In the 1980s, when Con Agra set its eyes on Jobbers Canyon, Landmarks Inc set out to protect the historic 6 block stretch of land and buildings. When they failed this David and Goliath feat, they had two choices: Drop the rock and go home, or get a bigger rock.
On July 1, 2013, that rock was born. Restoration Exchange is the love-child of Landmarks, Inc., Restore Omaha and Omaha Urban Neighborhood, a passionate crew of historians, architects, and preservationists. Each a separate entity who lived in or simply loved older properties, and who had been working for years to protect historic neighborhoods from destruction. Each member brought a piece of the puzzle, and a whole lot of heart. The Founding Executive Director, Kristine Gerber, brought the piece that had been missing: a voice.
With a degree in journalism, Gerber had worked for the Omaha World Herald on a 1999 book series highlighting historic Omaha, The Omaha Times Remembered, and a passion for local history was born.
But her mission wasn’t telling people that landmarks had value, it was showing them. Home tours, a yearly conference, and education opportunities gave citizens the tools and empowerment to restore old homes, buildings, and even whole neighborhoods.
“We didn’t want to be those people you see coming and everyone rolls their eyes and wonders how we’re going to ruin their day. We wanted to be the ones who could help them troubleshoot problems with restoration. We come together to find solutions everybody loves.”
“It’s not just about keeping the buildings in place forever, it was about making it beneficial to maintain the history. We lobbied hard for 20% tax credit on historic revenue generating properties.”
Rather than chaining themselves to buildings set for demolition, they work directly with developers and owners to help them find ways to preserve as much of the historical value as possible. Now, developers come to them directly for advice on moving forward with construction. They have built a team and a brand Omaha trusts.
Sometimes you can’t save a building. Historic means old. Sometimes too old to safely maintain.
“That’s when we come to ‘but what can we do?’ Can we repurpose the wood? Can we use the original tiles in the new structure? Save the doors? And sometimes we don’t have the answer, which is why it was so important to grow this into a community effort.”
This scrappy team of volunteers thrived on a steady diet of passion and success, and now has innumerable resources available to anyone who wants help restoring older properties.
“We have developed an online directory of people who know how to preserve these properties. We don’t always have the answer, but now, we know someone who does.”
When undertaking a remodel, clients want names and brands they already know and trust. Being able to direct clients to Pella means that the historical integrity of the structure will be honored and preserved, and the updates won’t just be beautiful, but will last.
These days, to establish yourself as a resource, you have to develop an exceptional online presence. Between the website, directory, and social media accounts, Restoration Exchange has a booming digital voice.
“We started from nothing. Just the volunteers. Now we have followers and we show up in interest groups. If we post something, it’s seen, shared, and interacted with thousands of times. When we have something to say, it gets heard.”
This year’s Nebraska Historic Preservation Conference on March 3rd will be Gerber’s victory lap, and her retirement from the force she has worked tirelessly to invigorate.
“I am so proud of what we have done. We’ve come so far! I was here to provide a voice for this team, and we have it now. Now, we need the next leader to step forward and bring us even further. I’m leaving my title, but not my sense of responsibility. I’m not going anywhere.”
Omaha is thankful for Kristine’s contributions to the restoration and preservation of historic homes and neighborhoods. Because of these efforts, Omaha’s spirited past will be appreciated by generations to come!