The Market House in Omaha had a long, contentious, and ultimately, sad history that ended with a fizzle, not a bang. Located on Capitol Avenue from North 12th to North 14th Avenues in downtown, it was a fresh produce, meat and fish outlet for individual producers to sell their goods. After delaying its construction for almost 40 years, the City of Omaha built the Market House in 1904. However, grocers in Omaha made sure it failed.The Nebraska National Guard squatted in the building for almost 5 years, and around 1910, it was completely demolished.
Old Country Market Houses
Like many cities, towns and villages worldwide for time immemorial, the eastern United States had market days. This was the one day weekly that housewives, servants and others came to a central part of the city to buy, barter and otherwise acquire fresh produce, meats, fish and other food supplies raised by gardeners, farmers, and craftspeople within a certain geographic area.
The market house was a place where these people gathered to do business on market day.
In Omaha, some people called for a market square to be established as early as 1860, but nothing happened for more than two decades. Located in present-day North Omaha, the Winter Quarters plat of 1846 and the 1856 plat for the town of Florence both included market squares.
Targeting Jefferson Square
Jefferson Square was platted as a park in the original 1854 Omaha City plat. As the only park in a city that seemed to care less about parks, Jefferson Square was constantly the target of ambitious developers and politicians. In 1858, the Omaha City Council passed a resolution to build the first public school in Omaha in the park. In 1867, the city council changed its mind and recommended the building be removed, and it was. However, the very next January the first proposal for a market house in Omaha targeted the park for development. The city council accepted the measure with the stipulation that the City of Omaha could buy the building in six years. However, the offer was never enacted, the building was never built, and the park remained untouched.
In 1870, an industrialist proposed building a market house on the square, but that idea died in committee. Seven years later, in 1877, the city council held an election for voters on whether to establish two market houses, including one on Jefferson Square and the other south of Farnam Street. Another proposal wanted one structure that would include the market house, public offices, city hall and the police court. John A. Creighton, a papal count, industrialist and philanthropist who is 1/3 the namesake of the university, suggested the market house could be beautified with trees, while real estate magnate John I. Redick suggested renting out the facility could bring $40,000 annually to the city coffers. Voters opposed the plan and no further action happened.
In 1881, a railroad man named Webster Snyder said he would personally give the city money for a market house be built in Jefferson Square. Estimated at $200,000, Snyder said he could get “enough money out of New York and Boston to build a half dozen market houses [in Omaha].” Snyder’s plan included housing the market house with a new city hall, and he committed to contracting popular Omaha architect Louis Mendelssohn to design the building.
However, the plan was quickly dismissed by the city council. Snyder’s plan included a 50-year-lease, and apparently nobody wanted city offices in one building for so long. In early 1882, the issue was put to a public vote in which the ballot asked, “‘ ‘Shall the city lease Jefferson Square for the erection of a market house and city hall. Yes or No.” The popular vote passed. However, given the nature of the process and the city’s resistance, Snyder reportedly withdrew his offer, and the plan stalled.
Development of the market house completely stalled by 1884. Raised again in 1887, this time the proposal was for an ornate glass and steel building rising in the middle of Capitol Avenue over a full basement, all of which would be packed with vendors. Unfortunately, this idea didn’t take off, either.
Beginning in the early 1890s, some advocates began calling for a market house to sell their wares. When the Omaha Commercial Club began canvassing local sources, they discovered many prominent Omaha families were shipping their own produce and wares directly to Omaha from Atchinson, Kansas, where there was a market square. They wanted that access to fresh produce and more for more Omahans, and began canvassing the county for support.
A national survey of cities with market houses conducted by the Omaha World-Herald in 1894 shared responses from Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis, Indiana; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; St. Joseph and Kansas City, both in Missouri. Each city reported wild success with their market houses, quickly recuperating the cost of building them and easily maintaining their success over a number of years. Only the Pittsburgh Market Square still operates today, more than 120 years later. Later, the citation of Boston’s Faneuil Hall earning $85,000 annually around 1890 assuaged many concerns for the future of Omaha’s market house.
