The brick building in downtown Elkhorn must have caught the eye of Tyler Curnes’ grandfather decades ago when he stopped there to fill up his gas tank. It must have captured the imagination of Curnes’ parents, years later, when they sought in vain to buy it.
But there’s something different about the building these days — six bricks, made completely of glass, embedded in the front wall.
It’s a signature of sorts for Tyler, 26, a glass sculptor. Because now, he owns the place.
Two years ago, Tyler purchased the old automobile service station and dealership that has stood on Main Street in Elkhorn since the early 1900s. A professional artist, he and his family spent those two years restoring the old building, turning it into a gallery and studio while doing their best to retain the historic character of the old place.
The building houses Tyler and three other artists — an acrylic painter, a silversmith and a bronze sculptor.
The group will host a grand-opening celebration for Main Street Studios and Gallery, 2610 N. Main St., from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday. But the gallery is already open to visitors who want to peek past the garage door.
The gallery opening is something of a full-circle moment for the Curneses, who have crossed paths with the old building more than once over the generations.
Decades ago, Tyler’s grandfather, living in Illinois and commuting west on the old Lincoln Highway for work, would stop at the Elkhorn garage, which served as a service station.
“He would stop at this exact building for gas,” Tyler said. “He was able to tell me about the gas station.”
That grandfather’s daughter, Mary, would marry Tyler’s father, Terry Curnes. More than 20 years ago, the couple saw the old building and eyed it as a potential investment, Terry said.
“It was a building we always wanted to preserve because it was one of the cooler old buildings in downtown Elkhorn,” he said.
But the building’s owner, a man named Larry Smith, wasn’t selling. At least not yet.
Smith, a former flight instructor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, had owned the building for years. When he was in high school, he lived there. There was no plumbing — he used an outhouse in the back.
The building was completed in 1912. It served a dual purpose as a service station and car dealership in the days before car dealerships were their own operations.
But in October 2014, Smith, now in his 90s, had decided to sell the building. Tyler, who had come away from a trip to Europe committed to becoming a professional artist, saw an opportunity to build his own studio space.
He bought the building, and soon, he and his father began the process of restoring it.
The building hadn’t been used for anything but storage in years, and it had fallen into disrepair. Windows were broken and there were holes in the walls — in one room, Terry recalled, there was a snowdrift.
It might have been cheaper, Terry said, to demolish the thing and start from scratch. But that didn’t seem like the right thing to do.
“It was a little bit of a labor of love in that regard,” he said.
The Curneses had to dismantle the building, brick by brick, and apply new mortar. They demolished the existing internal walls to make room for new ones; they salvaged wood from an old barn in rural Nebraska to use for the roof.
In the back, Tyler and Terry built an 1,100-square-foot lofted apartment for Tyler to live in.
They did as much of the work themselves as they could until city ordinances required them to bring in a contractor, Phoenix Construction, to do plumbing, heating and other work. Mary helped with the interior design.
As the project progressed, others began to notice.
Patsy Schmidt, president of the Elkhorn Historical Society, has paid Main Street Studios a visit. She said she’s always glad to see interest in revitalizing the area’s historic buildings. Other buildings in Elkhorn’s downtown district, such as Bella Vita Ristorante and Little Scandinavia Store, have long, storied pasts.
Since Elkhorn’s annexation by Omaha in 2007, Schmidt said, she’s seen a resurgence in the downtown area.
“There’s definitely life again,” she said.
Soon after purchasing the space, Tyler realized that he had more than enough room for his own glassworking studio, and he decided to open the space up for other resident artists, similar to north downtown’s Hot Shops Art Center. Main Street Studios houses four artists: Tyler; Levent Oz, a silversmith; bronze sculptor David Biehl; and painter Jane Kathol.
The artists work in individual studios near the back of the store. At the front of the gallery is a retail space where visitors can view and purchase the artists’ work. Each resident artist takes turns running the retail space and receiving visitors throughout the week.
“It is still very new, but even though it is new, it is still very busy,” Oz said during one of his recent retail shifts.
Tyler’s dream is to create an interactive studio for visitors who can watch the artists while they work. And he’s getting there. The gallery has been generating buzz around town, and he and the other artists have seen more visitors pass through the doors as the weeks go by.
There is still space for one or two more artists in the studio, Tyler said. And he’s had interest. He hasn’t committed to anyone yet, he said, because he wants to save the spaces for artists doing something new, something different.
So for now, he’s devoted some wall space to displaying artwork from those close to him — his sister’s mixed media projects, his grandpa’s watercolors.
Fitting, maybe. It’s been a family project, after all.