Architect defined Omaha's image with enduring landmarks

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Posted: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 12:00 am

Restore Omaha

» The conference teaches and motivates people to preserve older properties. It includes demonstrations, speakers, networking and solutions.

» Opening reception and tour: Friday, Scottish Rite, 20th and Douglas Streets, 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., $25.

» Conference: Saturday, Metropolitan Community College, South Campus, 27th and Q Streets, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., $40.

» For more information, visit www.RestoreOmaha.org or call 402-578-5618.

Even those who work in and frequent the century-old Scottish Rite Masonic Center in downtown Omaha admit that its business is a mystery to most.

The word “Cathedral” is etched into the four-story limestone building at 20th and Douglas Streets, but it's not a religious institution. Membership is exclusively male, yet its theater and ballroom opened for public use a decade ago.

Visitors are treated to state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems, while men meeting in the lodge room wear color-coded pillbox hats that harken to British regiment caps of the 19th century.

Restore Omaha conference organizers plan to pull back the drapes on the Neo Classical Revival structure during a two-day event aimed at encouraging the public to preserve older properties. A tour and reception at the Scottish Rite on Friday will showcase recent restorations as well as honor the architect behind it and two other historic landmarks within a stone's throw — the Douglas County Courthouse and Central High School.

The three buildings share a distinction beyond their designer, the late Omahan John Latenser. Each has reached a milestone 100-year anniversary.

“To have three of John Latenser's buildings turned 100 years old is really something to be celebrated,” said Kristine Gerber, spokeswoman for Restore Omaha.

Micah Evans, development director of the Scottish Rite Foundation, said Latenser's enduring classical works — which also include the J.L. Brandeis Building and Omaha Athletic Club — reflect a pivotal time in Omaha's history when it was flourishing and moving beyond brick and wood buildings.

“Latenser is considered 'Omaha's architect,'” Evans said. “His buildings define the city's image for the first few decades of the 20th century.”

Restoration tips

» Removing paint from hardware: Place hardware in an old slow cooker, cover with water, add two tablespoons of liquid laundry detergent, then turn heat to medium. Put on lid. Soak overnight. Paint should be soft and ready to fall off the metal.

» Paint removal: Steam softens paint film for easier scraping. This works well with heavy paint buildup commonly found on wooden exteriors of older buildings. It's also good for interior walls and windows.

» Painting old homes: Prep and paint one side of the house at a time. Applying primer, caulk and paint as fast as possible on cleaned surfaces makes paint jobs last, as that limits airborne dust and pollution from returning to the wood surface.

» Removing wallpaper: Use sponge or spray bottle to saturate wallpaper with a solution of equal parts vinegar and water. Let stand several minutes, then scrape for easy removal.

» Making old windows more efficient: Adding weather stripping can make original windows as energy-efficient as replacements. Interior air panels and curtains or roller shades add comfort and boost energy savings.

Source: Past participants of Restore Omaha conferences

Born in Liechtenstein into a family of master architects, Latenser received technical training in Stuttgart, Germany, before emigrating to the United States. He came to Omaha in 1887 after a period in Chicago and is credited with having designed numerous Omaha area public schools, including Central, South and North High Schools.

Latenser's career locally took off in the late 1880s with the now-destroyed Webster Street schoolhouse, Evans said.

The “untested” new architect in town was said to have pointed out flaws in competitors' plans and made a passionate bid for his own, Evans said. School board officials asked Latenser to stay beyond the time allotted, and he ultimately beat out 18 established competitors.

“I won't say the rest was history, but his reputation was on solid ground after that,” Evans said.

Another turning point came in the early 1890s when Latenser came up with a way to correct the faulty foundation of the Federal Post Office in Chicago, said Omaha architect Larry Jacobsen, who prepared the historic landmark application for the Scottish Rite. As a result, President Grover Cleveland appointed Latenser superintendent of construction for the new post office building at 16th and Dodge Streets in Omaha.

Sons John Jr. and Frank later joined their dad in a practice. And in the 1930s, Jacobsen said, 89 of 98 blocks in downtown Omaha contained at least one building designed by John Latenser & Sons.

Today, more than a dozen buildings designed by the senior Latenser are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Jacobsen, vice president of Omaha's Schemmer architectural, engineering and planning firm, said he doesn't know of anyone who had designed as many commercial buildings in Omaha as Latenser.

“When they really started building in stone and classical styles, that was a significant catapult to Omaha in terms of prominence and pride of its buildings,” Jacobsen said.

Latenser died in 1936 at age 78, but several descendants still live in the Omaha area, including a grandson who is the son of architect John Jr. and also is named John Latenser.

Now 90, that younger John became a general surgeon but adorns his house with early drawings of high-profile projects that his grandfather's firm designed, including the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Douglas County Courthouse. Among other Latenser projects are Omaha's St. John Greek Orthodox Church and former Rialto Theater, and Memorial Stadium and Schulte Field House at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“The old guy did an incredible amount of work around Omaha,” he said.

The grandson will be a guest at Friday's tour of the Scottish Rite, where recent restoration projects will be highlighted, including changes two year ago to the 400-seat proscenium theater.

Unique elements remain, such as the original organ and hand-painted stage canvases. Lighting and sound systems have been updated and wood floors installed. Balcony seats are original to the 1914 opening, while lower seats are newer and wider yet fit with the decor.

“It's that balance of using the materials and forms of the past, but adapting to a practical approach today,” said Jacobsen.

During other restoration phases, the main entrance of the Scottish Rite was changed from Douglas Street to 20th Street; new flooring was made to match the original terrazzo bordered with mosaic tile and marble; and a men's “smoking room” became a women's bathroom.

Classical “egg and dart” molding has been preserved, as have carved woodwork, marble, leaded glass doorways, many chandeliers and the original brass collapsing elevator gate.

On the exterior, two Ionic limestone columns rise three stories and frame the portico that defines the former front entrance on Douglas Street.

Originally, the structure, with a cornerstone laid in October 1912, was called the Scottish Rite Cathedral, but the name was changed to avoid misconceptions, Evans said. Members believe in a higher power, but they represent various denominations. Evans said the cathedral title was more of a reference to the structure's grandeur.

The mission of the fraternal organization remains the same also, Evans said: “Making good men better.”

Membership reflects various professions, and a foundation raises money for charitable causes.

Also to be celebrated at the conference is the County Courthouse at 17th and Farnam Streets, a French Renaissance Revival style completed in late 1912; and Central High, a Second Renaissance Revival style structure finished in 1912 that is Omaha's oldest high school still in use.

Latenser's grandson, John the retired surgeon, recalls being a student at Central High and not fully realizing the impact his granddad had on the city.

“As a kid, you don't understand,” he said with a laugh.

As an adult, however, the impact his family had on the landscape of Omaha is clearer.

“A lot has been torn down,” he said. “But when I see one of those buildings today, darn right, you can't help but feel a family pride.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1224, cindy.gonzalez@owh.com

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