There were initial plans made to construct a temporary market to test the concept, but they were killed within a month of the proposal going to the city council. The next plan involved building a two-story brick building in the middle of Capitol Avenue, but after learning that other cities designated entire blocks to their market houses, that idea was nixed. In November 1892, the Omaha Commercial Club received permission from the City of Omaha to build the market house. In 1893, the Omaha Commercial Club set the cost to the city at $200,000 to secure the land and build. The market house itself was going to be 50 feet wide by 260 feet long. Made of local red brick, it was set to be two stories tall. Consensus on the location of the market house supported the Capitol Avenue location, with approval from a variety of figures including Alvin Saunders, the last Governor of the Nebraska Territory, who suggested there would “probably be three” market houses within a decade.
The 1887 City of Omaha Board of Trade reported that residents in the city still wanted a market house. People believed they would save money on produce and meats, and they thought a market house would bring those savings.
However, the Omaha Market House still was not built.
Finally Getting It Done
The topic of building a market house didn’t ever quite go away. A 1900 editorial suggested that the construction of the Omaha Auditorium should dovetail with the erection of a market house, perhaps even combining the two. It wound up being built in 1904 almost a mile from the site of the market house.
In early 1902, the Omaha Grocers’ Association stated their firm opposition to a market house. They were the force behind the present-day Old Market, which was housed in Dr. Mercer’s buildings almost a mile away. Harry Fisher, the organization’s leader, said that retail grocers would “fight the building of the market house to the bitter end.”
A long editorial in the December 1901 edition of the Omaha World-Herald advocated locating the Market House in the middle of Capitol Avenue again in order to avoid the cost of land acquisition. Citing the advice of Senator Charles F. Manderson of Omaha, the writer was a grocer who signed the article L.V. Morse, and they had a concrete plan. Capitol Avenue was 146 wide at this point. The writer proposed two market house buildings, each 264 feet long, or taking a total of two city blocks, that were 40 feet wide. They wanted four rows of stalls in each one totally 176 stalls that were 12 feet wide and eight feet long. The lots would extend 40 feet into the street, leaving one lane on each side of the market for wagon traffic on market days. Advocating for two stories, Morse suggested the initial structure should cost no more than $30,000 to build.
In October 1892, Dr. Samuel D. Mercer again led the opposition. He and a group of opponents sought an injunction against the Commercial Club building the market house. The group protested that there were four main issues:
- The lifespan of the building’s roof wouldn’t be long enough;
- Traffic on Capitol Avenue would be restrained too much by the location of the building;
- The cost of the building was too high, the City didn’t have the right to use general funds to build it, and the City’s funds were too low; and
- The City government didn’t have the right to change the usage of the land from the original owner’s intentions. They believed the land it was sited on wasn’t intended for usage as a market house in the original plat of the city made by the Council Bluffs and Nebraska Ferry Company
Dr. Mercer and his crew quickly pounced on the opportunity to launch a trial, which quickly veered public sentiment and legal favor against the market house. In early November 1902, the courts awarded Mercer an injunction against the market house by ruling that the City of Omaha effectively could not build on that specific land “in perpetuity.” It probably wasn’t a coincidence that Mercer was a property owner in the area where the city’s early markets were located around South 11th and Jackson Streets. However, on November 27, 1902, a local judge named Dickinson found against the injunction and approved the project. Mercer’s group dropped their objections.
However, another court case arrived within a year.
A year later Dickinson also ruled in favor of the idea that the City of Omaha could order produce sellers to use the market house. Grocers protested that giving up their neighborhood wagon stalls and spots in the warehouse district (present-day Old Market) would cost them business.
On August 30, 1903, the Capitol Avenue Market House opened. It was Omaha’s first public market house, and was competition to the private Omaha Wholesale Market House Company housed on Dr. Mercer’s land at South 11th and Jackson. The Omaha World-Herald‘s resistance continued, with a facetious commentary about the stalls staying empty a week after its opening. The superintendent of the building was called the “marketmaster,” and his name was William Gerke.
Sitting in the middle of Capitol Avenue, the Market House was almost a half-a-block long, and went from N. 13th to N. 14th Streets. The new building was 240 feet long, with a single story for the first 140 feet and a second story over the second part of the building. There were dozens of stalls on the first floor, along with a restaurant and small storefronts underneath the second story. The second story had a meeting room.
