Omaha Art Deco heritage highlights modern-day city
Standing at the foot of the marble staircase leading to the entrance of the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, I’m tempted to charge up two at a time, Rocky Balboa style. I’m no Rocky, but it’s easy to see how a building with such majesty and grandeur can inspire heroic acts. Covered with pink marble from Georgia, the museum stands as a celebration to the grand era of Art Deco and monumental architectural expression.
Omaha came of age in the 1920s as the center of newspaper, meat packing and railroad empires. Today, the faded glory of those days has been re-imaged and is more glorious than ever, both for residents and visitors alike.
With a history of wealthy contributors and the current headquarters of four Fortune 500 companies, the city of 415,000 shines with the benefits of philanthropy, civic-minded foundations, and visionary city planning. The Joslyn Art Museum, Durham Museum and historic Old Market district prove the past can hold the key to the future.
The art museum was a gift from Sarah Joslyn to the citizens of Omaha in 1931 in memory of her late husband, George, the richest man in Nebraska. George made his wealth as founder of the Western Newspaper Union, which supplied copy to 12,000 newspapers across the nation. Both aspired to share their passion for music and art with others. After George died, Sarah commissioned a 1,000-seat concert hall surrounded by art galleries.
The team of architects infused the Art Deco design with Native American motifs and pioneer themes from the Great Plains. When completed, it was considered one of the finest 100 buildings in the nation.
At the top of the stairs, I swing open the massive door and step into a towering foyer with black marble columns and an enclosed courtyard with a tile fountain. Art galleries open to the sides with the concert hall at the end.
“The museum received a number of important collections of classic European and Western United States art,” Judy Schafer, our docent guide, told us. She explained important paintings from the Renaissance masters through French studio art of the 18th and 19th centuries to the development of 19th century impressionism.
“The museum has about 12,000 works in its permanent collection,” she said.
An addition built in 1994 doubled the size of the museum and houses the Western and Indian art collections, contemporary art and traveling exhibits. “The Great Illustrated West,” a special exhibit through 2012, displayed photographic prints that Andrew Russell took in 1868 during the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad from Omaha to Utah, where the Golden Spike connected the transcontinental railroad.
At the confluence of rivers and railroads, Omaha became the fourth largest railroad and commerce center in the nation. In its heyday, 13 sets of tracks separated the grand depots of Union Pacific and Burlington railways. In 1971, the last train departed Union Station and the Burlington depot closed in 1974. The Burlington terminal, built in 1898 in Italianate style, was gutted and remains boarded up.
Fortunately for Omaha, generous benefactors saved and renovated Union Station to its original splendor and opened it to the public as the Dunham Museum. Rows of ceiling-high cathedral windows with glazed pink glass and massive one-ton, brass chandeliers illuminate the cavernous, 160- foot-long Great Hall. Art Deco designs decorate the 60-foot-tall ceiling and walls and a checkered terrazzo floor with sunburst patterns complements the dark oak woodwork.
“This is one of the finest examples of Art Deco in the Midwest,” Swawna Forsberg, the museum marketing director tells us. “In 1995, Chuck and Margre Durham raised $25 million for renovation. All the furnishings are original. You’re stepping into what the station looked like when it opened in 1931. Just imagine 64 steam engines pulling in and 10,000 people rushing through here every day.”
The awe-inspiring building is only half the attraction of the museum, called the Western Heritage Museum before the renovation. It now qualifies as an affiliate of the Smithsonian Museum, which provides world-class exhibits.
Downstairs at track level, a row of passenger cars stands ready for boarding, or exploring, and a stage coach, steam engine, and Ford Model A illustrate changes in transportation. The museum galleries trace the development of the Great Plains and changing lifestyles from Lewis and Clark through the Railroad era. One exhibit displays a typical household in the 1950s complete with a Formica kitchen table and black and white TV.
“The Swanson TV dinner was invented in Omaha in 1953,” Forsberg tells us.
