The Bohemian Cafe, a neighborhood icon, and four surrounding structures now belong to an Omaha developer aiming to revive the commercial heartbeat of the city’s old Czech community.
PJ Morgan Real Estate’s investments arm just bought the longtime ethnic restaurant near 13th and William Streets, whose closing last September set off an auction of memorabilia that drew hundreds of nostalgic bidders.
Attached to the Bohemian Cafe sale were neighboring properties owned also by the Kapoun family: the Mystery Bookstore south of the restaurant and, across the street, a brick two-story building and two small houses.
Those five structures contain about 14,000 square feet of building space. The package also includes lots on the intersection’s southeast corner where patrons of the cafe parked. Neither the Kapoun family nor the Morgan company would disclose the price paid for the properties.
Previously, the Morgan company had acquired a trio of other properties in that same pocket that contain about 19,000 square feet. Those include the former Maryland Theatre and a bumper and auto business on the east side of 13th Street.
The new pieces broaden the firm’s effort to breathe more activity into one of the city’s oldest and most storied neighborhood spines. And they bump up to about $4 million the anticipated investment by the company along the corridor, according to Ryan Ellis, president of the Morgan company.
Others, including Omaha’s Clarity Development, have been buying homes and properties in the area as well, seeing the area as a good bet for resurgence, given the proximity to downtown to the north and the zoo to the south.
As for the Morgan cluster, Ellis and colleague Colleen Mason said their vision is to not tear down but instead restore and renovate restaurant, retail and office space that has trendy flair but preserves the enclave’s original character.
That includes the retention of painted exterior murals and interior tin ceilings, and saving boot imprints left in the floor of the bookstore by workers of the old saw shop.
“These buildings were really the anchor, the legacy, of Little Bohemia,” Mason said of buildings centered around 13th and William.
Ellis said they make up “a cool neighborhood fabric — to tear them down and start over, why?”
Details still are coming together for the overall Morgan project site of eight structures.
The first tenant was just secured. Boho Rice, a new Chinese restaurant, will take half the bumper and auto structure, Mason said. It will be run by Nick Bartholomew, proprietor of Over Easy and The Market House.
In Mason’s blog updating Little Bohemia, Bartholomew noted the risk but also pluses of opening a restaurant in a culturally diverse neighborhood.
He sees the restaurant (which will have a patio as well as a late-night, walk-up window) as a stop for zoo visitors and others looking for a good local diner.
Mason said Bartholomew has dibs on the other half of the bumper building, but no set plan yet.
At the former Bohemian Cafe, Ellis and Mason said, the plan is to return a restaurant or two to the building. New tenants most likely won’t serve up old favorites such as Czech goulash or roasted duck.
But Ellis said he’s seeking incoming retailers that are “relatable” to the old neighborhood and its residents.
For instance, he said, the firm would like a barber to move into the part of the Bohemian Cafe that decades ago served as a barber shop. They foresee shops, perhaps vintage clothing or antique retailers, moving into the two small houses across the street.
Atop the Bohemian Cafe, a chunk of space will become an office for PJ Morgan Real Estate. The apartment where Kapoun family members grew up, and most recently was occupied by one of the younger relatives, will remain an apartment leased out by the Morgan firm.
A special touch that makes Mason and Ellis especially excited: the planned enlivening of currently boring alleyways.
The firm plans to add lights along the little-used alley that runs between the book store and the Bohemian Cafe and continues on the other side of 13th Street.
They plan to dot the alleyways with public art, something visitors can touch or hear or “play with.” Examples, Ellis said, could be overhanging bamboo pipes that make music or woodblocks people twist and turn into various designs.
“We’re focused on the community as a whole and honoring Little Bohemia and making sure it becomes a place on everybody’s map,” Mason said.
Preserving the area’s history was important to Terry Kapoun, whose family ran the Bohemian Cafe at that site for nearly 60 years.
Other buyers were interested, but Kapoun said that he and the Morgan team were “on the same page” when it came to honoring heritage and keeping the cafe building intact.
“They just seemed like they really wanted to do it right on 13th Street,” he said.
And even though the sale closed a few months earlier than Kapoun had planned, he was able this past Thursday to pull together 29 family members (plus attorney and high school buddy Tim Kenny) for the family’s “last supper” at the restaurant where they grew up.
At the table was Kapoun’s 89-year-old mom, Mert, who posed for photos with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who were able to race through the restaurant on bikes and trikes, as it was then empty.
They ordered Orsi’s pizza from the neighborhood. The Morgan team sneaked in to pay the bill.
“It was a neat night,” Kapoun said. “What a way to end it, everybody together.”