to withdraw—it wasn’t any sort of city pressure. The mayor was in an unenviable position. OPA wanted to sell the [parking lot] that they owned next door to a big corporation [HDR Architecture], who wanted to build a headquarters downtown. So basically, OPA said that they wouldn’t sell this parking lot for the headquarters building unless they could get the three buildings for them to turn into a parking lot. But the City Council was set for a vote on the subject right before Performing Arts dropped their plans, and they, most likely, would have unanimously voted to demolish the buildings.

Supporters at the November 22, 2015 ReSpecht Rally

photo by: John Ficenec

About 120 people showed up to a November 22 rally to show their support for the Specht.

Do you think that the community’s response impacted Omaha Performing Arts’ decision to drop their plans?

I’m not privy to anything that happened inside that building or on their board, but a week before they dropped their plan, there was a city council meeting where the community came and spoke out 9 to 1 against it, and people were pretty adamant about it.

I think that what happened was, the City Council wasn’t swayed, but I think some board members of the Omaha Performing Arts Center may have been swayed. They may have realized that this whole battle would still be stretching out another 6 months or a year, at least, before they got their hands on the buildings, and that there would be a lot of bad press for them in the meantime. I think that that was probably a major factor, and then it just wasn’t worth it.

What do you think other local preservationists can learn from the success of the Specht Building campaign?

I would say, try to get as many people as you can involved, and try to leverage as much power as you can.

In this case, in addition to people speaking out at the city council meeting and, perhaps, swaying some of the board members of OPA, I think that really the biggest factor in them backing out [was that] one major donor, Susie Buffett, said she wouldn’t donate anymore if they took those buildings. She’s the daughter of Warren Buffett. So there were probably a couple of other big donors in the city who called them up and said, “Look, if you do this, we’re backing out.”

One of the things I never got around to doing it but always had on my back burner was to direct mail all of the OPA donors and say, “This is what they’re trying to do—is this what you stand for when you donate your money to a cause that’s supposed to support Omaha arts?” That obviously doesn’t apply to every situation in which a building is threatened, but if you can find ways to leverage power against the people making the decision, then I think you stand a better chance.

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.

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