Downtown Omaha, the Downtown of Decades Ago is nowadays harder to locate. It is no longer right out in the open but it is still there. I look for it. These essays and this blog are about Looking for It. That is not to say that I am against 2016 and new urban development. I say let’s fill in those holes and densify meanwhile honoring and caring for the limited historical buildings we have around us.
As much as I have always loved the beautiful, expansive buildings and glorious stretches of downtown, the handsome structures that will handily win the attention of new developers for generations to come, I have also long been enamored with the peculiar, off the beaten path areas. I am going to tell you about an eccentric little part of Omaha; a section of downtown that you, no doubt, have steered through many times.
To begin with, downtown Omaha, in my early perception, began once I had crossed over the I-480 borderline, headed east, on either the one-way Douglas or the one-way Harney. Likewise Dodge and Farnam Streets head west one-way and no one seems to be confused about it in this part of town. I have always loved the western most part of downtown, oddly called Park East, by some. I am specifically referring to the box-like perimeter of 28th to 24th, Dodge to Harney—An area of town that, for most of my life, I was merely passing by to get to or leave from downtown Omaha. I’m just going to say it—from my earliest memories, I determined these city blocks to be some kind of Divine and Dirty District. It still fits. The people milling about in these blocks did not have the professional polish, neither attire nor the salaried affect of those found east of 24th. The glimpses I saw left me wanting to know more.
North side of rooming house on 25th.
Here are some scenes I have very clear from my child’s mind. The Muse Theatre on 24th and Farnam, where I would try to peer at the suspect goings on from the backseat of our moving family car after dinners at King Fong Cafe. The Smoke Pit BBQ of the 1970’s, 230 S 25th St, where the many Beautiful Ladies of the Night from Farnam St. would hang out in between clients. (Check out what is going on with the Smoke Pit now: http://www.omaha.com/money/former-smoke-pit-bbq-building-to-become-farnam-with-retail/article_124aa99a-3d27-11e5-8436-93e69f784d5e.html). The obvious line of Johns’ cars circling 25th to 26th on Farnam St, looking for prostitutes. The sex workers standing in the shadows and yet illuminated in my mind on the corner of 26th and Farnam. There were, at times, a few young males and many more females of various ages seen on that corner, right by the Kountze Memorial Church, dressed to the nines–every bit as glamorous as the Donna Summer’s album cover. The Backdoor Strip Club right next to the Smoke Pit, where I was very interested to see who was coming and going from. The old Rosen-Novak dealership building at 2551 Dodge St, where the Salvation Army Rehab Center is now. The Rosen-Novak and All Makes parking lots on the north and south side of Douglas St., blocks of cars surrounding the solitary brick shop at 2561. The mysterious Commodore Inn at 2410 Dodge, right across from the Joslyn Museum. The haunting rooming houses on 25th (2501-2549 Douglas and 210 S. 25th.) The incredible Delmar Hotel at 219 S 24th felt like the real Omaha from a bygone time. Right next door the Fraternal Order of Eagles (F.O.E.) Hall at 201 S 24th St where I saw so many interesting looking men spilling out onto the sidewalks back in the 80’s. I remember trying to get peeks into the tempting Sweetwater Tavern at about 2574 Harney Street and the old Powers Building complete with the Downtown Boxing Club upstairs as well as the colorful 308 Bar filled with the Real Deal bikers downstairs. Right in the middle of all of this gritty territory were the KMTV (27th and Farnam) and KETV (2665 Douglas) studios. From my childhood I believed Dr. San Guinary, Miss Jean of Jean’s Storytime and all of the newscasters lived in those curious studio buildings, right within the Divine and Dirty District.
KETV 2665 Douglas, recently razed.
Do you see what has happened? I became so distracted with the Looking for It that I got us way off base and walking down memory lane. I promise, I will be visiting these locations in later articles. Let me reel this back in and continue with the specific area at hand. Understand the Park East neighborhood of downtown Omaha had long been on my radar.
Athlone Apartments as seen from Douglas Street.
