Lupe Buckingham has always fancied creaky old buildings.
But the local ghost hunter couldn’t shake the image of a certain narrow brick structure she saw recently while flipping through a magazine.
She finally fired off an email to the tenant of that 132-year-old property in downtown Omaha.
To recap more recent history, the building — named after its original owner, Christian Specht — is one of three similar-era structures standing in the path of proposed downtown expansion by Omaha Performing Arts. The City of Omaha is poised to buy and turn over all three buildings to the arts group, which hasn’t announced its ultimate plan for the structures.
Performing Arts Chairman John Gottschalk said that, at least, the Specht’s “historic architectural features could and should be preserved.”
The Specht’s current tenant, Julia Russell, dreads the notion of losing all or part of the historic landmark that for a decade has housed her design studio. (Hence, the magazine ad she placed to drum up support.)
After listening to Buckingham’s spiel, and the suggestion that the Specht might be haunted, Russell thought: Why not? If landmark status can’t ensure preservation, and public outcry turns up short, then perhaps a little supernatural intervention could stir things up.
She agreed to open her doors to RIP — the Rural Investigators of the Paranormal.
Buckingham is RIP’s lead investigator, and she said she’s seen it before: The community value of a historic structure can soar if deemed to be a haunt for dead people.
She cited the old Missouri State Penitentiary, which had a 168-year run as a jail in Jefferson City before closing in 2004. Once dubbed by Time magazine as “America’s bloodiest 47 acres,” the part of the prison grounds that still stands today crawls with ghost hunters and historic tours.
For about four years before she moved to Omaha a year ago, Buckingham was in the thick of it. She was a guide for the jail’s paranormal tours, which helped fuel the budget of the local convention and visitors bureau.
Once, her stationary camera captured a window opening and closing with no one in sight. (That snippet was featured on a “Ghost Adventures” TV episode).
Certainly the Specht history is less creepy and bloodstained than gas chambers and hangings. And the local arts group, which controls the fate of the Specht, does not list paranormal activity as part of its mission.
But the property does have its share of intrigue — including a Berlin-born, rabble-rousing creator who was active in Omaha politics before decamping for sunny California.
Specht in 1884 had the Renaissance Revival-style factory built at 1110 Douglas St. to house his growing cornice company. Among the company’s prized products was the rare cast-iron facade that a century later would help elevate the Specht to a local and national landmark.
According to local historian Ryan Roenfeld, the fiery Specht once was hauled off to jail after he tussled with a warrantless cop whom Specht had asked to leave his factory. News accounts of the day also reported that Specht, while serving on the Omaha City Council in 1891, publicly accused fellow aldermen of accepting “boodle,” or bribes.
A few years later, Specht left the council. Soon after, he left Omaha. Not long after that, part of a Lady Liberty statue — a statue crafted on the second floor of Specht’s factory — fell from atop City Hall, the arm clutching the book of law nearly hitting a pedestrian.
If unexplained things were to surface today, perhaps public curiosity could stave off demolition, say Buckingham and other RIP members.
“Let’s say we capture something — a window opening, a voice,” said former social worker Buckingham. “Other investigators will come.”
RIP’s Ashley Chism, a communications student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said people pay money for the chance to see such a spectacle.
“People are kind of sick-minded,” she said. “They wanna get scared.”
At 9:15 p.m. on a recent Friday — after outside traffic had slowed to a trickle — the Specht’s lights went dim.
Buckingham and Chism stationed themselves on the main level; three other RIP squad members retreated to the chilly basement.
Infrared cameras, recorders, spirit boxes, glow-in-the-dark buttons and other pieces of ghost-outing equipment were positioned on all three levels to capture any nonhuman shapes or voices lurking amid the studio’s inventory of exotic home accessories.
“Mr. Specht, are you here with us?” Buckingham said in a soft yet firm voice seasoned by scores of similar investigations.
Lights on her hand-held electromagnetic field detector flickered.
“The K2 meter is going off now,” she said. “It may indicate something is here with us.”
A series of yes-no questions from Buckingham followed.
“Do you mind if we are in the building? Do you know this building is on the verge of getting torn down?”
“Do you know Julia? Do you like her fancy furniture?”
Despite the electric start, Buckingham after a while noted the lull. She and the video-toting Chism prepared to move to a different part of the building.
Earlier, Russell had told the RIP team that she believes in earthly spirits, and that she might even have had a spirit-in-residence at a previous apartment. But she hadn’t sensed anything strange in her Specht studio.
Co-worker Jacqueline Lovato said she, too, was open to the possibility of ghosts, and wasn’t spooked by what might be roused in the probe.
“It’s a creaky old building,” Lovato said, “but I’ve never had any reason to believe I was not alone.”
Hours later, though, RIP’s Ashley DeBolt and Desiré Marchitello felt otherwise.
DeBolt’s ghost-detecting tools of choice were copper dowsing rods. On the lower-level floor, the energy-conducting rods in her hands slid together several times when she posed questions. Her interpretation: A presence was giving an “affirmative” response.
Then DeBolt and Marchitello felt a rush of cold air. More rod movement.
But a request for the apparent spirit to make a noise was met with disappointing silence.
DeBolt, a kindergarten teacher and former director of UNO’s paranormal club, said her sense overall was that a nonthreatening male spirit or two lingered in the building, which also had been a grocery and warehouse.
To skeptics, she urged an open mind and explained that, at death, some people leave behind energy.
“The energy here feels low, yet calm,” DeBolt said. “Our sense is they care about the building, want to protect it and people in it, but don’t want help from us.”
RIP’s six-hour visit — which included a walk-through and equipment setup — turned out to be just the beginning.
The “sensitives” in the group left the Jan. 29 session convinced that they felt paranormal energy. Buckingham called it “nothing evil and nothing to be afraid of.” Days later, as they started to analyze and amplify recordings, they claimed to have heard an EVP: electronic voice phenomenon. It came after one of the humans asked about going to the second-floor loft area. Is it part of this building?
“No,” says a gravelly whisper.
(Or, maybe a brush against the microphone? A skip in the tape?)
While each of RIP’s six members has had previous field experience, the Specht marked the newly formed group’s inaugural project.
Buckingham said they have yet to pore over more video and voice recordings, but they also have day jobs and studies. They hope for a second visit and plan to document findings on the group’s Web page.
“Ghost hunting is a slow process,” Buckingham said. “Sometimes you get it; sometimes you don’t.”
Proof or not, Russell and Lovato welcomed the new and spirited chapter in the Specht saga.
“If they find something, we’ll take it in stride,” Lovato said. “It will be quite a story.”
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