From outside, the brown brick building at 18th and Howard Streets with sealed-up windows is hardly worth a second glance.
At its meeting Tuesday morning, the Douglas County Board will consider using eminent domain to acquire the unassuming building and then tear it down, along with most of the block southwest of 18th and Harney Streets.
And that’s a shame, says architect Bob Perrin, who bought the 98-year-old building in 2013. Because just inside 420 S. 18th St. is a well-preserved glimpse of Omaha history, he said.
“We don’t have museum pieces like this in town,” Perrin said. “This is an absolute gem — architecturally, historically.”
Built in 1920, the four-story, 40,000-square-foot building has had just two tenants over the years: an automobile sales and service facility and a testing facility for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The general public hasn’t had reason to step inside the space since the Hudson auto dealership closed in 1948.
Perrin wants to change that: He would like to restore the building and build condominiums or offices here.
The proposed new juvenile justice center is a huge project for Douglas County, said County Board member Mary Ann Borgeson. Tentative plans call for a “justice tower,” featuring juvenile courts and related services as well as new offices for the Douglas County attorney and Douglas County public defender. Another building would be a juvenile detention center.
“We have an opportunity to enhance and reform our justice center services for our community, and that location is ideal because of where it sits in relation to our current facilities,” she said.
The Douglas County Courthouse and City-County Building are just across the street from the proposed site.
Tentative plans call for demolishing Perrin’s building, the Omaha Housing Authority headquarters at 1805 Harney St. and an existing Douglas County building on that block.
But Perrin said an important piece of Omaha history would be lost if the county knocked down his building. And this isn’t his first brush with eminent domain, which lets a government entity acquire private property for public use without the consent of the owner.
In 2012, the University of Nebraska Board of Regents used eminent domain to acquire property from Perrin for its University of Nebraska Medical Center expansion south of Leavenworth Street. The move sparked a two-year legal battle that ended in the university paying Perrin $1.98 million.
Perrin bought the building on 18th Street for $470,000 with the intention of rehabbing it as well as using it for storage, he said. But he said he’s in no rush to renovate the building — he has other projects that are priorities, and he works on this one when he has time.
The building had been unused since at least 2010, when the Corps of Engineers moved its lab to Kansas City. It was left in disarray — filled with debris, birds and the remnants of squatters who had broken in and stayed there.
Perrin said he had no idea that it had any historic significance. It’s not on any register of historic buildings.
Then he began clearing it out.
“When we got inside and we started sorting through things, we discovered what was really here — history and magnificence,” he said.
The former auto showroom on the first floor features the original floor, columns and windows. The building has its original plumbing, plaster ornamentation, much of the equipment used by the corps and even some tools used by the auto mechanics. There’s a working 1920 Otis elevator that once took automobiles to all four floors. There’s a third-floor lab straight out of the 1950s. Perrin has found operating manuals for equipment and records dating back 70 years.
Generally, as buildings age, things get replaced. This was not the case here. The Corps of Engineers was using it for testing steel, concrete, water and soil. They had no reason to get rid of most of the building’s original features. It was never remodeled.
“Nobody touched it,” Perrin said. And that’s rare.
He obtained the original building plans from the City of Omaha and photos from the Durham Museum and the State Historical Society. He got in touch with Omahans who worked in the building years ago. He’s been able to piece together much of its history.
In May, Douglas County offered Perrin $900,000 for it. The building is assessed for tax purposes at $457,000, according to the Douglas County Assessor’s Office. He declined the county’s offer.
“They shouldn’t be buying buildings to tear them down,” Perrin said. “They should be trying to preserve our history.”
The county’s juvenile justice center has long been in need of an update, Borgeson said. The sixth floor of the Douglas County Courthouse is old, cramped, dark and gloomy, and there are safety concerns, she said. Children in court for family issues sometimes share hallways and waiting rooms with adults accused of abusing children and with youths who are accused of serious offenses.
The new juvenile justice center would also replace the current Douglas County Youth Detention Center at 1301 S. 41st St. The closer proximity means that law enforcement would no longer need to transport young people accused of offenses from 42nd Street to the courthouse downtown for hearings.
Perrin said he hopes to persuade the County Board to preserve the history of his building, which until recently was largely undiscovered.