At some point, an apartment opened up in the Athlone Apartments on 26th Ave and Douglas Street (now condos.) Maybe the trio of brick apartment buildings along that narrow side street too has drawn you in? The Athlone (203 S. 26 Ave), the Hudson (207 S. 26 Ave) and the Douglas (213 S. 26 Ave) are triplet friends inhabiting a rare street complete with its original pavers. This area seemed nearly abandoned in those days, save for the litter, the older men and critters drifting down the row of Douglas Street parking lots. The little boarded up shop at 2561 sat right behind the Athlone Apts and I might have parked in its lot on that very day. I figured this was Very Urban and Very Cool. Upon entering the apartment for rent, I was immediately struck with the front room’s odor. There was a very large, brown stain on the already grungy carpet with multiple soiled mattresses strewn about, to include one, which stood on end in the kitchen. Was this a crime scene? Was this a squatters’ den? The refrigerator was in the bedroom with a big, black oil stain under it. It looked like someone had been working on a car in that room. Was the refrigerator moved there in an attempt to cover the oil stain? The landlord did not seem at all concerned with this set of circumstances. In fact he thought the accommodations were downright perfect for me. He assured me it would be “all cleaned up real soon.” There were bugs in the kitchen and the tiny, full rooms were oppressively hot and smelly and I thought it maybe could be all right in time if I decorated just so. He talked me into signing a lease right then and there.
The east side of the Athlone Apartments at 204 Paxton Court.
Collapse the sequence of panic time, as this was an odd case in which I knew immediately I needed bailing out. When I got home, I called the landlord nervously. He made some offhanded threat, refused to tear up the check and the lease agreement. I remember trying to straighten out in my mind what would or should happen next….it occurred to me that I should do what any regular girl would do, which I had rarely done up to that point, and that was to call my mother to help get me out of that lease. Which is exactly what she did and to this day, I don’t know how she did it. (When you need some real muscle, I hope you have someone in your life to call upon like Mother of Miss Cassette.)
I am not exaggerating when I disclose I have a slight pang whenever I pass the Athlone Apartments, although I am sure those renovated condominiums are probably quite lovely. What has remained for me a focal point amidst all of the empty lots and recycling dumpsters of Douglas Street, is the lone building at 2561 and its equally fascinating side street, the ever so short, Paxton Court. 2561 Douglas, at the odd corner of Douglas and Paxton Court, appeared to have been a left over neighborhood grocery store from a city block of shops back when the Divine and Dirty District wasn’t so dirty. It had a classic storefront, the kind with a large shop window, long ago boarded up. There was a mystique about the yellowish blonde brick building, its slight overhang of clay tile roofing, complete with sweet touches of colored tile accents. I thought it was just precious. Mr. Cassette had theorized that is was nothing more than a garage. But to me nothing spells mystery like a lone shuttered shop on a desolate corner.
Douglas Street (east-west road, one block south of Dodge Street) was named after Stephen A. Douglas, the “little giant” of Illinois, later a U. S. senator known for having worked on the bill to authorize the building of the Union Pacific Railroad. Strangely fitting, as I have always considered Douglas the “quiet, little brother” of Dodge. Douglas, I imagined, enjoyed it’s own identity and a pretty smart run where it broke off from Dodge at 30th Street, headed downtown.
Paxton Court, not even half a block long, runs north-south. Easy to overlook, Paxton Court is even mislabeled in the Streets of Omaha book. Named in honor of Colonel W. A. Paxton, an Omaha financier, one of the founders of the Union Stock Yards Company, Paxton Court begins on the south side of Douglas. It runs the backside of the Athlone, Hudson and the Douglas buildings straight into the back of All Makes and Barnhart Press building, where it ends. I have reason to believe that there might have been two apartment buildings originally on west side of Paxton Court, the backside of the Hudson and Douglas. Apparently there were apartments buildings at 206 Paxton Court, built in 1913 and a 215 Paxton Court, build in 1915. Henry D. Frankfurt, Omaha architect of the early 1900’s, designed both structures. Within his six short years in Omaha, Frankfurt had designed over thirty apartment buildings, hotels, row houses and duplexes. Currently the only address using the Paxton Court street name is the east entrance of the Athlone, at 204 Paxton Court. An exciting side note at which point Mr. Cassette told me I was a complete nerd: one of my favorite things about the Athlone Apartments is that it has boasting rights to three different street addresses: 203 S 26th Ave, 2567 Douglas Street and 204 Paxton Ct.
I imagine a hand painted sign was once displayed on this east side of the building.
