The Blue Lion Center is located at 2419-2425 North 24th Street in North Omaha. Its long history extends over a century, including stores, offices, clubs and more. Unlike the other three corners in the main intersection of the 24th and Lake Historic District, this building survived the City of Omaha’s “slum clearance” programs in the 1970s, and the community is fortunate for that.
Discover why in the history here.
There were buildings on the southeast corner of North 24th and Lake Streets in the 1880s. Originally a wooden building on the corner Saunders Street and a county road, the corner building was home to Charles E. Wilson’s barber shop around 1900. Max Burkenroad, a longtime grocer in North Omaha, ran one of his chain of stores at 2421 North 24th at the same time. His building was wooden, too. Rumyhr’s Saloon was at 2425 North 24th in 1896, and “specialized in fine wines, liquors and cigars.”
After the Easter Sunday tornado of 1913 destroyed it, the corner was rebuilt with the brick beauty there today. Its commercial vernacular design was repeated on several corners throughout the area, with sandstone details variating against the brown brick exterior; flaring highlights around the windows; wide and tall storefront windows on the first floor with single wide office windows across the second; and bricks stacking towards the top of the wall. This same pattern was used on the northwest corner of 24th and Lake and the southwest corner of 20th and Lake, which still stands.
The Blue Lion a two-story brick building that has a long history of being occupied by dozens of businesses over the last century, including restaurants and a club, professional offices and medical services. Today, its home to The Union for Contemporary Arts, a prolific and successful nonprofit organization that’s building community throughout the 24th and Lake Historic District.
Blue Lion Businesses
As a home to dozens of businesses over the years, the Blue Lion has had a long history moving forward North Omaha. Magrum’s Cafe and the Loyal Diner Café were located on the first floor, too, until the 1960s. The Waiters and Porters Shoe Shine Parlor was at 2419 North 24th Street in the early 1960s, and the Near North Side Veterans Club was located there in the late 1960s. Right next door at 2425 North 24th was a neighborhood icon.
In the 1930s, Eugene McGill opened McGill’s Tavern on the corner of 24th and Lake. Omaha jazz great Preston Love said that McGill’s became an informal hub for jazz during those years, fueling jazz sessions and building culture with a house band. Then, from 1948 to 1963, McGill operated the Blue Room next door. Jazz, blues and more was played there by greats like guitarist Charlie Christian, pianist Sir Charles Thompson, saxophonist Buddy Tate, trumpeter Money Johnson, Doc Whidby, and drummer Debo Mills. Others who played there included drummer Gene Krupa, saxophonist Charlie Barnet and clarinetist Woody Herman. After McGill died in 1960, James Ballard ran McGill’s Bar from 1963 to 1972 and the Blue Room closed down.
There were several professionals who kept offices on the second floor of the Blue Lion. For more than 50 years between the 1920s and 1969, several iconic North O leaders who were doctors, dentists and lawyers had their offices there. These individuals included:
- Dr. Craig Morris (est.1898-1977)—A dentist who grew up in Omaha and graduated from Creighton in 1915, Morris entered World War I as a commissioned lieutenant in the US Army Medical Corps. Afterwards, he practiced in North Omaha from 1919 to 1945. He was active in the Prince Hall Masons, Omaha Colored Commercial Club, and he helped establish the Urban League in 1928. Morris also helped establish an association of African American doctors, dentists and pharmacists in Omaha.
- Dr. J. H. Hutten (est.1884-1939)—Graduated from Biddle College in Charlotte, North Carolina and Howard University. He was active in the Presbyterian church, the Colored Old Folks Home, the Omaha Community Chest, and he helped established the Urban League in 1928. He was recognized as the oldest practicing African American physician in Omaha when he died.
- John Guilford Pegg—The son of an iconic African American leader in Omaha, Pegg became a lawyer at a young age. Pegg was active in the Urban League and NAACP, and was seen as a key in Omaha’s civil rights movement. Pegg was also involved in an early African American lawyers association.
- Dr. William Solomon—After going to Creighton University and the University of Iowa, Solomon earned his medical degree from Howard University. He practiced in North Omaha from 1936 to 1977. Solomon active in the Urban League, the American Lung Association and the Nebraska Heart Association.
Each of these men were dedicated to African American empowerment in the community, and volunteered much of their lives to struggle for Civil Rights and against racism.
The Lion Products Company was at 2423 North 24th Street in a building that was built in 1918. That year, the building began its life as an automotive garage. Originally called the Crosby and Smith Garage, it became the Pep Service Station and later the New L Garage, staying that way until 1945. The next year, Lion Products Inc. began selling farm machinery there. Lion left the building in the late 1960s, and in 1983 the building became part of the renovated Blue Lion Center.
Other businesses in today’s Blue Lion included:
- F. G. Knolls operated a garage at 2419 North 24th in the 1910s and 20s.
- Sharp’s Inn Cafe, 2421 North 24th St. in the 1930s.
- Mildred’s Cafe, 2421 North 24th St. in the 1930s.
- Victory Cigar Store, 2421 North 24th St. in the 1940s and 50s.
- E. R. Smisor, Jeweler, 2423 North 24th St. in the 1910s.
- Jerry’s Cafe, 2423 N. 24th in the 1910s and 20s.
- W. J. Stacey Bookstore, 2423 North 24th St. in the 1950s.
