Today it looks like a bland industrial space along a decrepit street in a rundown part of Omaha. However, once this gigantic building was a foothold into the middle class for hundreds of workers; and again it was a warehouse to store parts for the homes of thousands across the community. Soon it will have a new future as a tribute to a community scion and African American icon for all times. This is a history of 4402 Florence Boulevard in the Saratoga Belt Line Historic District of North Omaha.
Imperial Sash and Door Co.
Charles M. Reynolds (1882-1966) was a master cabinet maker and woodworker who started his company, the Imperial Sash and Door Company, on North 16th Street. After several years of success and strategic investment, Reynolds started building a factory at North 20th and Boyd Streets on the Belt Line Railway in 1919. (Florence Boulevard was also referred to as North 20th Street.)
Originally located in a 4-story brick building at N. 15th and Charles, Imperial moved to Florence Boulevard in 1919. Starting construction that year, they planned a large brick warehouse style building that cost $32,000 to build. Located on the Belt Line Railway, locating their operation on the railroad was Imperial’s key to their plans for transnational expansion. Originally just an office and warehouse for the company, the building was originally 108′ by 265′ with 50,000 square feet of space inside. The company bought an additional lot facing North 21st for the possibility of eventually building its factory there.
In addition to manufacturing doors and window frames, the company processed wood and made other products too. For 15 years, they made the wooden sash windows that covered much of Omaha, including storm windows and screens. Between 70 and 100 workers staffed the operation, which was the only one the company had at the end of its run.
A victim of the Great Depression and their workforce leaving for World War II, the Imperial Company went bankrupt and closed permanently in 1931.
North Side Expo
Starting in 1921, for a week in April every year the Imperial building played host to the North Side Activities Club Industrial Exposition. With the slogan “Forward, North Omaha!”, products from industrial plants and commercial stores around North Omaha were displayed at the event, and entertainment and speeches were given, too. This type of event went on in the building for almost 20 years, and was also called the North Omaha Merchants Exposition or the North Omaha Trade Expo. In the first year the event had 30,000 visitors and in the second year annual expo in 1922 drew in 40,000 visitors and cost $10,000 to stage. Pics courtesy of the Durham Museum.
Oliver Moves In
Advertised for $32,000 as “an up-to-date building in Omaha with plenty of good trackage on the belt line,” the warehouse sat empty for several years. In 1933, there was a large fire on the second floor that was stopped by four fire companies. Then in 1935, the Oliver Farm Equipment Company leased the building, renovated it for $10,000, and stayed there until 1956. They bought it outright in 1943.
The Oliver Company was a large scale farm equipment manufacturing firm based in Chicago. Its Omaha plant employed 35 workers and made “all kinds of farm equipment” including tractors, combines, threshers, cultivators, pickers, and more. The Oliver Company consolidated its operations in 1956 and closed their North Omaha plant.
In 1956, the Lozier Corporation bought the company to expand its operations and stayed there through the 20002. The Lozier Corporation took a gamble in 1956 when they bought the building. Originally a distribution company for other companies’ products, they began manufacturing their own at the new facility. Originally leasing out half of the space to other businesses, the company took over the rest by 1960.
That year, Lozier bought 17 acres next to the facility and built a new structure, and converted 4402 into offices, a warehouse, and a woodworking shop. In 1965, they made a $1,000,000 investment in the area, again building another large structure to expand their operations. At the end of construction the company had 270,000 square feet of space in the Saratoga neighborhood.
“We are proud to expand in Omaha, and in North Omaha in particular. Our company grew up in North Omaha and we are deeply interested in its future and in the future of the entire city.”Allan Lozier, 1965
In 1967, Lozier built a larger facility on J.J. Pershing Drive in East Omaha, but continued using the Saratoga Belt Line facility for several years afterward. In 1989, the company moved to a new headquarters in the Pershing Drive facility. Winding up their ownership of the Florence Boulevard address shortly after, it was donated to the Omaha Housing Authority in 1991.
Omaha Housing Authority
The first thing OHA did was raise money and renovate the facility extensively. They changed the orientation of the building from east-facing to west-facing, and the address became 4401 North 21st Street.
Starting in the mid-1990s, the Omaha Housing Authority (OHA) operated the site as the Gateway of Opportunities, a program that hired “OHA residents worked in a plant that built doors and windows as part of job training and career preparation aimed at helping people move beyond poverty,” according to the Omaha World-Herald. More than 500 people went through the training programs, which were an homage to the original usage of the building as well as meeting essential needs for the OHA. Ending in 1998, the building was embroiled in controversy when it was discovered the program was bungled by bad finance practices and possible corruption.
The Last 20 Years
Under continued OHA ownership, the building was renamed the Gateway Center and continued hosting job training programs. However, OHA wanted out. There were also continued allegations of mismanagement by the OHA surrounding the building. Around 2003, the Urban League used the building and in 2006, it was a temporary location for the Charles B. Washington Branch of the Omaha Public Library while it was renovated.
Starting in 2015 the building was listed for sale. However, when all attempts to sell it for profit or cost fell through in the next few years, in 2018 the agency held an auction to get rid of the building and it was purchased by a private owner. Its appraised price was $960,000 with annual upkeep costing more than $20,000.
According to documents from the City of Omaha, in 2021 the buyer of the building lobbied the City to declare the neighborhood surrounding the building as the Saratoga Belt Line Historic District. Several buildings were specifically mentioned in the creation of the district, including 4402 Florence Boulevard. Soon after, it was announced that the building would host the Ernie Chambers History Arts Humanities Museum, and opening festivities were announced for October 29, 2021.
The future will show what’s in store for the building at 4402 Florence Boulevard, once a factory, a warehouse, corporate offices, a training center, government facilities, and perhaps, soon an homage to the history and potential of the community.
Special thanks to Michele Wyman and Michaela Armetta for their inspirations and contributions to my research for this article!