What will John Hargiss, owner of Hargiss Stringed Instruments, do today? Chat with customers? Clean the frets on a 12-string guitar? Strip the linoleum from the kitchen in the Victorian apartment. Or paint the theater's back wall? Ÿ He has so many projects to choose from, you see, and they are all under one roof.
“I spend my days working in the shop and my nights working on this place,” said Hargiss, a craftsman who's been building and repairing stringed instruments — ukuleles, violins, cellos, guitars — for 25 years. “This place” is a 35,000-square-foot building at 4002 Hamilton St., a quiet corner.
After living and working in Benson for nearly two decades, Hargiss recently moved his business. His purchase bought him retail and workshop space, a Victorian apartment above the store and the Winn Theater, a playhouse and a likely stop on the Midwest Vaudeville circuit.
It was a surprise for some when Hargiss, an early colonizer of Benson, moved out of the area that is well into a revival and set up shop in an area that many say is begging to be resurrected.
Benson's revival, which took off about five years ago, continues unabated. In the last year, more than a dozen new businesses moved into the Benson downtown area alone, said Kurt Goetzinger, president of the Benson Business Association. Those new businesses include a deli, pizza shop, combination bicycle and coffee shop, an Aveda salon, Peruvian restaurant and two brew pubs scheduled to open later this year.
Hargiss was a fixture there since the early 1990s, a local history buff, founder of the Benson Historical Society and a member of the Benson Business Improvement District.
“A lot of people were sorry to see him go,” Goetzinger said. “He fit the neighborhood so well. When we put on events, John was always the guy to pitch in. ... He was always reaching out to help.”
A combination of push-pull factors prompted Hargiss, 52, to vacate the former millinery that housed his 2,300-square-foot store at 6061 Maple St, and move everything to the Hamilton Street space. “I love Benson,” he said. “It was a great shop, but after that long a time I was running out of room.”
Goetzinger agreed. “His shop was stacked to the gills.”
Hargiss leased his former shop to Echoes Inspired Photography, a photo studio.
The Benson shop's limited space made it impractical to stage concerts or musical events there, something he always wanted to do, said longtime friend Jill Anderson, an actress and singer.
Other push factors were more subjective, such as the neighborhood's changing nightscape. “The lights go down and it's party town,” Hargiss said.
The district's late night-early morning activity began to eat into his sleep. Hargiss lived in a carriage house behind the shop, an unusual domicile in a predominantly business district.
“Benson was becoming so much about nightlife and bars,” Anderson said. “John was looking for a cultural atmosphere and less of a party atmosphere.”
When a lingerie and adult novelties store moved next door, “it got a little uncomfortable for customers,” said Hargiss, whose clientele has included singer/songwriters Carly Simon, Judy Collins and the late Dan Fogelberg, as well as schoolchildren.
When the 107-year-old Hamilton Street building became available last spring, Hargiss put in an offer and ended up paying about $2.50 per square foot. By contrast, the price of a commercial building in Benson ranges from $20 to $50 a square foot. “Twenty dollars per square foot — that's the low-end, a fixer-upper,” said Jay Lund, vice president of the Lund Co., a commercial real estate firm.
More than 10 times larger than his Benson shop, the purchased building easily accommodates his showroom, a shopful of tools, a luthier school and Hargiss himself.
“That building's got enough square feet, he can literally do anything he wants with it,” Anderson said. “He has plans for a guitar gallery, plans for an antique shop, as well as the theater and miles of storage space.”
Once the Victorian apartment is replumbed, rewired and restored, it will become his home, sweet home.
His neighbors include Olympia Cycle, Neos Auto Repair and a Valero fuel station. “My business is a destination. It doesn't need foot traffic,” Hargiss said.
Built in 1905, the Hamilton Street location has been mostly vacant for four years. Still “everything is in good shape,” said Hargiss, who recently bounced back from bypass surgery.
“This is a new adventure. It's given me a new purpose,” he said.
Through the years, the building has been a mash-up of businesses: most recently the Fortieth Street Carpet Mart, the former Martin's Bakery from 1956 to 1977 and, before that, the former Fortieth Street movie theater. Each added a layer of alterations.
The bakery, for example, removed the theater's seats and sloped floor and added a dropped ceiling, Hargiss said. The carpet store walled off portions of the dressing rooms and stage. The Fortieth Street movie theater, in business from about 1946 to 1953, added a projection room, punching holes in a brick wall for the movie projector's lenses.
Each time Hargiss takes down a makeshift wall or removes a suspended ceiling, the building yields more secrets: tin-stamped ceilings, a watchful gargoyle, Victorian woodwork, the theater's elevated stage.
The most cherished discovery? The long forgotten theater.
“They told me when I bought this place there was no theater there,” said Hargiss, who was clued into its existence after watching 1950-era footage of Omaha's working trolleys, filmed by streetcar enthusiast Richard Orr.
In the black-and-white film, a trolley rolls up 40th Street and swings left onto Hamilton.
“When they made the turn, there's my building and they started talking about the theater,” Hargiss said, excitedly.
Outside, on the building's art-deco facade, a ring of light sockets around a small, square marquis suddenly makes sense. So, too, do the mosaic tiles that decorate the entrance to theater's former box office, which was covered over with vinyl siding.
Hargiss affectionately calls the building “Spookyville.” Its brick and concrete underbelly is catacombed with cellars, basements and stairways. At night, the doors, stairs and who-knows-what wheeze, creak and groan, he said.
For now, Hargiss sleeps inside the theater on its elevated stage. He cooks, eats and relaxes in the living room, dining room and kitchen he has assembled on the auditorium's floor.
But his life on stage is only temporary. Hargiss hopes to have the apartment and the playhouse restored this fall; Anderson hopes for sooner.
“I think its capacity could be around 200 to 250, and there aren't that many theaters in this city that size,” Anderson said.
This week, Hargiss began restoring the theater's original fluted window casings and sashes.
“Every morning I wake up and make a list of what needs to be done,” Hargiss said.
Eventually, he plans to add additional retail space and spruce up the large outdoor courtyard. “I can see having outdoor concerts there, a farmers market, a place to sell arts and crafts.”
He already is concerned for his neighbors, saying he plans to try to get a traffic light at the intersection used by children from nearby Walnut Elementary.
As for what John Hargiss plans to do today?
That could be anything and everything, Anderson said.
“He is a superb craftsman whatever he is working on. He has an eye for detail and he's never afraid of getting in there and rolling up his sleeves. He can do it all.”
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