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Legendary O Street building redeveloped into apartments with ties to its automobile roots
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Legendary O Street building redeveloped into apartments with ties to its automobile roots

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The building on the corner of 16th and O streets, which once featured bricked-in windows and a leaking roof, now has new life as apartments and commercial space  and a home on Lincoln's list of historic places.

About a century ago, Lincoln had one of the highest per capita automobile ownership rates in the nation, and prominent attorney Edmund Strode purchased the property downtown to serve as a repair shop and dealership. The Strode Building has hosted numerous auto-related businesses since it opened in 1917.

Eric and Carol Clark, along with Jeff and Sharon Koepke, purchased the property in December 2018.

The Clarks have experience with property management, and the Koepkes own BK Restoration. Together they were looking to create residential space in downtown Lincoln and learned they could revitalize the Strode Building and gain tax benefits if they registered it as a historic place.

With the help of History Nebraska and Historic Resources Group, the renovated Strode Building is now on the national, local and state registers of historic places.

“It was a long process, but we are proud that we saved the building and restored it,” Carol Clark said. “We’re hoping that it can be there for another 100 years based on the things that we did.”

The significance

The Strode Building qualified for a spot on the register of historic places because of its significance in Lincoln’s automobile history. According to Melissa Gengler, the owner of Historic Resources Group, the Strode Building was located off the Detroit-Lincoln-Denver Highway, what today is O Street. It was a prime business area in Lincoln, and several auto-related businesses were located there.

The first floor of the Strode Building had showrooms for different vehicles and also featured office space. Cars that needed to be serviced would be lifted by freight elevator to be repaired on the second floor.

The Detroit-Lincoln-Denver Highway was eventually rerouted when the new Cornhusker Highway was designated as U.S. 6 in 1931, but the Strode Building remained, signifying the automotive industry’s impact on Lincoln.

“When the building was constructed, that whole block was all automotive-related,” Gengler said. “And it was built speculatively because the auto industry was so popular, and it was booming.”

Redevelopment planned for building at 16th and O

The process

Clark said the process of transforming the building into apartments and retail space was occasionally tedious. When renovations began in May 2019, the owners had to acquire permits from the City of Lincoln and approval from the National Park Service and the State Historic Preservation Office for seemingly small decisions, such as choosing the grout color, in order to receive tax credits.

“You couldn’t just do things without approval, and you have to appreciate that,” she said. “You wouldn’t want people to just proceed with a project and maintain that historical character. You need some oversight.”

David Calease, History Nebraska’s national register of historic places coordinator, evaluates if renovation plans that aspire to receive tax incentives comply with the national register’s expectations. He said historic properties are often updated to contain more modern plumbing and electrical components, but changes to the building’s public appearance are usually not approved.

Iconic Lincoln high-rise is undergoing renovations

With the Strode Building, the first floor had to maintain a similar layout because it was a public space and renovating the area would damage the historic integrity. The second floor was closed to the public, so the owners were allowed to turn that into residential space.

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Calease said the process does take time, and he admired the owners’ flexibility during the renovation process.

“You have to have some patience,” he said. “You've got to have some dedication to stick with it.”

The outcome

The owners fixed the leaking roof and removed the brick that once covered the windows. The second floor now hosts Willys Knight Lofts, named after a type of car that used to be sold in the building.

1600 O renovation

Part of an original Willys-Knight sign hangs in the renovated Strode Building at 1600 O St.

Willys Knight Lofts have two-bedroom, single-bedroom and studio apartments. The original car elevator remains on the second floor, and tenants can see the pulleys and gears that were used for its operation. A modern elevator also has been installed.

The units all have different floor plans, and the owners wanted to maintain the character of the building in each unit. Apartments feature exposed ceiling rafters, and some have the original concrete floors. The exterior walls are the same plaster and some walls have exposed brick, too.

1600 O renovation

The kitchen area of a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in the Willys Knight Lofts, which comprise the second floor of the renovated Strode Building at 1600 O St.

Calease said the owners qualify to receive a 40% tax credit because of its registrations and compliance with the guidelines.

“This is a perfect example of redeveloping a property, being sympathetic to the historic character and using the financial incentives that are available,” Calease said.

The building was renovated by March 2020, though it did not receive its designation until December. As of this month, 11 of its 13 residential spaces are filled, and the owners are looking for a commercial tenant.

Clark said that during construction, they kept in mind that a restaurant could move in to the first floor because the building has the proper ventilation in place. The space also could be divided to fit another tenant.

1600 O renovation

Retail space makes up part of the first floor of the renovated Strode Building at 1600 O St. Indoor parking completes the first floor as an amenity for the Willys Knight Lofts on the second floor.

The ownership group is thankful for the help they received to register the building, and they are proud of the final product.

“This is something new to all of us, so it was just a learning process as well. But it was rewarding, and we learned a lot,” Clark said. “We met a lot of great people along the way, too … We’re a small group, just the four of us, and I felt like everybody was rooting for our success.”

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Contact the writer at eseline@journalstar.com or 402-473-7223

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