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Only 50 years old, midtown's Danish Brotherhood building makes National Register of Historic Places

Only 50 years old, midtown's Danish Brotherhood building makes National Register of Historic Places

The resurgence of midtown Omaha has launched a mostly overlooked building with a screw-shaped green spire out of the shadows and onto the National Register of Historic Places.

The Danish Brotherhood in America Building, 3717 Harney St., barely meets the National Register’s minimum age requirement of 50 years. The ornate two-story office building was erected in 1966.

But Omaha preservationists have been pushing to recognize such culturally and architecturally significant buildings while they’re still relatively young. And the new owner, Dundee Bank, was more than happy to seek the listing for the Danish Brotherhood property.

The bank has been involved with several historic properties. Those include the former McFoster’s Natural Kind Cafe, which previously housed a Skelly service station. That building is on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Gold Coast Historic District.

The bank owns the former McFoster’s and is renovating it into a new branch, with the help of Nebraska’s new state historic tax credits.

The tax credits require a National Register listing. But that’s not why the bank pursued a listing for the Danish Brotherhood building. It probably doesn’t need extensive enough renovations to justify the tax credits.

It’s just a cool historic building that seems like it should have the recognition, said Jeff Royal, president of the bank.

“It’s sort of paying deference to a neat building in a really important part of the city,” he said. “It seemed like an extension of what we’re doing.”

The building originally housed the national headquarters of a fraternal order and insurance firm started by people of Danish descent.

The Danish Brotherhood in America was formed in Omaha in 1882. It had lodges in communities around the nation.

By the 1960s the fraternal organization decided it needed a new building in Omaha to house the national headquarters for its fraternal life insurance agency.

The group hired Omaha architect Edward Sessinghaus, whose earlier work had included the Sokol Auditorium on South 13th Street, according to the National Register nomination.

The architect looked to Denmark for inspiration. He found it in Copenhagen in the 17th-century Børsen, also known as the Old Stock Exchange.

“Sessinghaus, in the tradition of the National Romantic architects such as Klint, appropriated the characteristic elements of the Børsen, simplified them, and utilized them to create a new building that evokes ‘Danishness,’ ” says the National Register nomination, prepared by Patrick Thompson of Restoration Exchange Omaha.

Those elements include a hipped roof with red terra cotta tiles and stepped parapet dormers. You don’t have to have an architect’s eye to spy the most prominent feature: the spire.

Attorney Mike Goodman, who with a partner owned the building from 1994 to 2015, says a couple of people joked about an object resembling a screw atop a lawyers’ office. But he knew what it was meant to represent: intertwined dragon tails, a la the “dragon spire” on the Old Stock Exchange in Copenhagen.

The Danish building’s little cousin in Omaha sports a stately boardroom with a wooden ceiling and wood-paneled walls with intricately carved moldings. Those features are intact, as well as the terrazzo floor, marble exterior and other original elements.

The Danish Brotherhood used the building for insurance business offices, board meetings and some cultural meetings, Omahan Delores Hansen said. She worked there and eventually joined her husband, John Duane Hansen, as a member of the organization.

The brotherhood sold the building in 1994, shortly before merging with Assured Life and Woodmen of the World.

The membership was beginning to dwindle and the building was becoming too expensive. The Danish Brotherhood — which still exists as a cultural group, but without the life insurance business — decided to sell.

Goodman and a partner bought it. They put their law offices in part of the building and rented out part.

“It’s one of the most unique and beautiful buildings around,” Goodman said.

It has not been cheap to maintain. But he and his business partner have gone to some lengths to keep it in repair — including spending several thousand dollars to fix the spire when a storm knocked it down five or 10 years ago.

They had to hire a crane to take down the spire. They trucked it to the shop of a metal worker for repairs, then used a crane to put it back on the roof.

Did he give any thought to not repairing the spire?

“No,” Goodman said. “It’s part of the historic character of the building.”

Showing a visitor around the building recently, architect Bryan Zimmer praised Goodman for preserving the building.

The architect, a principal in The Architectural Offices who’s working with Dundee Bank on this and other projects, marveled at the bones of the building and the features and fixtures that remain: Tennessee marble walls, 6-by-16 beams in the attic, Nordic eaves, wooden door handles, a mirrored ceiling in the entryway, wooden inlays and hand-carving on original furniture.

“The architecture in this place and the bones in this building are amazing,” Zimmer said.

Large peaked windows afford views of the historic neighborhood enjoying a renaissance. One window frames the Storz mansion. Another, the St. Cecilia Cathedral bell towers atop a treed ridge. Another, old buildings housing new businesses and new buildings going up in the Blackstone District.

One of the features that caught Jeff Royal’s eye is a Danish Brotherhood crest above the front door. The crest bears initials that Dundee Bank shares with the Danish Brotherhood: DB.

“It seemed like fate,” Royal quipped.

The bank’s general plan is to use part of the building for offices and lease part of it out to a tenant. Royal said they will preserve it.

The National Register listing probably won’t have much practical effect. Its protections would kick in if demolition or certain extensive renovations were proposed to be done using federal funds.

Dundee Bank hired Restoration Exchange Omaha to do the National Register nomination.

“We’re all about starting to look at these 1950s and ’60s buildings,” said Kristine Gerber, Restoration Exchange’s executive director.

Omahans may not view such buildings as historic yet, she said. But they are historic, and recognizing them helps to preserve them, Gerber said.

“What’s so important to us is to be able to save these buildings that make our city unique,” she said.

christopher.burbach@owh.com, 402-444-1057, twitter.com/chrisburbach

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Chris Burbach covers the Douglas County Board, Planning Board and other local government bodies, as well as local neighborhood issues. Follow him on Twitter @chrisburbach. Phone: 402-444-1057.

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