Sam Mercer, a lawyer who became a guardian of Omaha architecture as he transformed a section of the city's downtown from a collection of produce warehouses to a modern Old Market hub of commerce, died Feb. 5 in France. He was 92.
Nephew Nicholas Bonham-Carter, an Omaha businessman, said Mercer died of natural causes at his home in Honfleur, France. His mind remained sharp until his death, although he had lost his eyesight to macular degeneration some time ago, his nephew said. However, he continued to practice law until a few years ago, the associates in the firm serving as his eyes.
Mercer, his nephew said, could talk knowledgeably on any subject related to history and literature, even a little science.
“He was sort of a renaissance man,” Bonham-Carter said.
He also was very interested in art, an interest that ultimately would impact the Old Market.
"We used the Old Market in the beginning as sort of a work of art, a (piece of) performance art that would pay the bills,” said Bonham-Carter. He and Mark Mercer, Sam Mercer's son, still run Mercer Management, the family's management firm in Omaha.
Indeed, Sam Mercer was the central force behind the 1960s redevelopment of the Old Market into attractive streets lined with restaurants, shops and lofts after the decline of warehouses that held vegetables and fruits.
He took ownership of several buildings near 11th and Howard Streets when his father died in 1963, and he began to transform them.
He felt pressure from city officials to tear down the buildings. Mercer sparred with then-Mayor A.V. Sorensen, who Mercer said wanted to raze them.
“I never liked that idea,” Mercer said in a 1993 interview with The World-Herald. “We always thought the buildings had a lot of character and a certain charm.”
Mercer himself opened some of the Old Market's new businesses, including the French Cafe, now closed, in 1969 and V. Mertz restaurant in 1971, which remains.
He had an enduring vision for the area and its 100-year-old buildings and was a pivotal figure in the city's history. Mercer was the structures' savior.
“He was the Old Market,” said Marty Shukert, who served as director of Omaha's Planning Department in the mid-1980s. “No Sam Mercer. No Old Market.”
Mercer, who had a shock of white hair and sometimes wore a cape, first visited Omaha when he was 20. His grandfather, a physician who had the same name, was a founder of the city's first hospital.
Sam Mercer was debonair and charming, recalled Anne Boyle, a Nebraska Public Service commissioner who lives in the Old Market with her husband, former Omaha Mayor Mike Boyle, who served in the 1980s. Mercer was, she said, a genius.
“He has left an indelible mark on Omaha,” Anne Boyle said.
The Mercer family continues to run a management company in the city, and Mercer's son, Mark, lives in the Old Market.
Mercer, who held dual citizenship in the U.S. and England, did not principally live in Omaha.
World-Herald columnist Robert McMorris in 1967 reported that Mercer came to the city three or four times a year, staying at the Mercer family mansion at 39th and Cuming Streets.
Mercer was “the kind of man who can walk into the lobby of the Plaza Hotel in New York and rate a bow and a 'Good morning, Mr. Mercer' from the doorman, even though he never stays at the Plaza,'' an acquaintance told McMorris.
Samuel D. Mercer was born in London in 1921 to Nelson Mercer and Anna Mary Mulholland, who became Anna Mary Mercer. One of their neighbors, Bonham-Carter said, was the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
He attended Oxford and studied law at Yale. He lived for a time in Washington, D.C., where he worked as a lawyer, beginning in 1944 after six months of living in Omaha.
He left for Paris in 1950 after divorcing his first wife, Agnes Mason. Beyond his son, Mercer is survived by his wife, Eva Aeppli, and a nephew, Nicholas Bonham-Carter.
Mercer said in 2009 that Omaha would be a more interesting city if more of its older buildings, including Jobbers Canyon, had been saved.
“You have to think twice before wrecking something,'' he said. “You have to look at the value before you destroy something, before you throw it away.''
Sam Mercer was the son of Anna Mary Mulholland, who became Anna Mary Mercer. An earlier version incorrectly identified Mercer's mother.
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