Restoration Exchange Omaha, Great Plains Black History Museum and a local developer are working together to save the locally landmarked Webster Telephone Exchange building at 2213 Lake Street. The building in the heart of North Omaha was designed by prominent Nebraska architect Thomas Kimball for the Nebraska Telephone Company in 1907. In 1933 the phone company donated the building to the Omaha chapter of the Urban League for use as the Mid-City Community Center. Serving the Near North Side neighborhood, the community center had a library, nursery, dental and medical clinics, and classrooms. The future national civil rights leader Whitney Young kept his offices there in the early 1950s. The center was moved in 1956, after which the building was converted to apartments.
During the 1960s it was used as the headquarters of Great Omaha Community Action. The building was purchased for use as a museum dedicated to the history of African Americans in 1975 by James T. and Bertha W. Calloway. Shortly after, the family donated the building to the newly organized Great Plains Black History Museum.
The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, in recognition of its architectural and historic significance and also designated a landmark by the City of Omaha in 1980. It was closed to the public in 1997 due to the need to replace the 100-year old roof and other needed improvements.
According to Kristine Gerber, executive director of Restoration Exchange Omaha, the group reached out to the Great Plains Black History Museum and volunteered its resources to help save this
historic building. An architect, structural engineer, a developer and specialists in environmental and exteriors assessed the building and found the property was structurally sound and determined it could be rehabilitated at a cost estimate of $2 million.
Findings were presented by the museum to a local developer, White Lotus Group. White Lotus has entered into an agreement to purchase the building to rehabilitate it. “We are very pleased that as a result of the REO study we are now working with a developer White Lotus Group who is conducting their own analysis on not only saving the building but evaluating options on the future uses of the building, “ said Jim Beatty, Chairman and President of the Great Plains Black History Museum.
Arun Agarwal, chief executive of White Lotus Group, said the developer has always had an affinity to historical structures and revitalization projects. “The Webster Telephone Exchange fits well within our capabilities. It is clearly a challenging project, and there are many details to work through, but we are confident that with the community support and availability of state and federal historic tax credits, this iconic structure can be saved and brought back to its former glory,” said Agarwal.
For all three collaborators it is important that the building be rehabilitated and used for something that will benefit the community. According to Larry Jacobsen, Restoration Exchange Omaha Board President, saving buildings like the Webster Telephone Exchange Building respects the previous generations and are constant reminders of Omaha’s past.
“The preservation of historic buildings is a one-way street – there’s no chance to renovate or to save a historic structures once they’re gone, and Omaha, over the past two generations, has lost way
too many structures of historic significance,” said Jacobsen. “From an economic perspective we save construction costs by making use of buildings already there, and those structures are remarkably adaptable to diverse usages.”
According to Beatty the Great Plains Black History Museum continues its pursuit of a permanent facility in order to provide Omahans “a first class Museum facility.” The Museum has been operating its exhibit space at the Crossroads since February 2014. During that time over 2200 people have visited the multiple exhibits held there. Currently the Museum averages a public activity on average every 17 days and, according to Beatty, “is clearly demonstrating its commitment to preserving, celebrating and educating all people on the accomplishments of African Americans in the Great Plains.”