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$3.5 million effort converts 'Piano Man' building in downtown Omaha to residential condos

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Some downtowners may know the place as the “Piano Man building” — a nickname derived from the whimsical jazz pianist mural that adorned the front windows for 15 recent years. Others may associate 714 S. 15th St. with printing ink, rawhide or other assorted commercial smells that wafted out of its brick and limestone-detailed walls over the past century.

History Nebraska logo (web)

This story was published in partnership with History Nebraska.

But today anyone passing by the historic Swartz-Driscoll will see its most dramatic metamorphosis yet: The Omaha landmark has become downtown’s latest condominium conversion project. A $3.5 million effort turned the former print and book-binding facility into five contemporary homes covered with the structure’s original skin and other features reminiscent of its 1910 roots. The Swartz-Driscoll, whose last few condo tenants are still building out their spaces, continues a trend that has turned numerous obsolete downtown commercial structures into urban living quarters.

Swartz-Driscoll inside windows

The Shiffermiller home still has the Swartz-Driscoll building's original floors and interior bricks.

In this case, the property that’s just north of 15th and Leavenworth Streets has been distinguished as both a national historic place and a local landmark significant for a role in the commercial growth and development of Omaha. Also in a full-circle sort of twist, the site where Swartz Printing Co. rose had earlier been occupied by a residential dwelling, according to its historic landmark application. Downtown industrial and commercial activity eventually displaced such personal residences to neighborhoods farther way from the core. In more recent years, when the urban lifestyle became in vogue locally and nationally, Omahan Laura Shiffermiller saw an opportunity to return the spot to residential use — and to realize a childhood dream.

Shiffermiller, executive director of Restoration Exchange Omaha, said she was inspired as a youth by visits to an uncle who lived above his bicycle shop in a downtown strip in Minnesota. “I’d always been drawn to these older places with a lot of history, a lot of soul, that feel like they have a story to tell,” she said. After raising their children, Shiffermiller and her physician husband, Bill, moved from their west Omaha house and for a decade lived in a Little Italy townhome on the southern edge of downtown.

They bought the Swartz-Driscoll in 2005, after a quest that had her researching properties and leaving letters with owners of buildings she felt could make a great loft home. The conversion project (assisted by about $350,000 in tax-increment financing) was put on hold when the housing market collapsed, and resumed when the real estate industry revved up again. The Shiffermillers, partnering with AO* (Architectural Offices) and Field Day Development, renovated the structure and now reside in about 3,500 square feet that spans half the second floor. They’ve created an open, contemporary home with a rooftop deck off their bedroom.

Cool rooftop deck

The rooftop deck of the Shiffermiller residence in the Swartz-Driscoll building at 714 S. 15th St.

Each of the other condos also is unique. One, for example, has an interesting row of northern windows that get smaller as the grade changes toward the back of the building. Shiffermiller said she and her husband enjoy the proximity to arts and entertainment venues and the Old Market. She likes the residential feel of the neighborhood, which includes several other condo buildings. But she mostly appreciates the building’s historic character, including original floors and interior bricks that still have finger impressions. Outside bricks sport names from yesteryear (Shiffermiller believes they came from students of the old St. Philomena school that used to be next door). And the “Piano Man”? That mural, too, was preserved.

Piano Man front

The exterior of the Swartz-Driscoll building before it was converted to condos. Owner Laura Shiffermiller's daughter, Anne, painted the "Piano Man" mural.

The art was created by the Shiffermillers’ then-teenage daughter, Anne. The Driscoll Leather company had moved out of the Swartz-Driscoll around 2006, and, as its new owners, the Shiffermillers wanted to obscure the fact that the place was vacant. With a little ingenuity, their contractor, Lund-Ross Constructors, moved the mural. The piano man is now the wall of the Shiffermillers’ master bathroom. Shiffermiller said the two-story Swartz-Driscoll is not elaborate, but contains lots of nostalgic charm and a history of business operations that included a newspaper, an engraver, a publisher and a sign company. “Basically we’re treating it like an old beauty that needed a face-lift,” she said. “And we’re giving her a really good one.”

