For decades, the Frank and Velma Johnson Ralston Archives Museum, tucked away in a nondescript house near 84th Street and Park Avenue, has been the only real force behind historic preservation in this small, landlocked town.
The museum, which is open a few hours once a month, is run by about a dozen volunteers. They collect old photos, journals, newspaper clippings, furniture and toys. They advocate for the town’s history, but they have no power to save old buildings from becoming parking lots, gas stations or strip malls, as has happened numerous times over the years.
Now, for the first time, a city-sanctioned historic preservation commission aims to put some weight behind preserving Ralston’s history. And the commission has formed just as the city takes steps toward revitalizing key areas.
“To me, if you lose your old buildings, you’re losing the history and identity of your town,” said Jan Gorman, president of the Archives Museum board of directors and a member of the preservation commission.
Many people who breeze by on 84th Street might not realize that Ralston isn’t just the arena, a collection of houses and a Mega Saver. Drive a bit into the heart of the city, which was established in 1907, and you’ll find a small-town downtown whose shops, offices and bars date back to the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Armed with the commission, the city will be better-equipped to pursue historic preservation grants, said Mayor Don Groesser. And those funds could foster reuse of the buildings and development in the area.
“We’ll have more opportunities to try different things and look at different things,” he said.
The city, which is in Douglas County but can’t increase its boundaries because it abuts Sarpy County on one end and the city of Omaha on the other, has about 7,300 people.
The new Ralston commission is in the beginning stages of identifying sites that should be preserved. No Ralston buildings carry national or local historic landmark designations. And while the commission has yet to make any decisions, Gorman can list a number of potential contenders.
There’s Main Street Cafe, whose building dates to 1912, at 7614 Main St. The recently opened cafe began as an apartment building, became a tavern — Dominick’s — and housed a number of other businesses over the years, including a real estate office and hair salon.
A few blocks away, there’s the Village Bar at 5700 S. 77th St. — the structure dates back to 1890, making it the oldest standing commercial building in town. When a tornado took out much of this area on Easter Sunday in 1913, the bar survived. The property has also been home to a grocery store, pool hall, steakhouse, hardware store and undertaker.
Brock Hatterman, who owns the Village Bar, said he hasn’t yet been approached by anyone from the historic preservation commission. Historic recognition would be nice, he said, but he doesn’t think the building is in any immediate danger. City leaders and downtown business owners have expressed the desire to revitalize downtown, but so far, efforts have been focused several blocks to the east.
In Ralston, the committee and city leaders haven’t yet hammered out what exactly historic status would confer upon a building. Would such a designation make a building harder to tear down? Make it eligible for certain historic tax credits for rehabilitation? That has yet to be discussed.
In Omaha, a historic landmark designation by the city means a property owner would need to get its landmark designation stripped by the Omaha City Council before it could be torn down. A federal historic designation, which is administered by the National Parks Service, is mostly ceremonial; it can be tied to some redevelopment tax breaks, but it doesn’t prevent a building from being torn down.
At a recent Ralston City Council meeting, the city approved a $145,000 conceptual redevelopment plan for its Hinge Project. The effort aims to bring life to the area between the Ralston Arena and downtown — several blocks near 72nd and Main Streets.
The plan’s goal is to get more people to stick around Ralston rather than just driving through. City leaders will work with Omaha-based architecture, engineering and planning firm HDR on the Hinge Project master plan for the next few months, Groesser said.
One notable old building does sit in that Hinge Project area: the Old Ralston Granary, built in 1900, at 7409 Main St. A developer’s plans for the property fell through in January after nearly 15 years without progress. Now it mostly sits empty, except for Bushwacker’s Saloon, located on the bottom floor. A local woman, Donna Kozac, has proposed using the property for a bread museum — that’s just an idea at the moment.
Groesser said he plans to keep the historic preservation commission in the loop as the city develops its vision.
“I’m sure we’ll be contacting and working with them throughout the process,” he said.
Groesser’s wife, Deb, and City Council member Maureen Konwinski sit on the commission. Other members include Gorman, resident Larry Jacobsen and Planning Commission member Dan Walsh.
On a recent afternoon, Rich Shively, a member of the Archives Museum board who comes from a family that’s been in Ralston for generations, stood on the front steps of the Village Bar and rattled off the stories of the old nearby buildings. Dolphen’s Signs used to have a duplex on its second floor. The photo studio across the street was built in 1913 as apartments, then became Strata Oil. A parking lot was once where a phone operator’s house sat.
“I think you learn from history whether it’s your city or your family,” Shively said. “You identify with it. And you take pride in it.”