The grocers’ resistance eventually worked though. After opening in 1904, before the year was over the facility was declared a failure by the Omaha Retailer Grocers’ Association. According to a 1911 account from the Omaha Bee, the Market House “location provide a poor one, the street being too narrow.” Around 1905, the city’s grocery retailers formed the so-called “Omaha Market House Association,” they bought land at South 11th and Jackson Streets and built sheds and platforms there.
There were a lot of letters to the editor sent to the newspapers about control of the farmer’s market, the Omaha Grocer’s Association, and the condition of the private market controls versus public controls. Talking about the 11th and Jackson farmer’s market, one farmer wrote to the Omaha World-Herald and complained that “those little sheep sheds rip off farmers” by providing cold, soaking shacks instead of the well-built, warm environment of the Market House.
However, the complaints apparently fell on inattentive ears, and the OmahaMarket House was supposedly never used as a market – however, I’ve found several ads for businesses located there.
Hot Air Balloon & Armory
Ideas were floated for the re-use of the building almost immediately. In 1906, a real estate schemer suggested it be used as an ice house. With the majority of the city’s ice controlled by a monopoly, this salesman suggested the city form a public ice company to control the prices of ice. That plan didn’t move forward. That same year, the World-Herald proposed the building be repurposed as a work house, which came into fashion in the United States during that era.
By 1906, the one-time superintendent of the building, Gerke, was working for the parks commission, and recommended the building being used for storage for the City equipment and vehicles. A private streetcar company suggested it become a terminal for their operations. In 1907, a dirigible called “Comet” was built at the empty Market House. The Comet was a 55-foot long cigar-shaped bag filled with hydrogen. The builder later reported he was given permission to use the old building because he promised to fly over the city hall.
Later in 1907, two National Guard companies took over the Market House, which was deserted entirely by this point. They’re original Capitol Avenue armory was demolished in 1903 after several fires burned there within a few months time. After announcing their plans to the city council and through the newspapers, the companies snuck into the building in the middle of the night and planned to keep using the building, since their recent contract at the Creighton Theatre had expired. They committed to maintaining the building if allowed to use it, and effectively squatted there for almost five years.
In 1908, veterans of the Spanish American War made headlines by preparing a massive bonfire in the old Market House.
Life After the Market House
When the Nebraska National Guard moved out in 1909, the Omaha zoo stored animals in the building for the wintertime.
In 1910, the city council proposed taking down the Market House and reusing the materials to build a tool house on Nicholas Street. Apparently, only half the building was used for this, and the other half stood. The armory was there for another decade afterward, until 1917, when a market square was proposed for downtown Omaha. It would have been an open-air gazebo-type building with no permanent walls or vendor stalls. However, despite claiming the support from grocers across the city, it apparently didn’t happen, either. When it was torn down, the Omaha Women’s Club used the other half of the Market House as supplies for their new headquarters building.
The Market House was demolished in 1910, and today there’s no remnants or signage designating its history or location.
Its lessons weren’t totally lost though: In 1933, longtime city parks commissioner Joseph Hummel cited the case of using Jefferson Square in the city council’s bid to replace it with a parking lot. When asked about the city’s plans, he remarked, “It can’t be done! Didn’t they try to put a Market House on Jefferson Square some years ago?” The implication was plain: In the 1880s, the court ruled against using Jefferson Square for anything other than a park, including the Market House. Almost 50 years later, Hummel employed that logic against removing it.
The appeal of the Market House wasn’t lost on the grocers of Omaha though. After the debacle of the building, they opened a farmer’s market at 11th and Jackson Street. It stayed open into the 1960s, and was reopened in 1994. Today, there are three locations for the Omaha Farmer’s Market around the city. The area surrounding the original farmer’s market area, which was primarily owned by city father Sam Mercer, essentially served as the city’s retail and wholesale produce district for almost a century. Today, its called the Old Market, and continues being largely controlled by the Mercer family.
There’s no commemoration of the Market House today, either in its original job or as the Armory. Jefferson Square was demolished to make way for I-680.
- Omaha Farmer’s Market official website
- “In Memoriam: George Eisenberg” by Leo Adam Biga (August 20, 2010) for Omaha Magazine.