The morning of January 10th, 2016 was uncomfortably brisk; the air bit painfully into my face as I walked down the icy cobblestone streets of the Old Market. A fine mist of water from two nearby firehoses had encased the entire block in ice overnight. The previous day, a Minnesota-based drilling firm struck a gas line while preparing to lay fiber optic cables nearby. The drill had only created a small round hole about the size of a quarter in the pipe, but the gas that was able to escape pooled into the basement of the M's Pub building where it was ignited. Flames engulfed the building for hours before firefighters were able to control the blaze. A family stood nearby as I photographed the scene, wondering out loud whether the historic building could be saved. Another couple walked their dog right past the smoldering, ice-enveloped brick shell as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Something was out of the ordinary; Omaha lost a historic landmark that day.
The damage was carefully surveyed in the months that followed, and it was determined that the exterior walls could be saved from demolition. The revelation was a glimmer of hope, but I remained concerned whether or not the rebuilding effort would be able to maintain the historic integrity of the building Omahans had cherished for decades. It was not until I was able to walk into the construction site and speak with the experts responsible for the restoration that I realized just how much emphasis was being placed on faithfully recreating both the outer structure and interior design of the restaurant. Other than a few very minor changes necessitated by updated building codes, even those intimately familiar with the building would be hard-pressed to notice that anything had changed. No detail was too minute to be missed; the builders took steps as extreme as sourcing materials for the bar countertop from the same rock quarry as the original and maintaining arched brickwork patterns in rebuilt sections of wall from windows removed decades ago. Even Gary Bowen, an architect who worked on the original interior for the restaurant when it was built in 1972, was present to oversee the project.
M's Pub reopened last November, just shy of two years after the fire. Many long-time patrons have remarked that it feels like the restaurant was never destroyed. Why put so much time, effort and expense into restoring such a severely damaged building? Old buildings are reminders of a city’s culture and complexity. Integrating them into our current identity connects us with our past and helps inform our future. Are we willing to keep our community unique and vibrant, where people feel a sense of belonging and are connected to each other? The story of M's Pub serves as a reminder that cities can be friendly to progress while remaining good stewards of our past. Our future is merely a reflection of what we value and is shaped by choices made today.