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Old Market

The above photo shows the Omaha intersection of 11th and Howard looking to the northwest with a restaurant dining car parked on the left. The Mercer Building shown was virtually destroyed in January 2016 by a gas explosion in the basement of M’s Pub just outside the photo to the right.

The recent explosion and fire in the center of Omaha’s Old Market has brought renewed interest to the area from 10th Street west to about 13th on Howard Street.

In Omaha’s earliest days, from 1854 into the 1870s, the immediate area was primarily residential, but with increased river traffic and the coming of the railroads, it transformed into an area known for the wholesaling of fruits, vegetables and other commodities. The market atmosphere today, with brick streets, canopied sidewalks and Italianate or Richardsonian Romanesque buildings, retains the character of the businesses which prospered there into the early 1940s.

Dr. Samuel David Mercer was born in Illinois in 1841 and arrived in Omaha in 1866 after serving in the Union Army during the Civil War. Mercer’s accomplishments in Omaha were wide and diverse, including establishing the city’s first hospital, organizing the State Medical Society, forming the Omaha Medical College and serving as chief medical officer for both the Union Pacific and Burlington & Missouri River Railroads.

When he retired in 1887 at the age of 47, he developed a motorized street railway and began investing in real estate, including owning as well as building a number of buildings near the river in downtown Omaha. His son,  Dr. Nelson Mercer, who was born in Omaha in 1874, followed his father in not only practicing medicine but developing further real estate interests. During the 1870s, Mercer joined forces with other developers of note, including Frederick Ames and Andrew Poppleton, in what would ultimately become known as the Old Market area.

Beginning about 1900, the city of Omaha auctioned off sidewalk sites in the market area for open air vegetable and fruit stalls. On Jan. 28, 1905, the five-story building on the northwest corner of 11th and Howard which had been built by Mercer burned to the ground. It was reported that “streetcars ran until 2 a.m. to bring spectators to the site while nearby saloons did a roaring business.” Mercer immediately built a new five-story brick structure known as Mercer Block No. 3 on the same site designed by local architect Charles Cleeves. In the 1930s, this replacement structure was rebuilt as a banana warehouse without the top two floors and without the northern section of the building.

About 1924 Samuel Mercer, Nelson’s son, was born in London, where he later trained as an attorney. He moved to Paris, France, though he frequently returned to Omaha to oversee the family’s real estate holdings. On one Nebraska visit in the early 1960s Sam was able to purchase the two-story building on the southeast corner of 11th and Howard less than a week before it was scheduled to be demolished. Partially with that purchase Sam Mercer saw the potential of the area and began a program of revitalization. One of the first new enterprises was his French Café, originally to be called Café Toussint after Toussint Moallic, who he brought from Paris to be the initial chef.

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Wider revitalization began immediately with the French Café opening in 1969, as Mercer partnered with Cedric Hartman. M’s Pub was established in the old Mercer Block No. 3 by Mary “M” Helen David Vogel in 1973. The same year Mercer’s nephew Nicholas Bonham-Carter looked north from his loft on the second floor above the French Café at the building the family owned on the northeast corner of 11th and Howard. To the east of that building was another Mercer-owned property with a small private alley running north between them.

Bonham-Carter excavated the alley below grade and opened both building’s basements onto the alley which was floored with brick pavers salvaged from the old road to Fort Calhoun. The resulting passageway was roofed over and shops built on balconies on both sides from the basement level to the top floors. Meanwhile, the roughly six-square-block area to the east, known as Jobber’s Canyon, was demolished.

By 2009 the old banana warehouse on the northwest corner of 11th and Howard was filled with businesses and M’s Pub, while the entire area had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and became a go-to area for tourists as well as Omahans.

On Jan. 9, 2016, a gas explosion and subsequent fire resulting from a construction project in the sidewalk in front of M’s Pub destroyed the northwest corner again. Although Sam Mercer died in France, in February 2016, the Mercer Co. headed by Mercer’s son Mark and nephew Nicholas Bonham-Carter, is again faced with the possible reconstruction of the family’s 1800s pivotal Old Market icon.

Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at jim@leebooksellers.com.

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