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Meet the Old Market’s “Guiding Hand”

By the 1880s, Omaha was in its prime as a prominent railroad center thanks to its central location connecting the established Eastern United States with the Wild Wild West. The city’s Old Market district served as the center of activity and was constantly filled with produce dealers, buyers, and transporters. However, come the 1950s, much of the hustle & bustle ceased and the Old Market began to empty. By the 1960s, many of the century-old brick warehouses were completely abandoned.

Enter Sam Mercer. In 1963, Mercer took over his father’s local Mercer Management Company, which owned some of the fading produce district’s buildings. The Yale and Oxford-educated Mercer, who lived primarily in France, was incredibly sophisticated & artsy; he appreciated the beauty of the Old Market’s architecture. In 1964, Mercer began to meet with local Omaha designers who had the same vision for the district: to redevelop & preserve.

By the late 1960s, Mercer successfully gained control of an assortment of buildings in the Old Market. It was at this point his dream for the district became public, as he wanted to acquire enough of the area’s structures to ensure redevelopment success before unveiling his plans. Mercer & the designers added restaurants & apartments to the district, carefully shaping the new look & feel of the Old Market. The district’s signature spot, The French Café, opened in 1969 and helped legitimize the restored version of the area. Mercer made regular visits to Omaha from his home in France during these early days of restoration & eventually convinced city leaders to join in his enthusiasm for the preservation and renaissance of the Old Market.

Today, the Old Market is renowned for its lively local pubs, delightful boutiques, & turn of the century architecture. It is a cultured, eclectic neighborhood that offers Omaha’s most vibrant collection of artists & galleries. The dining scene has grown tremendously, offering more than 45 thriving bar & restaurant options to locals & visitors alike. Had it not been for the guiding hand of Sam Mercer in the 1960s, the historic Old Market would look much different than this today – it might not even exist. Mercer passed away at his home in France in 2013. Mercer’s son, Mark, continues to guide the Old Market’s development in his father’s memory. He and his wife, Vera, passionately create new ventures and strive to retain the vibrant charm that Mercer so carefully created.

The Magnolia Hotel Omaha is located just blocks away from the Old Market. Book your next stay now!