My friend and I liked to ride the Omaha city bus to all sorts of mysterious places when we were young. I know now it was a good education in the different parts of Omaha and a great study in people watching. I’d like to think that our parents kept tabs on us in those days but from my perspective, children had a lot more freedom back then. Our parents were busy people and we thought they appreciated us staying away, truthbetold. Maybe I don’t remember that exactly right but adults always seemed busy atop ladders, cleaning out gutters, scrubbing stoves, preparing multi-course meals and working long hours. Their free time involved golf or bowling or drinking in solace while smoking cigarettes and watching football or talking on the telephone in the breakfast nook with a glass of wine. For these reasons and many more I’m sure, if we said we were riding the bus to Westroads Shopping Center, we were believed and there was no need to call and check in. The home line would most likely be busy anyway. Any freewheeling latchkey child of the 70s and 80s will know what I mean.
On this occasion Julie and I had made a misstep coming home from Westroads in the form of an erroneous bus transfer. Remember those flimsy paper slips? As I remember, the sky was dark and there was no one left on the bus but us. Our pre-teen laughter turned to fewer and farther between high-strung giggles as we headed further east, the bus kicking out loud, dark gusts previously undetected. The driver, to my recollection, yelled back to us, “Girls, it’s the end of the line” or some foredoomed utterance to that effect, and that he intended on taking the bus “back to the terminal for the night.” I am sure we didn’t have a full comprehension of the situation as he motioned us “out” somewhere on a Cuming Street bus stop. I still remember watching as the bus circled back for the Metro Area Transit depot. Julie and I wandered the seemingly stray streets of what is now called NODO, North of Downtown Omaha, in and amongst the old warehouses, strange abandoned buildings and indiscriminate businesses. Although a ghost town except for the occasional accidental wanderer (so visually fascinating that each human passing sent Julie into gales of anxious laughter), the streets were still dense with dark buildings from another time. Most of these forlorn structures are gone now.
It was all so hauntingly captivating; this foreign area seemed spookier and more desolate than Downtown proper or even the Jobber’s Canyon area, I would come to know in my teens. And Benson seemed like a whole state away. So we walked. And walked. In recollection the whole abandoned street walking seemed like a scene from the movie Ghostworld, except we were much younger than those characters. We finally found a gummed up payphone and with a few dimes left in our pockets from the mall, Julie’s mother would (eventually) answer our calls for an emergency ride home. I suppose a part of me was so grateful we were not spending the night at my home and having to confess this whole mess to my family. Waiting for that ride, where we had to “stay put under the street light” at some agreed upon desperate crossroads, was one of the longest, most exhilarating experiences of my young life. We knew Julie’s mother would not let this colorful adventure pass without a thorough, deserving admonishment, for this was a well established consequence between adult and child in those days. And no one thought another thing of a city bus driver leaving two young girls stranded in the dark in a rundown part of town.
I sometimes spin off Cuming Street through North of Downtown just to have a look-see and of course this memory of Julie and all of the other shenanigans in NODO since, come flooding back. (I apologize for even using this silly branding of North Downtown but for consistency purposes only, we will let the city marketing machine have their fun.) Those of us who have lived in Omaha all this time have seen the area boarded up and overgrown and then torn down by the swaths of blocks. It is now being rebuilt into unrecognizable forms. My, perhaps, ignorant understanding of this once grand 16th Street Promenade was that construction of the Hilton Hotel at 1616 Dodge intentionally served to cut this thoroughfare off at the knees, along with a direct gateway to North Omaha. This pocket of North Downtown would begin to fade and dwindle into tumbleweeds when the city planned the close of 16th Street between Dodge Street and Capitol Avenue for the 1970 opening of what was then a Hilton Hotel. Coincidentally or not Hilton again owns the hotel, under their sister company, the Double Tree. I like to keep tabs, a chance to kick some tires and see what’s in the offing in this neck of the woods. We’ve been told there’s a resurgence abrew.
One compelling red brick building I’ve been stalking for years recently caught my eye again. It was roughly fenced on that day— often The Kiss of Death or Soon to be Restored–I could not tell which. She faces west, mid block on the once prominent 16th Street between California and what was Webster Street, now oddly renamed Mike Fahey Road. Except for the structures to her south, she is now enveloped by strange parking lots, perhaps for infrequent sporting events at Creighton and Ameritrade Park. Barring a “Danger-Closed” placard posted by the City of Omaha Planning Department back in August of 2018, warning of prohibited unlawful occupancy, there was little to go on by way of clues. Other evidence read what looked to be the words “Koory” and “Variety Store” painted on a window and a faded ghost of “Center Bargain Store” splayed on the building.
