Steve Raglin has watched many of Omaha's buildings slammed with a wrecking ball or burned to the ground.
But the freelance graphic designer always had pieces of these buildings tucked away in his apartment: He owns more than 100 historic postcards featuring images of Omaha and Nebraska.
Raglin juxtaposes these 75-year-old postcards with modern-day portraits of Omaha landmarks and displays them on his website, Postcards of Omaha. The website, postcardsofomaha.com, is designed to encourage people to preserve and repurpose classic structures by showing these old buildings next to their modern-day counterparts.
Raglin has collected postcards featuring images of old Omaha buildings for more than two decades. He combined his hobbies — photography and postcard collecting — to create the site.
He peeks through area antique stores and eBay regularly to expand his collection. He collects postcards on his travels. He even shoots postcards himself, which are sold at the Omaha Visitors Center and downtown shops.
Raglin got inspiration for his site when he stumbled across a picture online of the Manhattan skyline. Someone had merged an older image with a current shot to show how it had changed.
He headed down the street from his Old Market apartment to the old Burlington Station with a small point-and-shoot camera. He tried to mimic the shot with one of his vintage postcards. He couldn't quite merge old and new. So he held the old card in his hand in front of the current building and took a picture.
The Burlington on the vintage postcard in Raglin's hand is clean and pristine. A finely constructed gate wraps around it, and a functioning clock sits in its tower. The modern-day Burlington Station hiding behind it has decaying banners, boarded-up windows and a little bit of graffiti. Other than that, little has changed.
Raglin's pictures capture Omaha landmarks such as the old library, complete with the busts of major authors that line the top of the building. There are some lesser-known spots, too. Raglin didn't know the Singing Tower in Westlawn-Hillcrest Memorial Park was there until he saw the postcard. He also features an entire gallery of postcards of places in Omaha that no longer exist: Monkey Island in Elmwood Park, Jetter Brewery, the old U.S. Federal Building and Post Office.
Some of the buildings Raglin captures have transformed completely. Others look as if time stopped the moment the postcard was created.
Max Sparber, a research specialist at Douglas County Historical Society, said that when businesses and people abandoned downtown Omaha for the suburbs, there was a long decline of downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods. He said this may have actually helped to protect some of the historic architecture.
“If a place is still thriving, there is a tendency to sort of knock down old buildings and replace them with new ones,” he said.
Of course, the decline also caused some buildings to decay, and they were eventually condemned and knocked down.
Many of the buildings featured in Raglin's project were built by “real standout Omaha architects” and served important historic functions, Sparber said. Many are well built and beautiful; there is no point in knocking them down and building something new when old buildings can effectively be rehabilitated, he said.
On some of Raglin's best days, he was able to shoot five buildings in a day. When he captured the historic Mutual of Omaha Building, all he had to do was lean out of his car window. A shot of the Douglas County Courthouse required a little more effort: To get the angle he needed, he went to the Kutak Rock law firm across the street and stuck his head out the window of one of the partner's offices.
It took him more than a year and a number of adventures to get enough pictures for the three galleries on his website.
Raglin has put the nooks and crannies of historic Omaha on display. His project is an opportunity for people to take a virtual tour of the city he loves.