Some downtowners may know the place as the “Piano Man building” — a nickname derived from the whimsical jazz pianist mural that adorned the front windows for 15 recent years.

Others may associate 714 S. 15th St. with printing ink, rawhide or other assorted commercial smells that wafted out of its brick and limestone-detailed walls over the past century.

History Nebraska logo (web)

This story was published in partnership with History Nebraska.

But today anyone passing by the historic Swartz-Driscoll will see its most dramatic metamorphosis yet: The Omaha landmark has become downtown’s latest condominium conversion project.

A $3.5 million effort turned the former print and book-binding facility into five contemporary homes covered with the structure’s original skin and other features reminiscent of its 1910 roots.

The Swartz-Driscoll, whose last few condo tenants are still building out their spaces, continues a trend that has turned numerous obsolete downtown commercial structures into urban living quarters.

Swartz-Driscoll inside windows

The Shiffermiller home still has the Swartz-Driscoll building's original floors and interior bricks.

In this case, the property that’s just north of 15th and Leavenworth Streets has been distinguished as both a national historic place and a local landmark significant for a role in the commercial growth and development of Omaha.

Also in a full-circle sort of twist, the site where Swartz Printing Co. rose had earlier been occupied by a residential dwelling, according to its historic landmark application. Downtown industrial and commercial activity eventually displaced such personal residences to neighborhoods farther way from the core.

In more recent years, when the urban lifestyle became in vogue locally and nationally, Omahan Laura Shiffermiller saw an opportunity to return the spot to residential use — and to realize a childhood dream.

Shiffermiller, executive director of Restoration Exchange Omaha, said she was inspired as a youth by visits to an uncle who lived above his bicycle shop in a downtown strip in Minnesota.

“I’d always been drawn to these older places with a lot of history, a lot of soul, that feel like they have a story to tell,” she said.

After raising their children, Shiffermiller and her physician husband, Bill, moved from their west Omaha house and for a decade lived in a Little Italy townhome on the southern edge of downtown.

They bought the Swartz-Driscoll in 2005, after a quest that had her researching properties and leaving letters with owners of buildings she felt could make a great loft home. The conversion project (assisted by about $350,000 in tax-increment financing) was put on hold when the housing market collapsed, and resumed when the real estate industry revved up again.

The Shiffermillers, partnering with AO* (Architectural Offices) and Field Day Development, renovated the structure and now reside in about 3,500 square feet that spans half the second floor. They’ve created an open, contemporary home with a rooftop deck off their bedroom.

Cool rooftop deck

The rooftop deck of the Shiffermiller residence in the Swartz-Driscoll building at 714 S. 15th St.

Each of the other condos also is unique. One, for example, has an interesting row of northern windows that get smaller as the grade changes toward the back of the building.

Shiffermiller said she and her husband enjoy the proximity to arts and entertainment venues and the Old Market. She likes the residential feel of the neighborhood, which includes several other condo buildings.

But she mostly appreciates the building’s historic character, including original floors and interior bricks that still have finger impressions. Outside bricks sport names from yesteryear (Shiffermiller believes they came from students of the old St. Philomena school that used to be next door).

And the “Piano Man”? That mural, too, was preserved.

Piano Man front

The exterior of the Swartz-Driscoll building before it was converted to condos. Owner Laura Shiffermiller's daughter, Anne, painted the "Piano Man" mural.

The art was created by the Shiffermillers’ then-teenage daughter, Anne. The Driscoll Leather company had moved out of the Swartz-Driscoll around 2006, and, as its new owners, the Shiffermillers wanted to obscure the fact that the place was vacant.

With a little ingenuity, their contractor, Lund-Ross Constructors, moved the mural. The piano man is now the wall of the Shiffermillers’ master bathroom.

Shiffermiller said the two-story Swartz-Driscoll is not elaborate, but contains lots of nostalgic charm and a history of business operations that included a newspaper, an engraver, a publisher and a sign company.

“Basically we’re treating it like an old beauty that needed a face-lift,” she said. “And we’re giving her a really good one.”


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Cindy covers housing, commercial real estate development and more for The World-Herald. Follow her on Twitter @cgonzalez_owh. Phone: 402-444-1224.

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