By Josh Plueger, 55th Wing Public Affairs
/ Published May 13, 2016
Ken Smith, a weather operations requirements manager with to the 557th Weather Wing, and Lisa Gill, with the 55th Force Support Squadron, stand in front of the Mercer Building in downtown Omaha, Neb., May 5, 2016. The barrier fence, that surrounds the construction site, is decorated with printed banners depicting Omaha-area artists’ contributions to the Old Market Business Association beautification project designed to shield the site until the restoration is completed. (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger/Released)
Old Market pedestrians walk by the Old Market Business Association’s beautification project on Howard Street in downtown Omaha, Neb., May 5, 2016. The fence that runs along the corner of Howard and 11th Street surrounds the construction site of the Mercer Building which almost burned down in January. The fence displays 37, selected pieces of art from Omaha-area artists to help beautify the intersection during the renovation. (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger/Released)
Lisa Gill’s painting, one of 37 pieces of art selected by the Old Market Business Association, depicts a green dress sitting in a charred display window of the Mercer Building in downtown Omaha, Neb. As Omaha firefighters fought to extinguish the flames threatening the century-old building, Lisa was struck by the solitary mannequin in the window amidst the chaos. (Courtesy photo)
Banners, displaying Omaha-area artists’ work, hang along a barrier fence that encircles the renovation efforts of the Old Market Mercer Building in downtown Omaha, Neb., May 5, 2016. The historic building almost completely burned to the ground from a gas fire in January. The banners are part of the Old Market Business Association’s beautification project. (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger/Released)
Ken Smith’s photograph, one of 37 pieces of art selected by the Old Market Business Association, depicts a rural Nebraska scene complete with silos, barn and rolling fields of crops. (Courtesy photo)
Lisa Gill, with the 55th Force Support Squadron, stands next to her banner art that surround the Mercer Building in Omaha’s Old Market, May 5, 2016. Lisa was one of two artists from Offutt Air Force Base selected to have their work displayed on the construction fence that surrounds the downtown renovation of the Mercer Building after a fire destroyed much of the century-old building. (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger/Released)
Ken Smith, a weather operations requirements manager with to the 557th Weather Wing, stands at the beginning of the Old Market Business Association’s beautification project on Howard Street in downtown Omaha, Neb., May 5, 2016. Smith was one of 37 artists selected to have their work displayed along the construction, barrier fence that will help shield the renovation efforts from the local downtown attractions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger/Released)
Icicles descend from the century-old building inching closer to greet the cobblestone streets of Omaha’s historic Old Market district on a frigid January morning. The heart of the Old Market, 11th and Howard, is encased by unnaturally thick sheets of ice made possible by the Omaha Fire Department’s hoses as they continue to fight a gas fire threatening to destroy the iconic intersection.
The garden-adorned pergolas that wrapped around the Mercer Building and gave refuge to musicians, shoppers and diners at the M’s pub, are all gone or destined to have the charred remains torn down. Standing today is a shell of an historic building. This is why the Old Market Business Association asked local artists to submit pieces of artwork to be draped around the construction site as contractors rebuild this summer.
The neighborhood beautification project was inundated with almost 300 submission from local artists. Only 37 pieces of art were selected to be added to the fence surrounding the construction site. The pieces of art provide a barrier gallery for the blemished building. Of the selected works of art, two were created by members of Team Offutt.
Lisa Gill, a management analyst with the 55th Force Support Squadron, submitted an acrylic painting depicting a single mannequin dressed in a green dress that starkly contrasts the broken and dreary shop it resides in.
It was when Gill drove down to the Old Market to see the devastation for herself that’s inspiration struck.
“I noticed the mannequin standing alone in the Nouvelle Eve window,” Gill said. “She stood completely unblemished, other than her soot stained dress, with clothes still delicately hanging on the rack behind her.”
It was the most haunting scenes she’d ever witnessed, she said.
The other Offutt artist selected was Ken Smith, a weather operations requirements manager with the 557th Weather Wing. Smith entered photographs for the beautification project.
The Old Market Business Association selected one of his photographs that depicts a classic rural Nebraska scene. Smith’s image of rolling agrarian hills divided by a dusty road that leads to quaint farm are prominently displayed on the first 11-by-5 foot banner covering the construction efforts.
The fire-damaged intersection of the Old Market has sentimental value to Smith. It is where he took his wife to the adjacent Spaghetti Works restaurant for their first date in 1979. An Old Market regular, Smith volunteers his time and showcases his art at the Passageway Gallery, an artist co-op located directly across the street from the where the fire took place.
“I have a connection with the Old Market,” Smith said. “Not just short-term from being in the gallery the last year, but over the years.”
Using art as an overlay or decorative barrier to beautify a portion of the city is nothing new to the Omaha art community. For years, the plain, cylindrical grain elevators off of Interstate 80 and 34th Street displayed 26 vertical pieces of art, giving westbound motorist a reprieve from billboard ads. From a robust statue collection encompassing contemporary, abstract and realism forms of the craft to the colossal “Fertile Ground” mural near TD Ameritrade Park, art is a defining piece of the urban landscape. Canvases of brick and mortar showcase art along main traffic arteries and in ivy-laden back alleys.
Many of the team members behind the Offutt gates are not Omaha natives. Like most military installations, the working population is largely displaced from their home state. Many military transplants decide to become permanent residents following a tour at Offutt.
When the Mercer Building illuminated the frigid night sky on Jan. 9, it wasn’t just local residents who felt the pain of such a devastating loss, but also members of the Offutt community who now call metro home.
“Facing the damage was too much to bear.” she said. “The Old Market has always been a special gathering place with friends and family.”
Thankfully, there was no loss of life in the fire that night. Waves of support have come in to aid the employees that worked in the restaurants and shops of the historic building. The chaos of emergency crew sirens have given way to the haphazard pounding of hammers as the rebuilding efforts begin.
Local artists, musicians, designers and foodies have temporarily lost a piece of downtown real estate. As the season shifts to warmer weather, the Old Market will once again bustle with people enjoying its restaurants, farmers markets, shops and events. With all of the galleries downtown offers, it will be the gallery along the barrier fence summarizes the collective sense of community that defines people of Omaha.