- Calhoun Hotel, 2423 Lake St. – This was an African American-friendly hotel.
- Peterson and Company Grocers, 2425 N. 24th in the 1890s and 1900s
- Johnson’s Tavern, 2425 N. 24th in the 1900s.
- Rabe’s Buffet, 2425 N. 24th St. – Owned by an African American and operated from the 1930s through the 1950s. It was a bar that served food.
- Laborer’s Protective Welfare and Social Club, 2425 N. 24th St. in the 1970s.
- Louis Henricksen’s Confectionary in the 1900s.
- Gate City Printing, 2421 N. 24th St. in the 1920s through the 40s.
- Morris Skolnik Clothing
- Aaron Perlmeter’s variety store
- A soda jerk shop
- An auto repair shop
- An agricultural supplier
However, after the fourth major riot gripped the intersection of 24th and Lake in 1969, every business inside the building abandoned it, and for more than a decade, the neighborhood cornerstone sat empty. After the riots, a few social service agencies were located in the Blue Lion over the years, too. They included the Native American WIA program, and the Goodwill Youth Opportunities program.
Between 1963 and 2017, each building on the corners of North 24th and Lake Streets was demolished except for the Blue Lion. Only one of the other corner buildings was replaced. One of the other corners is a parking lot, and the other is a memorial park. The Blue Lion still stands strong.
Inventing the Blue Lion Center
In the early 1980s, Ambrose Jackson Associates, the first African American-owned architectural firm in Omaha, designed the Blue Lion Center. Funded by the City of Omaha and North Omaha Community Development (NOCD), the renovation of the building on the corner and its neighbor to the south brought some hope to the neighborhood. Merging all the three buildings into one, there was new carpet and drop ceilings installed, and the old brick walls were covered up in an attempt to make the space seem less industrial. Walls were built or rebuilt throughout, and a chic 1980s façade pulled the space into the modern era. Awnings were replaced, windows were inserted and more changes were made.
The building was named in honor of its longest tenant and most important tenant; the names of the Lion Supply Company and McGill’s Blue Room were merged to make the Blue Lion Center name.
After opening in 1983, a restaurant moved in and out. Throughout the years, several small businesses opened in the Blue Lion, but none stayed.
Leaking ceilings and puddles on the floors; boarded up doors and windows and gigantic, empty spaces. This is how the Blue Lion stood for more than a decade. Emptied of business and hope, the building wasn’t doing well when The Union for Contemporary Art visited in 2014. However, that year they took action.
From 2015 through 2017, the building was renovated. With support from the Sherwood Foundation, the building was bought and the electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems were renovated. Adopting 16,000-square-feet of space, The Union secured almost $10,000,000 in funds to ensure their success.
The north building originally had vaulted spaces. Removing walls from the interior and bricks from window openings that had been filled in, the renovation put in huge sheets of glass both buildings. The original concrete floors got polished, and new wood floors went into offices and into a gallery. The south building, originally a garage, became a performance space.
Today, the space includes:
- 3,000 square feet of youth studios
- 2,000 square feet public work space for co-op studios
- Wanda D. Ewing Gallery and performance theater
- Public library room with Wi-Fi
- Courtyard space for programs and performances
The renovation was honored with an Excellence in Interior Architecture Honor award by AIA Nebraska and AIA Central States in 2017; the 2017 AIA Central States Honor Award 2017; the AIA Nebraska Merit Award, and; the 2017 AIA Nebraska Architectural People’s Choice Award.
Throughout the week, The Union for Contemporary Art offers drawing, painting, sculpture, cooking, and other skill-building classes for kids and youth in the basement of the Blue Lion. It constantly hosts guest artists from throughout Omaha and beyond, and helps feed the community with a garden growing behind the Blue Lion. Neighborhood organizations are invited to use the space too, and there’s a tool bank for the community there as well.
Thanks to the leadership of The Union and its funders, there are visions for the future that rely on the Blue Lion. Its been hailed as an anchor for the continuing development of the 24th and Lake Historic District. Its seen as the future of the emerging North Omaha arts community. Despite all that, some community members are suspicious, but stay quiet because of the apparent success happening there.
We’ll see what the future brings to the Blue Lion, but it sure does look bright. The history of the buildings is what gives it a shine!
You Might Also Be Interested In…
- A History of the 1913 Easter Sunday Tornado in North Omaha
- A History of the 24th and Lake Historic District
- A Recent History of the Intersection of 24th and Lake
- The Union for Contemporary Arts official website
- Midwest Design Record on The Union for Contemporary Art – Includes many pics of the current building’s layout, including its historical features.
- The Union for Contemporary Arts by Morrisey Engineering.
- Nancy Friedmann-Sánchez installation at The Union for Contemporary Arts – An example of what an artist’s installation looks like at the Union today, with pictures of the interior.
- The Union for Contemporary Art photo exhibit of the interior by Anna Finocchiaro
- The Union for Contemporary Art by Field Day Development includes interesting interior pics
- “Once Dilapidated, a 100-Year-Old Building Is Now a Thriving Arts Center in Omaha” by Kate Siber for Preservation Magazine, Winter 2018
- “Negroes in the Professions,” from The Negroes of Nebraska by the Federal Writers Project, 1938.
- “Bee-News, 6/2/18” by Ane Frank.