breathing new life into the region’s built heritage
May 11, 2011
“We shape our buildings; thereafter, our buildings shape us.”
- Winston Churchill
The Durham Museum, the Squirrel Cage Jail and The Omaha Building. The old post office at 16th and Dodge, the Strand Theater and the Hotel Fontenelle.
In the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro, the story of historic preservation is a series of seemingly individual wins and losses. A new effort launched by Omaha by Design is coordinating a regional approach to the conservation, preservation and restoration of historic structures and districts in the river cities.
“Our buildings and neighborhoods are part of our cultural heritage and contribute to our sense of place,” said Connie Spellman, director of Omaha by Design. “Our goal, which stems from the Civic Omaha section of the Urban Design Element, is to breathe new life into their future by analyzing the existing environment and developing an appropriate set of strategies for programs, projects and policies that promote their conservation, preservation and restoration.”
Last fall, Omaha by Design convened the Conservation, Preservation and Restoration (CPR) Committee to begin looking at what role the organization could play in augmenting existing efforts in the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro. In February, Omaha by Design hosted an introductory meeting of more than 20 local groups, both public and private, involved in some facet of historic preservation. Each group was asked to share its mission, challenges and opportunities. “It quickly became clear these groups had a lot in common, including struggling with adequate financing and personnel,” Spellman said.
Following feedback and further discussion, the need for a coordinated assessment of the local environment and its capacity for historic preservation was identified. Omaha by Design – in partnership with the Iowa West Foundation – has contracted with the Mountains/Plains Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation to conduct the assessment.
In mid-May, a team from the National Trust’s Mountains/Plains Office will arrive in Omaha to conduct a series of in-person interviews and focus groups with individuals and organizations involved in historic preservation. In addition, the team will develop an online polling tool to solicit feedback from a larger audience. Once collected, the data will be synthesized, and a report will be issued by June. The assessment includes assistance with developing an implementation action plan for specific recommendations related to programs, projects and policies.
“The current preservation climate in our metro area is improving, but mixed,” said George Haecker, principal with Bahr Vermeer Haecker Architects and a member of Omaha by Design’s CPR Committee. “While we have lost a lamentable amount of our identity, some valuable historic pockets and individual buildings remain. Our ongoing challenge is to assist and encourage their preservation and continued use. Most historic neighborhoods are well valued and organized, but many of our institutions and corporations do not factor in the cultural value and economic benefit of preserving our built heritage.”
Members of the assessment team are Amy Cole, senior program officer and regional attorney, the National Trust’s Mountains/Plains Office; Jim Lindberg, director of preservation initiatives, the National Trust’s Mountains/Plains Office; and Jennifer Sandy, program officer, the National Trust’s Midwest Office.
In addition to Haecker, the members of Omaha by Design’s CPR Committee, chaired by Spellman, are Doug Bisson, HDR; Rick Jeffries, Cline Williams; Steve Jensen, Jensen Consulting; David Levy, Baird Holm; and Reed Morgan, Iowa West Foundation.
For more information about the effort, visit http://www.omahabydesign.org/projects/urban-design-element/civic-omaha/cpr/. For more information about the National Trust, visit www.preservationnation.org.