The Durham Museum sits at the edge of Omaha’s historic Old Market. Once the heart of downtown and center of commerce and manufacturing, the district of red-brick warehouses fell into disrepair. But instead of blight, city planners saw opportunity. Now the four-by-five block area thrives as a vibrant entertainment district. The 100-year-old buildings house restaurants and brewpubs, art studios and galleries, antique and boutique shops, clubs and coffee houses.
“After downtown Omaha burned down twice, the city mandated that buildings had to be brick,” Brian Magee, owner of Upstream Brewing Company told us.
“Our building was built in 1904 as a fire station. The size is perfect for a microbrewery.” The popular two-story eatery blends burgers with an upscale menu, flat screen TVs, pool tables, and of course a thirst-quenching selection of beers.
After exploring the Old Market shops and galleries, I discover an unexpected treasure, Ted and Wally’s homemade ice cream.
Two churns, powered by electricity and cooled the old-fashioned way with ice and rock salt crank the daily choices from a repertoire of 450 flavors. Each day features 10 new flavors, such as Salty Seahorse, Cosmic Coffee Crunch and Sweet Potato Pie, so you never know what delights await.
After sampling several offbeat flavors, I choose a scoop of “Quit Yer Job and Eat Chocolate.”
Luckily, Omaha’s planners, philanthropists and businesses don’t take Ted and Wally’s advice literally. Omaha has turned its rich heritage into a vibrant present and promising future.
George Oxford Miller is a free-lance travel writer and photographer and long-time contributor to Houston Woman Magazine.
France Provence at Terre Blanche
Nestled in the hills with views as far as the eye can see, this posh Four Seasons resort — with its glorious golf courses, award-winning cuisine and one of Europe’s most beautiful spas — is just a short jaunt from the French Riviera.
I was given a dream assignment: To learn and write about the French region of Provence. Needless to say, I took it on with gusto — or better stated, with vigueur!
To do so, I boarded an Air France jumbo jet at Bush InterContinental Airport and awaited take-off. I was flying to Paris and then on to Nice. Admittedly, it would be a delightful trip, and I was eager to get going!
A luxury van picked me (and five other female American journalists) up at the Nice Cote d’Azur Airport about noon the next day and drove us directly to Provence at Terre Blanche, the posh and heralded Four Seasons resort. The 45-minute drive took us through some of the region’s most beautiful countryside.
Arriving at Terre Blanche, we were warmly welcomed by the resort’s general manager and various members of his staff. All were carrying bouquets of fresh flowers for us to take back to our private villas.
Because I would be playing a round of golf the following day, I was taken to a charming villa situated on a hillside overlooking one of Terre Blanche’s picture-perfect courses. I loved it!The interior of my villa was bright and airy, and the decor featured natural wood and stone finishes. The artwork was striking and Provencal in spirit.
There was a separate living room and a large and luxurious bedroom. The bathroom was over-the-top. There was a deep-soaking tub, separate glass-walled shower and double vanity. The Provencal tiles were colorful and charming.
Back in the living room, there were French doors that opened onto a large, private terrace. I was enchanted by the distant views of the valley and mountains and the villages of Fayence and Tourrettes. I was lured outside.I stretched out on a cushioned lounge chair and soaked in the sunshine. My lunch and a glass of Rose wine from Provence were sitting on a small table to my left. Both were refreshing and tasty, though, neither were quite as delicious as simply being there.
After a couple of hours of R&R, I called for a golf cart ride over to Le Spa. Awaiting was a 50-minute Signature Massage — a treat that — after many hours of flying — couldn’t be more appreciated.After signing in at the spa, I was led to the women’s lounge and locker room. I passed a palatial indoor pool. The size of it was amazing and its beauty unmatched by any spa pool I’d ever seen. Standing there, all I could think to say was “WOW!”
When I got to the treatment room, the masseuse encouraged me to relax, close my eyes and think of a place I’d like to visit.She suggested, “Perhaps it is a place with a large body of water with nearby chairs that you can lie on and relax?”
Perhaps she too was thinking of the pool at Le Spa. Or, perhaps, she had simple become very accustomed to water-loving visitors like me who, at that precise moment, could not possibly think of any place else.