The Douglas County Assessor’s site revealed the 1900 building at 611 North 16th Street was purchased last February 2018 for $200,000.00. The curiously named seller was the Schlitz Company Store Real Estate. NODO Condos LLC at 5601 South 59 Street in Lincoln purchased the lot. Interestingly this Lincoln address is also headquarters to Aftermath Services LLC, a “leading crime scene clean up” specialist. Their NODO LLC name indicated the fate of 611 could go either way—a ritualistic developer’s scraping or a full-blown rejuvenation. Back in the summer of 2000, a commercial real estate transfer would show William J. Simmons sold this curious building to Creighton University for a mere $65,000. An obsessive (neurotically frequent) review of the assessor’s site has shown time and time again that Creighton is slowly acquiring parcels all along Cuming. So this acquisition by Creighton was not a shock but why did they give up the building to a condo developer? The First National Bank of Omaha owned parcels in all directions radiating from the beautiful 611 North 16th Street, not Creighton University. So what was going on? And who was the interim Schlitz Company Store Real Estate Partnership?
The red brick Victorian building had all of the eye-catching architectural elements that keep me up at night…like an abandoned movie set.
A spellbinding Queen Anne bay window tower, as if placed just so.
Romanesque-style window arches on the northern elevation. The old billboard brackets still solid in place. The architectural brick dentil detailing near the roofline and the ornamentation around the windows. Is that a ghost image for Metz beer? Examine, detectives!
Charlotte J. Pascarella owns the building to the south at 607 North 16th Street. Photo borrowed from the Douglas County Assessor’s website.
You can see where this 1926 building once had welcoming storefront retail windows.
There are actually two red brick buildings that now comprise the address 611. I have always loved to study the adjoining sliver between two old buildings. This one is particularly defined. You can see the “Central” ghost on this smaller secondary building, wedged between 611 and 607.
Pascarella also owns the 1910 “Hotel” as displayed in a proud, simple font next door to the east at 601 North 16th. A corner bar offers my favorite historic angled public house entrance. The miniature, yellow Happy Bar sign always brings a smile when I’m passing by. Have you ever stopped in?
I adore this place from afar. For a real hoot and a half, read the Yelp reviews of the Happy Bar. Now that is local folklore at its prime.
Southern elevation on California Street. I am waging this tidy brown brick rooming house was built and named for Max Tatle, an early Omaha real estate man. I know, great name. Mr. M. Tatle announced in March of 1910 that he would be tearing down “the old frame building at the northeast corner of Sixteenth and California” streets with plans to erect a $40,000 hotel there. He must have done so before year-end, because “19- M. Tatle- 10” is seen clear as day on the west facing roof’s edge. Impressive.
A Brief History of 611 North 16th Street
Henry Roenfeldt was the proud keeper of a saloon at 611 North 16th from 1890 to at least 1894, after which a Mrs. Josephine Kaufmann would step in to take the tap house reins.
An article from 1890 gives a taste for the flavor of early 16th and Webster. This time a George Roenfeldt and barkeep were sitting out front of the saloon. Unbeknownst to them, some men snuck in through the back and stole their watering hole registery—most likely piles of coins in those days! A woman reported to seeing two men passing by with “a box that rattled.” I love it. Thought-to-be-thief, C. J. Hoffman, was arrested in a nearby outhouse. As the newspaper editor, I might not have named this a “Successful Sneak” but it sure is a fun read.
Saloon interior 1890’s borrowed from gaswizard. I imagine this is quite a bit fancier than the original saloon on 16th Street but it gives a feel for the times.
By 1895 Charles Nordenberg signed the swiggery lease and two years later a Mr. Claus Rohwer was applying for a liquor license under the address. 611 North 16th was steadfastly committed to its sawdust saloonship. A new word we will create in its honor. This corner alehouse was so perfectly suited to the area, in April of 1897 the Schlitz Brewing Company had taken out a permit to build there. They wanted in on this paying, spirited crowd. As it turns out, the Victorian building that we have always known to be at 611 North 16th Street was not built yet. I can’t help but wonder what the previous watering hole had looked like. Probably an Early Omaha frame building.
April 1897 permit to build announcement from OWH. 611 North 16th was estimated to cost $3,000. This proclamation would lead one to believe that 611 North 16th was built earlier than 1900. I couldn’t be sure, for the men’s names running the bar did not change between buildings. Curiously, Rohwer & Dolan would continue to run their suds faucet out of the site.
In fact the poor bartender, M. E. Dolan, fell prey to “Belle the Dip,” the masculine, professional pickpocket when she began to “toy” with his watchchain. My goodness! I’ve included the goods here for your perusal. 1898. OWH.
This is an original 1900 color print ad for Schlitz Beer by the Milwaukee Brewing Company located in Wisconsin. While Rohwer & Dolan served their scuttle of suds for mere dimes out of the soon to be swiggery main floor, the second floor served as some manner of rooming house. That is when I ran across the wild tale of Mary Higgins and her spirited daughter.
