Swartz Printing Co.

Facade of Swartz Printing Co. building with vines

So these are not my best shots, but they do represent one of my more interesting subjects. I couldn’t even figure out the address at first because so much of the facade is obscured by seasonally tinged foliage, but thanks to Google street view, I did discover some background.

Have you been to Gallery 1516? It’s a beautiful gallery with incredibly high ceilings and one of those twisted wrought iron staircases. It sits between 15th and 16th streets (naturally) north of Leavenworth on the south edge of downtown Omaha. A few weeks ago, I went to a friend’s poetry reading there. But, arriving early in a strange place (unusual for this introvert), I decided to walk around outside in the last moments before dusk instead of going inside right away.

Just a block away from the swanky gallery lies a striking structure covered in creeping vines on the front, with the fall leaves spread like camouflage over the rust-colored bricks. The north side of the building, on the other hand, rises starkly whitewashed above an alley.

driscoll-leather-building-side-horzLooking for information about this building, I searched for “Driscoll Leather Co.” Google yielded many basic local listings but nothing that seemed current or substantial. One of the first results noted that “This building located on 15th between Leavenworth and Jones has plans for a rehab according to BVH Architects website.” But the corresponding entry on the BVH site didn’t seem relevant.

Poking around some more, I noticed a result for Swartz Printing Co. I figured this couldn’t be the same building, but it showed up again and again. Turns out this was in fact the Swartz Printing Co. for most of the 20th century, according to the City of Omaha Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission. You just can’t see “The Swartz Printing Co.” etched in the limestone because of all the leaves (now that I look really closely at the last photo on this post, I can see it, but only because now I know it’s there!). NebraskaHistory.org has great historical photos of the building – because it’s on the National Register of History places. And the designation is well-deserved – the structure was built in 1910 and designed by noted Omaha architect Jacob Nachtigall.

The Omaha LHPC site notes that the building was acquired from Swartz Printing Co. by the Driscoll Leather Company in the 1970’s and occupied the space until 2005. In 2007, the Swartz Printing Co. building earned a listing on the National Register of History Places. Both the Omaha LHPC and the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form suggest that around 2007, it was or was to be converted into retail and/or residential space.

The appearance of the exterior – including the sign that warns the structure is unfit for human occupancy – suggest otherwise. But there is indeed a somewhat bizarre website for Urban Chiral condominiums, with a “condominium declaration” document dated 2008 (by way of definition, the home page notes that “an object different from its reflection is chiral.” Nice).

Has the place just been languishing since then, its rehabilitation stymied by red tape, a backlog of projects, or just lack of interest by potential condo buyers? Or maybe these kind of projects just move that slowly?

Most importantly, who is this jazzy guy on the window?


I’ve always been the kind of person that asks too many questions. And I’ve been that way long enough to know that sometimes the answers aren’t as interesting as the mystery. Nonetheless, if anyone knows the latest status on this structure, please leave a comment! Either way, I’m coming back in the spring to see these vines go green.

Facade of Driscoll Leather Building (Swartz Building Co.)

60th and Maple

Someone (a group of someones?) is (are?) after my own heart, with a couple of stunts I noticed around Valentine’s Day (yeah, not only have I not posted for months, but I really meant to post this almost a month ago).

This building, most recently, housed Grampy’s Curious Goods. This Yelp review describes it better than I could hope to. It seems to have closed in fall 2015 and the space is now for lease.

Exterior of former Grampy's Curious Goods

But look closely – someone isn’t ready to let this spot crumble into oblivion.

Valentines cover the storefront of the former Grampy's Curious Goods in Benson, Neb.

Omaha Daily Bee 1911 classified

This Prof. A. B. Elrod dude seems overqualified

After all, it’s been standing for 100 years: the front of the building bears the year 1911 – six years before Benson was annexed into Omaha – and the name “E. H. Olson”. I dug around to find some tidbits about this Olson, but all I can say for sure is that he had “a team of young horses, city broke, perfectly sound and a perfect match in color and size” listed under “Livestock for Sale” in the Omaha Daily Bee on June 20, 1911 (seriously, check out that link – it’s to the Chronicling America project website, a massive newspaper archive).