Afterwards, I met the other writers and our hosts at the resort’s chic and contemporary restaurant, Faventia (Fayence in Latin). It featured sweeping views of the nearby villages of Callian and Montauroux and a warm and airy interior. There was local stonework on the walls, which provided an elegant backdrop for fine sculpture and art. The evening’s menu was a gastronomical experience; it showcased Mediterranean cuisine with Provencal influences — thanks to our chef, 28-year-old Stéphanie Le Quellec, considered one of the most promising culinary talents in France. (Last year, she won the French version of the “Top Chef” TV series.)Among the many nice things about staying at Provence at Terre Blanche is its close proximity to Fayence, built on a hillside and composed of eight beautiful “perched villages.” It lies just minutes from the Mediterranean coast and dates to 909 A.D. Its name (in Latin) translates to “a favorable location.”Fayence is home to dozens of twisting narrow streets and shady squares, all beautiful and bustling with locals and tourists popping in and out of a variety of tiny shops and gourmet cafes.My traveling buddies and I were driven over to Fayence for dinner on our second night in Provence — to dine at Le Restaurant de France, a popular and very typical French bistro.It was housed in an ancient building, and its atmosphere was warm and cozy and intimate. The owner pre-selected the menu for the night, and all of us were delighted. Multiple courses — two featuring seafood and lamb — were creatively seasoned and prepared in pleasant and surprising ways. All were paired with fine wines from the region. A rich and delicious apple tort with ice cream was the perfect ending to the evening. The following morning, we were treated to an hour-long ride to St. Tropez on the French Riviera. The road took us over hills, into valleys and through more charming medieval villages. The joy-filled journey was a wonderful prelude to our arrival at a truly dreamy destination!
St. Tropez boasts white sandy beaches and stunning architecture. It attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists each year — including many of the world’s most celebrated and elite.
The famous folks, like the rest of us, go to St. Tropez to work on tans, drop money on unneeded things and take in all the sights from behind their trendy Foster Grants. They hang out at sidewalk cafes, sip coffee or wine and hope to see or be seen by some of their favorite film stars.
In the 1950s, St. Tropez became a popular destination for many of the world’s finest artists too, so it was not unusual to bump into the likes of Picasso, Francoise Sagan or Jacques Prévert and others.
Housed in a disused chapel, the Musée de l’Annonciade displays an impressive collection of artworks by Matisse, Bonnard, Dufy and Signac, who set up his home and studio in St-Tropez.
Upon arrival in St. Tropez, we stopped for lunch at L’Escale, an upscale and highly fashionable restaurant located directly across the street from the St. Tropez pier and its impressive line of yachts.
The first thing you notice at L’Escale is the “lack of floor.” There are no stone tiles or wooden boards, just a thick layer of cool, white sand. So, of course, we — like everyone else — took off our shoes before walking in!
Tables were covered with white starched cloths and adorned with silver candelabra, crystal and fresh flowers. Beautiful! The food? Some of the finest Provencal fare in St. Tropez.
After lunch, we took in as many sites as possible, including the 17th-century Citadel, which dominates the hillside. The views (and peacocks) were great. The dungeons there shelter a Musée Naval, dedicated to the town’s maritime history and the Allied landings in August 1944.
We had little time for shopping while in St. Tropez. However, when strolling along rue Georges Clemeneau, we spotted Atelier Rondini. Since 1927, people have been coming to this little shop from around the world to buy custom-fitted sandals. Happy to report one of us walked away with a trendy — and perfectly fitted — pair of red Sandales Tropeziennes.
Our last stop in St. Tropez was a pastry shop on the Place des Lices, the city’s main square.Situated in an ancient, two-story building, the bakery is a must-see for visitors to St. Tropez. It was opened in 1955 by Alexandre Micka, a Polish pastry chef.
Later on, during the making of the movie, Et Dieu...créa la femme (And God Created Woman), Micka began selling sandwiches and pizzas to the film crew. The actors became especially fond of Micka’s large, cream-filled tarts. Brigitte Bardot, star of the film, suggested Micka give the dessert its own name. He did, and it was then the famous Tarte Tropézienne was born!