The earliest record I could find of 2561 Douglas Street was from the Omaha Daily Bee newspaper of November 6, 1899 advertising, “NINE-ROOM all modern Improvements for $27.50.” The March 26, 1914 Omaha World Herald ran an ad: “$29 for nine rooms house. 2561 1/2 Douglas Street all modern.” If the address is at all correct, there was a rather large house on that plot of land at one time and, surprisingly, the rent only raised $1.50 over that 16 year time period.
The Douglas County Assessor has 2561 Douglas St, listed as a storage garage. (Insert slightly annoyed handclap for Mr. Cassette.) At 870 square feet, the assessor estimated the year built at 1964. This was obviously incorrect. I suspected there had been some modification to the structure in 1964. From the building’s appearance I estimated it to be from the 1920’s or very early 1930’s.
I was surprised to learn that there was a basement.
I was able to find a very short mention under the Building Permits section of the Omaha World Herald from October 15, 1927, “M. Limsman, 2561 Douglas Street, brick store, $3,000.” One day later, a more illuminating brief from the OWH appeared,” A one-story brick store building is being built by M. Linsmans, at 2561 Douglas Street, at Paxton Court. L. Minkin is contractor. It will have about 800 square feet of space. The cost is to be in the neighborhood of three thousand dollars for construction alone.”
There was a discrepancy in the name Limsman and Linsman. I believe the name was truly M. Linsman. I found later articles from the 1930s and 1940s about an M. Linsman, apparently manager of the Wardrobe Clothing Company for men. I thought these were probably two different M. Linsmans. I found an article from 1932 about Mrs. M. Linsman, who was a volunteer in the Community Chest Campaign. Her particular group was made up of members from the Omaha Council of Jewish women. There was also a fun article from Jan. 18, 1949 about Lois Linsman, daughter of M. Linsman and her brother Arnold, who designed the fabulous dress she was wearing to a high school formal. I traced a November 26, 1917 article about L. Minkin (the contractor), who was an officer on the Judea Council. The Judea Society mission was to better conditions of Jewish boys and girls through education and advocation. I also read mention of the Minkin Brothers contractors.
I went to the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society website and found burial registries for a Melvin Linsman and Louis Minkin. After speaking with Renee Ratner Corcoran, Executive Director of the NJHS, I learned that the Melvin Linsman in their burial registry would have been much younger and was not a “builder” in town. I wondered if the manager was the son of the builder. She was not familiar with Mr. Linsman, the builder and had not heard of L. Minkin or the Minkin Brothers. I appreciated Renee taking the time to search their records.
Although I was unable to find a photo of the property from 1927, I did find this photo from July 25 of 1929, looking west on Douglas Street from about 26th Street. The street is being graded and widened. There are men working in the area. One man is driving a team of horses. From the Bostwick & Frohardt Collection at the Durham Museum. I find this photo fascinating and it gives a real view into how lush and park like the Park East neighborhood of downtown still was in the 1920’s.
1928 was the first appearance of 2561 into the Omaha City Directory. I was happy to find its first business listed as Morton Market. I was not able to find any information specifically about Morton Market. I found that the Haunting Rooming Houses down on 25th and Douglas were under the name “Mrs. Ruth Holmes Furnished Rooms.” In fact there were many rooming houses for rent between 26th and 25th along Douglas in the teens and 1920’s. The Athlone Apartments were built in 1917. It made absolute sense that a market would be needed for this swathe of rooming houses and apartments.
Detail of street listing from 1928.
Of note, another address, important to 2561 was the neighboring property directly to its east, 2558 Douglas. This lot is currently vacant and filled with tall, beautiful grasses, like an urban prairie. 2558 came up frequently in my search as it had been an auto repair shop and garage all through the decades: Campbell & Co., Yellow Cab & Garage, Henry Ortman Garage, L.H. Vinquist Auto Repair. Butler’s Service Co. to name but a few.
The urban prairie property at 2558, just east of 2561.
In addition to the Morton Market, the companion auto repair shop and numerous rooming houses, there was another grocer on the block: Yeshia Fregger. The Yeshia Fregger Grocery must have done a very good business as I found the grocery listed from the 1920’s into the late 1940’s. I did find Mr. Fregger’s name within the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society burial registry. From another site I learned Yehoshua “Yeshia” Fregger (Freger) had been born in 1870 Ukraine. He was married but did not have children. He died August 4, 1958 in Omaha.