Back to present day:

Dear old Grampy’s is covered with love notes, glittery decals, colorful duct tape, and a topical bumper sticker or two. The walls beckon to passersby, “Keep me standing”, “Love U”, and perhaps most importantly:

Valentine's decorate the front door of the vacant Grampy's Curious Goods shop in Benson, Omaha, Nebraska“Keep Omaha Beautiful with Beautiful Buildings”: is that so much to ask?

The construction paper Cupids didn’t only visit Benson – I drove by a much taller boarded-up structure downtown decorated with similar wishes for love and posterity.

So far I have not been able to figure out who gets credit for these guerrilla historical preservation acts – please comment if you know so I can ask to join their cool kids club. Or if you know anything else about E. H. Olson.

NoDo Revival: 16th and Cuming

Today was my lucky day. An amazing new mural had appeared seemingly out of nowhere here in North Downtown Omaha just days ago, and I wanted to capture some photos. I wasn’t the only one – cars slowed down as they passed and two young men were ankle-deep in the dust of the (newly) vacant lot west of the mural taking selfies. The lucky part is that the mural’s artist, Justin Queal, was – in spite of the 80+ degree heat – there working on his piece today as I went for a walk during my lunch hour.

Justin Queal North Omaha Mural

Artist Justin Queal and his work in progress

It seems no coincidence that the mural that appeared just at the start of the 2015 College World Series takes that storied sports institution as its subject matter. And this artist gets Omaha –  Queal is now based in Phoenix but is originally from the city that has long hosted the series. He said he wanted it to be a “timeless design” and choose the bold font for the “Omaha” lettering so it would look like the lettering that might be on an old factory – like many of the buildings in North Downtown.

Noted Omaha architect J.F. Bloom built the structure, which would become Queal’s canvas, in the early 1900’s. Bloom designed other iconic Omaha structures around that time as well, including what is now Central High School, according to Queal. Lucky for those of us who spend time in NoDo, a visionary developer recently bough this property at 16th and Cuming and wanted to do something special with it. Queal is definitely doing just that, and I am excited to see what’s next for this space and what it will do for the neighborhood’s revitalization.

View of JF Bloom Building from South side of Cuming StreetOnly months ago, there was a particularly drab vacant structure to the west of this Bloom building. As a stand-alone structure, it looks more like the work of a noted architect than weeks ago when it looked like one in a row of many forgotten warehouses and auto repair shops. Panel of mural in progress by artist Justin Queal

The #RoadtoOmaha has a new welcome sign, and the revival of this area is in full swing, with the character of its industrial history intact.

Thanks to Justin Queal for talking the time to talk with me about his work.

South Omaha

Honestly, I don’t make it to South Omaha often. But recently I have been working on a project through work with the Salvation Army that took me through there. Just west of Kennedy Freeway on South 26th Street, there are two lonely buildings I noticed that looked as if no one had been near them in some time. Perched on a slight slope, they overlook a noisy railyard.

For those unfamiliar with Omaha, this is the area once known as the Stockyards, where in a single day, sometimes tens of thousands of animals were traded in a livestock exchange. Once the nation’s largest such exchange, it closed in 1999. Freight trains still stop here, the local community college has a nice campus just to the west, and there is still a sign when you get off the exit that says “In case of manure spill, please call…” Most of the neighborhoods are largely Hispanic – 24th Street has all the best local Mexican spots – but many are also quite run down.

As a vegetarian, I don’t mourn the end of what were probably obscenely inhumane conditions for these animals. As an Omahan, I mourn the passing of an era, but hope another vibrant industry will bring more prosperity to south Omaha.

The building just below actually isn’t quite abandoned – it still has a for-sale sign. However, its location next to a giant overgrown depression in the group probably won’t help its odds. I wonder if it had another section on this wall that was destroyed for some reason?

Northeast corner of old antique shop in South Omaha

Northeast corner of old antique shop

North wall of old antique shop in South Omaha

North wall of old antique shop

Flowers growing over a brick wall

Nature is taking over.

Just to the right in this photo, you can see a mostly empty lot. In that lot sat a gold Buick with a bicycle thrown to the ground behind it. I think that car is probably someone’s current home. For privacy I decided not to take a photo.

