Omaha preservationist fights cemetery board in attempt to save historic building

The former office building closed years ago, having since fallen victim to vandals and graffiti artists.
A preservationist is at odds with a metro cemetery over whether to save or demolish a former office building that's been in disrepair for decades.
Published: Feb. 23, 2023 at 10:24 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - In 1909, funeral processions and loved ones decorating graves passed the office of Forest Lawn Cemetery. But the administration moved to a west entrance years ago, and the east gate closed for good -- leaving the over-100-year-old building in its last days.

Forest Lawn executive director Steve Brunken says destructive vandals with their graffiti have painted the building’s obituary.

“That concerns us...what happens if they’re in here and have an accident of some kind or start a fire, what happens then? What’s the liability on that to Forest Lawn?” Brunken said.

The director of Restoration Exchange Omaha says he just learned of the demolition plans two weeks ago and is asking Forest Lawn for time to breathe life back into what he calls a historic Omaha building.

“Our plan is to create a trust and create an endowment to take care of this property,” said preservationist Tim Reeder. “Whatever it looks like, we’d just like the opportunity to sit down and visit with them. It’s too important of a structure to give up so easily.”

But trusting a trust that’s yet to collect donations or grant money is not a chance Forest Lawn seems willing to take.

“The board might listen to their proposal, but who maintains it, who covers the utilities, the taxes, the security on it,” Brunken said.

Reeder has experience restoring historic Omaha buildings and says he needs this one to get a reprieve.

While the east gate is closed, chained, and under lock and key, there’s still a question of security: How do you keep vandals out of the building while money is being raised for restoration?

Reeder says part of the plan is to help them handle the security issue -- not an easy task since windows and doors sealed by Forest Lawn’s maintenance staff have not stopped determined trespassers.

“There are plenty of kids getting up on the fire escape, trying to get upstairs and breaking in,” a worker told 6 News.

But the preservationist says restoration could eventually bring celebrations of life to the cemetery building.

“A facility for people to have ceremonies and lunches after a funeral,” Reeder said. “There’s just so much opportunity.”

And so much liability says Forest Lawn’s executive director.

“This is in pretty bad shape,” Brunken said. “It’s not worth saving.”

Brunken says a demolition contractor has been hired who must finish larger jobs before tearing down the old cemetery office building, aiming to have it done before Memorial Day.

But Tim Reeder says the best way to honor Omaha’s history is to bring the old cemetery office building back to life.

The executive director of Forest Lawn tells 6 News there’s a way the old office building could be saved -- if the preservation group found a way to move it away from the cemetery. But they’ll have to deal with asbestos and lead paint, which will take time, money, and permits.

Reeder believes he can find a lot and raise an estimated $50,000 to move the three-story brick building -- if he can convince the cemetery board to delay demolition.