A grocery store ad from August 10, 1928, listing Morton Market at the top.
By 1932 there was either a change of ownership or a change of names, because Morton Market became Knight’s Food Market. I was able to trace the name to Omar Knight but found little else of a hint. In this Knight’s Food Market ad of March 26, 1932 I learned that Omar Knight was part of the AG Co-op. Further evidence uncovered revealed that the Associated Grocers Co-op, Inc. was organized in 1929, by eight Jewish grocers. There were various Associated Grocers groups throughout the country, offering Jewish mom and pop neighborhood stores an opportunity to compete against the chain grocery stores, buy and sell items less expensively, and created Jewish grocers “buying groups” that would have the economic power of the large chain stores.
Knight’s Food Market
I found a very interesting article in the OWH from November 2 of 1934. It described two bandits “dressed in overalls, believed to be the same pair who held up a hardware store early this week, escaped with $28 after binding O. A. Knight, grocer at 2561 Douglas St.” This daring, 8:30 am stick up occurred after sending Knight to the “rear of the store with an order of bacon.” One drew a gun and ordered Knight, “Now be a good fellow and lay down there on your stummick!” He was tied up with a rope. Miss Lucyle McCormick (address listed at Hudson Apartments) enters the store at that point and got “two cream bottles” and had “a $5 bill in her hand.” She was then tied up. At that point Fred Bonness, the meat salesman entered the shop and the bandits were heard to exclaim, “Let’s beat it!” They ran off with Lucyle’s fiver along with 23 bucks from the register. The event, although probably terrifying, reads like a 1930’s screwball comedy.
South view of the 2561.
1940 city directory survey of the area.
The little shop at 2561 Douglas Street then transformed into the (fitting) Douglas Market by 1936. In 1940 it again changed to A & B Food Shops. Harold Fisher took ownership in 1946 and set 2561 on a new course, which would last for decades—the liquor business. Harold Fisher Liquor operated at this location for a number of years until 1951, when Abraham Fisher Liquors moved in. A relative? I was intrigued to think about the possibility of the 2561 Douglas building being some sort of Jewish entrepreneurial enclave, originating with the men who built it. Maybe this whole little wing of Park East was Jewish owned, taking into account All-Makes, Rosen-Novak, and Yeshia Fregger or maybe it was just a coincidence?
Another brief newspaper article from January 16, 1952, described Abraham Fisher, alone in the store, when “a thug leaned over the counter with what looked like a toy gun, scooped out all the bills and all the silver.” Said thug reportedly walked to the corner of 26th and Douglas and turned south. Although Mr. Fisher assumed the gun to be a toy he said he didn’t want to chance it. By February 6 of the same year, Abraham Fisher was in the paper again for wanting to transfer his liquor license to an address at 509 North 33rd Street. I knew it wouldn’t be long until he was outta there, so to speak.
Currently all parking lots on the north side owned by Salvation Army and All Makes.
I chanced upon one of the most fantastic ads I’ve seen in a while from August 29, 1952–The Feldmans announcing their new B & F Liquors at, you guessed it, 2561 Douglas Street. I am unsure if it is their photos, their font choice and the squarely laid out design or the friendliness of the personal message but it felt so altogether Fifties. Not unlike the hair salon advertisement I included in Mysteries of Omaha: 812 South 42nd Street Part Two. Also of value, I gathered from this cool ad that Betty and Abe Feldman had been part owners of the Harney Market.
Special Announcement, indeed.
As you well, by now, have tracked there were already a couple of newsworthy thefts at 2561 Douglas by the early 1950’s. These crimes were hatched at a time when door-to-door shops still heavily anchored Douglas Street. By 1954 I uncovered evidence in the city directory, which I believe began to change the whole look and dare I say, increased safety concerns, of Douglas Street from 26th Ave to 25th. 1954 marked the year that 2502-2512 Douglas became the Carpenter Paper Co. parking lot. The same year, 2514-2528 became the Bernard Bros. Inc parking lot. By 1956 All Makes Typewriter Co. Inc parking lot was created at 2513-2527 in addition to the other lots. Band Box Cleaners, Feldman Liquor, the Omaha Quilting Shop and Athlone Apartments were now some of the only activity on the once busy block.
