From Buzz Saws to Creative Buzz

From Buzz Saws to Creative Buzz
Omaha Magazine (March/April 2011)
By Wendy Townley

Nestled in North Downtown Omaha sits a sprawling facility that, in its beginning in 1941, manufactured furniture. The Katzman family, founders and owners of Mastercraft Furniture on North 13th Street, likely heard the buzz of saws and other industrial tools in those early years as the city of Omaha grew westward.

What the Katzman family may not have anticipated, some 70 years later, was a different type of buzz: one belonging to a cadre of creative professionals who have made the refurbished building a home base thriving with small business potential.

Today, the Mastercraft building, 1111 N. 13th St., is a 140,000-square-foot facility that houses small businesses such as What Cheer, a website design and development company; Secret Penguin, a youth branding and design agency; minorwhite studios, a collective of professional photographers; Birdhouse Collectible; a retail storefront and interior design studio; and CAMP, a co-working space.
The U.S. Government assumed operations of the Mastercraft in the 1940s to support World War II, but the furniture company promptly resumed manufacturing when the war ended. Mastercraft continued building furniture through the 1990s until, in 2003, the Katzman family sold its business to an Iowa furniture maker and, in 2005, put the building up for sale.

For two years, the Mastercraft sat empty. Bob Grinnell was the winning bidder in 2005, when the Katzman family sold the Mastercraft at auction. The facility was appealing to Grinnell, who owns the building next door for his full-time business, Surplus Sales of Nebraska. But Grinnell wasn’t certain at first what the new Mastercraft would become.

“Fix it up or tear it down? You walked into the building and were first struck by the colossal mess,” Grinnell explains. “We removed 39, 40-cubic-yard Dumpsters of rubbish. That was indeed the ugliest feature.”

Grinnell spent the next few years completely renovating and repairing the Mastercraft. He hired an architect – Paul Nelson of Bahr Vermeer Haecker – who possessed “a clear vision on how to turn a 70-year-old ugly furniture factory into an eye-popping, deco-themed structure that would appeal to the creative business owners I hoped to attract,” he says.

“I love how things have taken off recently and that the building ended up appealing to creative business owners,” Nelson adds. “The plan was designed to be flexible enough for people to adapt in their own space needs and personify their own creative space. Every time I go there I’m totally entertained.”
It was not by accident that Mastercraft’s tenants are as creative as they are diverse, Grinnell said.
“By far, the best decision I made was working a deal to build [What Cheer, Mastercraft’s first tenant] a unique space in the hottest corner of the building,” Grinnell says. “John Henry Müller [of What Cheer] told me he was a creative and that likely, where there was one, more were sure to follow. He did not exaggerate.”

What Cheer’s move to the Mastercraft created a domino effect, with other young, creative groups following suit and renting space in the months that followed.

The creative energy and repurposing of the facility are what attracted Jessica McKay and her interior design business, Birdhouse Interior Design, and its retail shop, Birdhouse Collectible, to the Mastercraft last year.

“I’m a big fan of revitalization,” McKay says. “And the space was different than anything else I had seen around Omaha. The Mastercraft has a very unstuffy feel that I look for in a workspace.”

A stone’s throw from the Mastercraft of today sits the Hot Shops Arts Center; and further south, the Saddle Creek Records/Slowdown development, including Film Streams and Blue Line Coffee; and, perhaps the new crown jewel of North Downtown: TD Ameritrade Park.

Today the Mastercraft is an expanse of creative businesses. Its concrete floors polished to a shiny gloss, its walls many a bank of tall windows that allow sunlight to stream through. Visitors to the Mastercraft will likely see a graphic designer zoom down the hallway on a skateboard or scooter, or hear conversations and collaborations take place on cozy couches or comfy chairs, at all hours of the day and night.

The Mastercraft of today means business, alright, but its businesses are anything but ordinary.