1902 OWH article: This series of headlines and subheads are the funniest thing you’ll read all day. Mrs. Mary Higgins, mother of Mrs. Charles Van Ess only wanted to know why her rollicking daughter was sneaking to Mr. Chris Knudson’s rented room above the Schlitz froth house. They say Knudson was a bridge builder and structural ironworker, new to town about three months. The lively daughter had been separated from her husband for about three years and apparently was a frequent visitor at Knudson’s room. After said daughter announced she was going to see Knudson again, “And you can’t stop me!” (I am clearly adlibbing here) –mother and a sister pursued her, walking in on a simple friendly card game. Knudson fired five shots at the mother, Mrs. Mary Higgins. The bridge builder would go on to make up many tales about his shots taken but the daughters and other card players pointed their fingers.
Imagine the prodigious shock and fortuitous luck of the froth merchants below when they no doubt discovered Madam Liverpool, the world famous palmist, living in quarters just above their heads.
In 1912 Madam Liverpool, a spiritualist medium gave daily readings from upstairs at 611 North 16th Street. Yes, it is true. The pleasure drawn from the nozzle of the beer faucet could be amplified by a daily reading under Madame Liverpool’s gaze. Look at how many mediums were working in Omaha at the time. February 1912. OWH.
Palm reader drawing from 1912 “St. Louis Post-Dispatch.”
Just in the thirstiest part of the day, along about three bells in the afternoon, the Schlitz tap house mysteriously moved on. By 1916 Nebraska Furniture had moved their showroom to the main level of the 611 North 16th Street with merchandise storage kept above. Originally founded by M. D. Brodkey in 1896 at 14th and Dodge, Abe Weiss had apparently managed the business in South Omaha as the Nebraska Furniture and Carpet Company, where he advertised for a reliable staff of a good “stove man,” an “experienced cabinet maker,” and a “stout girl” over the years. Weiss had ventured to yet another location on north 16th but from what I could trace, a fire in the basement of this location sent Weiss packing for the 611 North 16th building.
In 1925, William Adams, a trusted Weiss employee of sixteen years, lived in the back end of the store. This was a trend that I often come across in these stories; a single man living as a shopkeep-guard within a store. Unfortunately Adams and pals were taken into custody when he attempted to pull off an ill-fated collectable coin-jewelry-cash heist from his trusting employer. Abe Weiss, proprietor, kept about $250 in gold coins and sixty rare initialed Lincoln pennies, a thousand dollars worth of diamonds (in a man’s handkerchief) and stacks of cash in the store safe. Adams awkwardly phoned in a break-in to the authorities at three a.m. When the police arrived they found employee Adams with four other men and a woman standing around the carefully opened safe. All were arrested.
The Northwestern Hotel on the southeast corner of 16th and Webster Street (619 North 16th Street). Two boys are standing in the street and a man is sitting behind them on a bus stop bench. Creator: Bostwick, Louis (1868-1943) and Frohardt, Homer (1885-1972). Publisher: The Durham Museum. Date: September of 1924. This large hotel is now a parking lot. And there in the tucked away background is our 611 North 16th Street (to the far right).
And look what we have here. A detail of 611 North 16th Street, featuring the Queen Anne bay window tower and the “Nebraska Furniture” sign hand painted on the building. I think it spells “RUGS” in the upper bay window.
A portion of the current lot where the Northwestern Hotel once stood. Also a view of the 611 north elevation. (Sorry for the terrible photo.) First National Bank of Omaha owns this lot. The cross street to the north, running perpendicular with 16th is now called Mike Fahey Road. The strange short-run of Mike Fahey Road extends from 10th to 17th Street. By reviewing an older map, this most likely was Webster Street in times gone by. Why do we do confusing things like that in Omaha? All the more fun, weird and complicated, I suppose.
This photo shows what the northwest side of 16th Street looked like when the Nebraska Furniture store was in business. Alamito horse drawn delivery wagons lined up on 16th and Webster Street. Creator: Bostwick, Louis (1868-1943) and Frohardt, Homer (1885-1972). Publisher: The Durham Museum. October 1923.
A few months later, an explosion blew out of the first floor windows of Abe Weiss’s Nebraska Furniture at 611 North 16th. Simultaneously a fire was started on his second floor storage among a number of mattresses. Mysteriously the first fire that night was reported in the basement of the J. Slutsky grocery store at 1720 Cass Street. The fire department was called to the same neighborhood five hours after Nebraska Furniture’s fire broke out, when Sam Schwartz’s men’s furnishings store at 301 North 16th Street exploded in flames. A rubbish fire in the alley had apparently been reported three hours before the explosion. Was this the motivation for Weiss selling the building not long after? I tracked his furniture store to 2402 St. Mary’s Avenue shortly after.