Lenny’s Bar, below, seems completely abandoned. There are still Budweiser signs inside that, come to think of it, could probably make some money in an antique shop.

Lenny's in South Oma

Lenny’s Bar


Louis Grill and Bar – NW Radial Highway

Side of Louis Bar, Benson

Until mid-November of 2013, Louis Grill and Bar was one of the oldest such locales in Omaha. After more than 80 years in business, it closed on November 17, 2013, according to the Omaha World Herald. What’s left of it stands at the gateway to Benson, one of my favorite historic Omaha neighborhoods.


I have been meaning to catch a photo of the sign before the new gas station starts building on the property. What could be more lame than a new gas station? Oddly enough, I have heard residents of the area complain about all the bars in the area (one of its draws, in my opinion) and say they wish a gas station or something would open. So I guess this makes someone happy. But not me.

On Friday, I was heading to happy hour with some work buddies, driving just past this old sign. The setting sun seemed like the perfect background for Louis (insert metaphor here.)

Louis Bar sign sunset

4134 Hamilton

Lucy's Laundromat

Last weekend, I went for a bike ride (read: bar crawl for charity) sponsored by New Belgium Brewing and local businesses. We went through all my favorite Omaha neighborhoods – Dundee, Leavenworth, Midtown, Benson – including a few spots I had never seen.  This one is just northeast of my commute route and was full of more recently vacant buildings. Not wanting to fall behind, I just made this one photo stop. When I hopped back on my bike, my husband was waiting for me a few blocks up with some concern.

I liked the pastel green on the building and the sign. No deep thoughts inspired by this one, except that I do wonder if there was a Lucy and what she is doing now.

Lucy's laundromat black and white

North of Cambridge, NE

Abandoned farm house in Southwest NebraskaMy husband and I spent our anniversary in a cabin in rural southwest Nebraska.  This wasn’t our cabin, luckily, but it was a few miles between the cabin and the nearest city, Cambridge.

There were several working farms on the route as well in this region dominated by agriculture. But there were almost as many ancient barns and abandoned sheds. Not to mention the occasional virtual ghost town, lying as if discarded on the side of Highway 6. I don’t know how to make those look or sound beautiful without romanticizing what has surely been some loss or suffering that happened far removed from my experiences; so I didn’t take any photos of those towns.

This old cabin (house?) defines the West for me: the settlers came westward, built and settled – conquered, even – and thrived. Now, their contemporary counterparts –  farmers, ranchers, and other rural denizens – seem to be moving away and dying off more quickly than they came. But those who stay are a unique breed of strong.

Abandoned farm house

North of 14th and Nicholas

Old garage in north downtown Omaha

This is few blocks northeast of my workplace, where a year of tuition is more than my annual salary, and only 3 blocks north of a $128 million-plus baseball stadium.

Just to the east of the railroad tracks lies a muddy lot strewn with weeds, and this structure plopped in the corner: the onetime Wayne’s Auto something. It’s at that awkward abandoned building age where it’s not quite old enough to hold historical interest, and certainly isn’t architecturally interesting – it looks like a giant cinder block.  What is interesting about it, then, is that it isn’t very old at all, yet nature is already trying to reclaim it. The bright orange stripe on it’s bricks has hardly begun to fade, but already wild sunflowers and bushes are trying to overtake it.

Why did this place close? Why didn’t anyone want the building? Who decided to give up on even selling it? The dirt road that leads up to this structure seems like it was never paved. Maybe the place was built and never even opened.

There is another Wayne’s Auto Repair in Omaha. So I like to think this spot just didn’t work out for Wayne, but he is doing just fine. Maybe it was too close to the train tracks.

SunflowersOn the bright side, this lot has more wild sunflowers than I have ever seen.

Springfield, NE

abandoned silo and barn near springfield, NebraskaAbandoned farm-scapes always get to me. This silo and barn, surrounded by fields of corn and other crops and framed by sunflowers, sit near the tiny town of Springfield, Nebraska.

While of course agriculture is alive and well in Nebraska, family farms are increasingly less common. When I see places like the one in this photo, I think this erstwhile farm must have been in a family of farmers for years, until eventually, they couldn’t make a living off it any more.

Funny – Google tells me there is an actual Erstwhile Farm not far from me. Tongue in cheek?