Saving the Present at the Cost of the Past?

In the Summer 2012 issue of Nebraska History, Daniel Spegel explains the circumstances and powers that resulted in the largest ever demolition of a district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The fate of Omaha’s Jobbers Canyon district played out in a public debate that drew national attention.

Consisting of 22 historically contributing warehouses and four noncontributing buildings, Jobbers Canyon covered 6.25 blocks of downtown Omaha. Built at the turn of the twentieth century, Jobbers Canyon received its nickname because of the urban canyon created by the imposing structures. The buildings were prime examples of changing architecture, and also represented Omaha’s place as “the largest jobbing and manufacturing market in the territory.” In 1986 the Nebraska State Historical Preservation Board unanimously approved the nomination of Jobbers Canyon to the National Register of Historic Places, and the National Park Service approved the nomination on December 4 of that year. Little did anyone know that just months later the buildings’ existence would be in jeopardy.

When ConAgra, a major downtown Omaha employer, decided in 1986 to build a new headquarters, the riverfront seemed like an ideal location. Unfortunately, ConAgra officials were unwilling to include the “big, ugly, red brick buildings,” in the renovation plan. Having seen the success of the Old Market, a plan was submitted to include the repurposed historic buildings, but was rejected. The economic health of downtown Omaha had been declining for years, and Omaha leaders feared that losing ConAgra to another part of town would doom the area as the city expanded. They began pushing for the destruction of Jobbers Canyon to make room for the campus ConAgra executives wanted.

Preservationists around the country were appalled. Many felt that converting the old buildings could revitalize downtown Omaha much better than building over them, and scolded Omaha leaders for their “collective greed and fear.”

In his narrative, Spegel explores the legal actions, debate, accusations of news bias, and behind-the-scenes maneuvers, creating a portrait of a city as it struggled to reconcile the value of history with economic and political pressures.

-Joy Carey, Editorial Assistant

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History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
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