Those must have been tough days for a merchant, or really anyone, because Weiss would make the news again for pulling a gun on a bandit come to rob him in his newest location. In the early 1930s, the house fittings store would intuitively change their name to State Furniture…and just in the nick of time. For Rose Gorelick Blumkin would, in 1937, initiate the soon to be nationally known Nebraska Furniture Mart out of the basement of 1312 Farnam Street, husband Isadore Blumkin’s business–forever changing the furniture market.
An article from February 7, 1926, OWH, announced Weiss had sold 611 North 16th to the Volunteers of America. They intended to make the structure their headquarters. The Volunteers of American did good works—soon they distributed 460 baskets of food, clothing and shoes to the “deserving poor” out of the 16th Street location.
Looking at the northeast corner of 16th & Webster Street. There is a streetcar in the street and cars are parked on the street. At the far left is the old Ford plant at 16th and Cuming Street, later to become Tip Top. Creator: Bostwick, Louis (1868-1943) and Frohardt, Homer (1885-1972). Publisher: The Durham Museum. 1935. This two-block area is barren now, except for Tip Top, which thankfully is still standing.
Photo from the Douglas County Assessor’s site from a number of years back.
In December of 1936 Joseph Bernstein, proprietor of a plumbing and heating business purchased 611 and was thought to soon move his enterprise to the location. Of interest, Ms. Jean McKay, 33, was arrested as a keeper of an ill-governed flophouse for the rooms above in 1938, along with an “inmate” at 611 North 16th. This was part of larger sting operation where a number of “keepers of common ill-governed houses” and 16 inmates were raided. Mike Boylan would later run his tire shop at the location in the 1940s.
1947 Center Heating & Sheet Metal Corporation advertisement. OWH. In 1950 Leo A. Denne president of the Center Heating & Sheet Metal Corporation at 611 North 16th had to file for bankruptcy in Federal Court. In 1951 Slosburg Realty were advertising a two-story brick building with basement, consisting of first floor store and large open room on the second floor.
The original Canfield’s Sporting Goods Store (at about 16th and Cass) seen on the south end of the 16th Street block; Gross Loans next door, the Dixie Cream bakery (featuring a donut sign!), and Omaha Sundries on the corner. The photographer was facing southwest, standing on Happy Bar corner at 16th and California. Creator: Savage, John (1903-1989). Publisher: The Durham Museum. Date: 1952. These great buildings have all been torn down. The fine Pettit’s Pastry is still located furthest south at 502 North 16th, along with Sol’s Jewelry and Loan empire at 514 North 16th.
Here is a good one of 16th looking north toward Cuming Street. The Tip Top Building can be seen in the background. The Happy Bar is in another building, apparently a block south of its current location. Love this photo. Looks to be the late 60s or 70s by the cars. Creator: Savage, John (1903-1989). Publisher: The Durham Museum.
Google Map image from 2017. One can see that work was being done. Did the Schlitz Company Store Real Estate LLC have plans that were dashed?
The Webster Variety Store took the helm and appeared to run an antiques shop of sorts until the 1970s–where they sold such things at secretarial bookcases, roll top desks, coal stoves, Christmas decorations, player pianos, wood ice box, china cabinet. The Webster Variety shuttered their business after a public auction in 1970. Allison J. Koory originally operated the Koory Variety Store at 507 1/2 North 16th in the mid 1950s but at some point transported to the 611 location. Those fabulous but faded hand painted window signs reading “Koory Variety” handed me the obvious clue. A small, insignificant ad from 1980 reading “GRAND OPENING, used furniture and misc store. 611 N 16th”and the lack of any descriptive Koory Variety evidence led me to believe the family ran a small, modest operation.
The intriguing phantom outline of the Koory family business.
**Photo addendum December 12, 2018. Falling into further decrepitude.
I champion this city block. I cheer for it and I want more for it, especially now that I know a wee bit of her history. I have purposefully left gaps in the investigation because, honestly, I am up to my ears in another HUGE MANSION story. Here is where you come in, dear detective friends: what do we collectively know about 611 North 16th Street? Are there great plans in the works? When did Creighton sell? What were the Schlitz partnership plans? Who is NODO Condos LLC? And what, praytell, is happening on 16th Street with all of these First National Bank parcels? Help us solve the mystery in the comments section.
I welcome your feedback and comments on this treasured strip of North 16th Street and the incredible 611 North 16th structure. Long shall she live! Please share your additional clues to the story in the “Comments,” as we know more together. Everyone would love to read what you have to say and it makes the sharing of Omaha history more fun. I want to hear from you.
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