A Friday night fire at the historic Chambers Court apartment complex left 33 people without homes.
Eighteen households were displaced by the three-alarm fire, OHA officials said. “We are especially thankful that all of our tenants were able to evacuate, and there were no fire-related injuries,” OHA said in a tweet.
The fire was reported sometime after 6 p.m. at the Omaha Housing Authority apartment building north of downtown at 2102 N. 16th St. “Youth fire play” was the cause of the three-alarm blaze, according to an Omaha Fire Department report.
Built in the early 1900s by immigrant carpenter-turned-contractor Robert Strehlow, the property holds immense historic value for the city, said Joanie Poore, chief executive officer of OHA.
The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.
Poore said all of the displaced tenants’ immediate needs were met by the American Red Cross and Douglas County Emergency Management. The organizations provided gift cards with enough funds to cover several nights in a hotel and provisions such as clothes, food and fuel for vehicles.
With the fire occurring so close to Christmas, the Red Cross will stay alert to possible holiday needs, said Josh Murray, the organization’s regional communications and marketing director.
A total of 12 OHA staff, including senior leaders and the Chambers Court staff, assisted tenants at the scene Friday, Poore said, connecting them with resources, providing comfort and helping de-ice the property as firefighters put out the flames.
A maintenance crew continued to clear ice and debris from the property Saturday morning. Broken shingles littered the grass, and puddles of ice mixed with mud and firefighting foam covered the sidewalks.
Poore said OHA will meet with tenants on Monday and work to get them relocated throughout the week.
“We really want people to be stable as quickly as possible,” she said.
Poore said the roof of the most northeastern building partially collapsed and all 21 units were at least partially damaged. Four units had minor damage, while 17 others sustained extensive fire and water damage. Three of the units were vacant.
Some units may have little to salvage, according to Poore. Until the Fire Department releases the building to OHA and the insurance company makes an assessment, OHA won’t know how best to repair the property, Poore said.
The Fire Department estimated the damage to be $250,000.
Citing OHA’s past renovations to upgrade and maintain the complex, Poore said that keeping the building’s historic value will be a priority.
The three main buildings were christened with names etched in stonework: The Roland, The Majestic and The Strehlow.
It was the Majestic building — the first building constructed in 1905 — that was most damaged in Friday’s fire, according to Adam Fletcher Sasse on his website, NorthOmahaHistory.com.
Strehlow, a nationally known contractor who made his name building structures for world’s fairs and expositions, lived in the grand complex known for its fountain and courtyard benches.
But over time, the property declined. Ownership changed, and the property had a reputation as a cheap place to live and a place with problems.
The city eventually took the property through condemnation proceedings and turned it over to two groups that put about $5 million into the property. Strehlow Terrace reopened in 1990 but closed a dozen years later when the property owners repeatedly failed to pay on a federally insured mortgage.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development foreclosed on Strehlow and transferred its ownership to OHA, which used tax credits and public housing replacement money to fix lead problems and address other issues.
OHA poured $8.1 million into restoring the complex.
After extensive renovation, it was renamed Ernie Chambers Court in 2005 in honor of the longtime state senator who represents north Omaha in the Nebraska Legislature.