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Historic restoration projects flourish in Omaha; the Durham's revealed a major surprise

Historic restoration projects flourish in Omaha; the Durham's revealed a major surprise

Historic restoration is an ongoing thing in Omaha.

Right now, for instance, workers are restoring the old Chicago red brick inside the former Omaha Box Co. building near Eppley Airfield.

“There seem to be a lot of places where brick masonry — cool old brick — got painted or drywalled over,” said Tim McGill, president and CEO of McGill Restoration Co. in Omaha. “Everybody wants to go back to that rustic look, so we have been removing paint and restoring it to its original look.”

McGill’s company has been in the thick of repairs and restorations on numerous historic Omaha buildings: St. Cecilia Cathedral and St. John Catholic Church on the Creighton University campus, to name two. A few are more than 130 years old.

One of its biggest projects in the last few years, if not the biggest, was the recent exterior repair and restoration of the former Union Station, home of the Durham Museum.

It was finished just in time for the building’s 90th anniversary this year. Construction on Union Station, an Art Deco terra cotta structure designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood and Co., began in 1929 and was finished in January 1931.

The building was used as a train depot until 1971, when airplanes and the interstate became the preferred way to travel. Union Pacific donated the building to the city in 1973, and it became a museum in 1975.

The veneer repair project began in 2017 at a cost of $2.7 million. It was scheduled to be done in November 2018.

It was the biggest project at the museum since the family of Charles and Margre Durham donated funds to restore it in 1995.

And before long, the 2017 project turned even bigger.

Plans originally were to repair or replace damaged stones and redo all mortar joints. But preliminary work indicated the building had major issues.

“As we got into the project, we discovered problems with the structure underneath the stones,” said Kim Henze, special projects manager for the Durham. “There was quite a lot of rusted metal under there.”

Individual ties that held the terra cotta stones to the backup walls were corroded, “some to the point that they didn’t exist anymore,” McGill said. Shelf angles that support the stones also were significantly rusted.

It all had to be replaced with stainless steel and protected with a type of waterproofing that was nonexistent at the time the station was built, he said.

They brought in consultants, including one from Pennsylvania who had spent his career working on terra cotta buildings. Others involved in the project included Alley Poyner Macchietto architects and Peter Kiewit Sons construction company.

The final cost was more than $4 million and the work was not complete until August 2020.

Henze said the Durham has taken steps to make sure nothing this involved happens again.

“Part of the project was to get the building back to its beautiful state and then come up with a maintenance plan so we never find ourselves in this place again,” she said.

Durham officials also took the opportunity to beautify the museum grounds. Workers redid landscaping, waterproofed planters and installed benches.

That’s not it for restoration at the museum, however. Working with EverGreene Architectural Arts out of New York, they’re planning to restore portions of the Art Deco ceiling in the Great Hall, the large room that houses the entrance, former train station benches, the annual giant Christmas tree and the gift shop.

That project is tentatively slated to start in early 2023 to give the museum time to design the project and to make sure the exterior work solved water-seepage problems, Henze said. She said she’s not sure yet what the interior restoration will cost, though it will be considerably less than the previous project.

McGill said he thinks the exterior work gave the building a new lease on life.

“It should last from here to a long time from now,” he said. “That building is definitely not halfway through its life expectancy. It will be around for generations.”

He’s been doing this work since age 15, when the company was owned by his dad. The senior McGill launched the business in 1984 when Tim was 6 years old.

The son has built on his dad’s reputation as the go-to for historic restoration across the city.

“We are the company that does most of this in Omaha,” McGill said.

Other recent projects have been at the Ashton Building, Omaha Central High School and Mutual of Omaha. McGill said his busy season fires up in mid-March.

He knew early on that he wanted to make construction and restoration his career, and earned a construction engineering degree at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“Ever since (the age) when kids are trying to think of what to do, I thought, ‘I like what my dad does,’ and it intrigued me,” McGill said. “I just loved being around it.”

Our best Omaha staff photos of February 2021

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Betsie covers a little bit of everything for The World-Herald's Living section, including theater, religion and anything else that might need attention. Phone: 402-444-1267.

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