North Douglas parking lot owned by All Makes.
I found a funny little ad for Norelco shavers from March of 1958, which listed a “B and F Appliance at 2561 Douglas Street.” The city directory continued to list Feldman Liquor and B & F Liquor Store up until 1978, so I inferred that the Feldmans must have diversified over time, selling a variety of items to augment their liquor business. 1959 brought the Novak Cadillac Inc. parking lot to 2514. By 1966, “Abe L. Feldman, 62, a long time liquor store owner” had passed away after a short illness. They wrote that he was an Omaha resident for 45 years and a member of Beth Israel Synagogue. His home address was listed at 323 South Happy Hollow Boulevard, one of my absolute favorite, leafy, shadowed strips of Omaha.
Did Betty Feldman continue to run the liquor store or was it sold off? I found one news article indicating that Betty continued on steering the little shop by herself. She must have been quite the character. Upon being held up again by the same bandit she had seen days earlier she said something to the effect of, “Oh, it’s you again.” There was one indication that the police record for 2561 Douglas ran deep from the 60’s through the 70’s. Most stolen item, you ask? Whiskey. Whiskey and cash. When you consider that 2561 was such an isolated shop, in a vast sea of parking lots, on a one-way street, headed downtown, it is easy to see why it became such a target for thieves.
Parking lot just to the north of 2561, owned by Salvation Army and also serves as site for glass recycling dumpsters.
In 1973 Pat and Becky Key became owners, keeping the same name. They began selling lottery tickets out of the shop in 1975. In August of 1975 an Omaha man shot at police officers following yet another liquor store robbery. He was shot down by the police and later received three consecutive jail terms.
B& F Liquor “Keys” Ad from December 6, 1973. Love the Hamm’s can illustration.
In 1976 the Rosen-Novak Chevrolet Showroom moved to 2525 Douglas. B & F began marketing themselves as “Across From Rosen-Novak.” The three large parking lots continued on Douglas. B & F Liquors had changed to even later hours from 10am to 10pm. It is understandable that in that late hour, in that parking lot dead zone, the store would continue to get robbed.
From March 29, 1978 B & F Liquors
All Makes Storage further east on Douglas.
The shop again changed hands in 1978 when Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Forbes took ownership. They were held up by three armed robbers one night and demanded that Mrs. Forbes go with them. Luckily she did not end of being taken by them.
Sadly 2561 Douglas entered a three-year period of vacancy. Who would again want to make a go of it on Douglas Street, after that much heartbreak and disillusionment?
From August 30, 1980 For Rent 1600 sq ft.
In 1983 the Starting Gate Off Track Betting took ownership. I also traced the name to Starting Gate Messenger. Larry Dughman owned and operated two locations at 2561 Douglas as well as 711 N. Saddle Creek Road. In one great quote from an article dated March 17, 1984, Dughman said, “Messenger betting services are no different from other delivery services. We carry stuff, like a flower shop.” I wish I could have seen the building and those who frequented it in those days. I can just imagine the older men who used to wander and live around the Park East neighborhood in those days having a comfortable haunt like the Starting Gate to hang at. I imagine lots of billowing smoke and folded newspapers. Dughman stayed at the Douglas location until sometime in 1985.
The building again went vacant until 1987 when it had a fresh start: Midwest and Oriental Rugs Sales and Service. Now that, I would have liked to have seen. I located a police report from March 13, 1987 whereby “Midwest Oriental Rugs reported two rugs, valued at $1,200 were stolen.” The shop was gone within a year.
I was dismayed to find 2561 listed as vacant until 1995. From that point on, it fell off the books entirely and was no longer even listed as an address. I understood why I hadn’t remembered a business being there. Currently ZK LLC owns the obscure little building of 2561 Douglas. Apparently bought in 1998, ZK LLC has their address listed at 2558 Farnam Street, which is All Makes Office Equipment. ZK LLC also owns 2558 Douglas, the property just to the east, which had a running history of various auto repair shops. The legal description through the county assessor lists it as “ALL MAKES LOT 1 BLOCK 0 IRREG.” I think we can conclude with almost 100% certainty that All Makes or a family member at All Makes owns this puzzling part of Omaha history. As much as I’d like to see a cute little teashop or pizza slice walk-up window in this enigmatic space, it has been listed as a “storage garage” since 2007.
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