“Thanks for coming, don’t let the buffalo skins hit you on the behind on your way out. And to remember you, we’ll name the place after you.” It took 26 separate treaties before the United States government was able to displace the Omaha Indians and their fellow tribes from this land. All the while eager settlers across the Missouri River in Council Bluffs were eyeing choice lots - and sometimes prematurely staking illegal claims - in the rolling hills on the west bank. Especially those plagued by the regular flooding of the river.
Finally in 1854 Logan Fontenelle, a chief of the Omaha Tribe, wrapped up the negotiations to cede the land in Indian Territory that would become Nebraska Territory. The town of Omaha was platted immediately and designated the territorial capital. In 1863 Council Bluffs was designated the eastern terminus for the coming Transcontinental River but since the Lone Tree Ferry was still the only way to cross the Missouri River at the time the Union Pacific Railroad began building in Omaha. When the nation was linked by rail in 1869 the town became synonymous with railroading back east. The Union Pacific finally built the first railroad bridge across the river three years later.
The building of the railroads made the loss of the capital to Lincoln with the coming of Nebraska statehood a mere speed bump in the town’s development. A population of 16,000 in 1870 became 140,000 in 1890. The first meat-packing plant opened in the 1870s and in 1883 a feeding station for stock was transformed into the Union Stockyards that attracted four of the country’s five top meat-packers as Omaha became America’s third largest livestock market. Lead from Colorado arrived on the railroads for processing in one of the world’s largest smelters; wheat and corn from the richest farmlands on the planet piled up in the city’s grain elevators and warehouses lined the Missouri River. Nationwide financial turmoil, grasshoppers and drought all tested the town in the 1890s but Omaha was firmly established as the dominant industrial city of the upper Great Plains.
In 1898 Omaha formally announced its emergence from a dusty frontier town by hosting a world’s fair named the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition. During its four-month run over 2.6 million people, including President William McKinley, arrived in Omaha to marvel at 4,062 exhibits. A century later Omaha had successfully executed the tricky transition from industrial hub to a diversified economy with several Fortune 500 companies headquartered in town.
Omaha has never been shy about swinging the wrecking ball downtown. Buildings from the 19th century are as rare today as the great steam locomotives that once chugged intoincomparable Union Station at the rate of 64 train a day. In 1989 an aggressive urban renewal project demolished all 24 buildings in an old industrial and warehouse area known as the Jobbers Canyon Historic District. It was the biggest loss of a National Register historic district ever executed in the United States. The destruction rallied preservationists and there remain historical frocks in modern Omaha’s architectural closet. To poke around, our walking tour of downtown will begin on Farnam Street, the original main street in Omaha named after Henry Farnam of the Rock Island Railroad. And we will start with at 16th Street where a brick intersection designed in the form of a compass symbolizes the great railroad crossroads of the Great Plains...
First National Bank
1605 Farnam Street at southwest corner of 16th Street
With $17 billion in managed assets the First National Bank Omaha is considered the country’s largest private bank. From the day it opened its doors in 1857 as the Kountze Brothers Bank, trading mostly in gold dust and buffalo hides, the banking house has moved into increasingly more spacious digs. This one came along in 1917 from the Chicago architectural firm of Graham, Burnham & Company that was the successor to pioneer skyscraper innovator Daniel Hudson Burnham. The 14-story, U-shaped structure, crafted in a Renaissance Revival style, soars to 210 feet and was the town’s first true skyscraper. The Omaha landmark approaches its 100th birthday as residential space.
ACROSS 16TH STREET ON THE OPPOSITE CORNER IS...
305 South 16th Street at southeast corner of Farnam Street
The Rose Realty Company erected this commercial property as a speculative venture in 1916. They called on Frederick A. Henninger, who worked in town for over forty years and established his reputation as a residential architect, to execute the project. Henninger delivered an orderly Chicago Style design for the six-story building, swathed in rich classical terra cotta details with one of the town’s best ground levels. Today it trundles on as 35 units of city-owned, rent-controlled living space.
WALK WEST ON FARNAM STREET, UP THE HILL (FIRST NATIONAL BANK WILL BE ON YOUR LEFT).
1617 Farnham Street
George B. Prinz learned his architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and tours of Europe. He came to Omaha in 1891 as chief draftsman for the town’s premiere 19th century architect, Thomas R. Kimball. Prinz hung out his own shingle in 1909 and embarked on a long and versatile design career in Omaha. For this seven-story office building in 1929 he tapped the Renaissance Revival style and composing in three parts in the image of a classical column with a defined base (the oversize ground floors), a shaft (the relatively unadorned central stories) and a capital (the ornate cornice). It was the practice adopted in the construction of the first high-rises 40 years earlier but would seldom be seen after this time.
Omaha National Bank
1650 Farnam Street at northeast corner of 17th Street
Frederick Elmer Hill of the legendary New York City architectural firm McKim, Mead & White came to the midwest in 1885 to construct identical office towers for New York Life Insurance in Omaha and Kansas City, giving each town its first skyscraper. Hill used brownstone on the lower stories and bricks the rest of the way up for the Italian Renaissance Revival style with ten-story wings flanking a 12-story tower.. The entranceway is looked after by an eagle with a 12-foot wingspan and a nest of eaglets that was the first significant work of Louis Saint-Gaudens, brother of America’s premier Beaux Arts sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The work contains more than two tons of cast bronze. The building was acquired in 1906 by the Omaha National Bank that was formed in 1857 by Herman and Augustus Kountze, brothers from Ohio in their early twenties. Now the First National Bank and still in family ownership, it is the oldest bank west of the Mississippi River. The bank left these regal quarters in 1972 and the building dodged the wrecking ball to emerge as private office space.
1700 Farnam Street on north side between 17th and 18th streets
Joseph Cullen Root founded the Modern Woodmen of America in Lyons, Iowa in 1883 to “clear away problems of financial security for its members.” Root couldn’t hack his way through the tangled overgrowth of the Modern Woodmen and split for Omaha in 1890 to found the Woodmen of the World. Today there are some 800,000 Woodmen in the United States. In the beginning, as part of their life insurance benefits, members received a distinctive tombstone carved in the shape of a tree stump. While you can still find the Woodmen markers in cemeteries across the country the benefit was discontinued in the 1920s as too costly. The Woodmen have always favored statement towers as headquarters - insurance companies often use impressive buildings on their stationery. In 1912 their 19-story tower at 14th and Farnam was the tallest building between Chicago and San Francisco. The current 478-foot behemoth, which rose on the rubble of Omaha’s 76-year old City Hall and the seven-story red granite architectural showpiece that was the headquarters of the Omaha Bee, was the tallest skyscraper in town when it was completed in 1969.
Douglas County Courthouse
1701 Farnam Street on south side between 17th and 18th streets
This site has been used for the county law since 1879 when a jail was erected on the southwest corner of the block. It was followed in 1885 by the second Douglas County house of justice, although that justice did not always come swift enough for Omahans. On October 18, 1891 John Coe, a black laborer, was being tried for the assault of a five-year old girl. When word erroneously spread that the girl had died a crowd of as many as a thousand men overwhelmed police at the courthouse and hauled Coe from his cell. By the time he was hung from a streetcar wire at 17th and Harney streets Coe was probably already dead from injuries inflicted by the lynch mob. This Neoclassical courthouse, designed by John Latenser, has served the county for 100 years. It too suffered damage at the hands of a lynch mob and riot in 1919 that resulted in the death of a black worker named Will Brown, two deaths in the mob and the hanging of mayor Edward Parsons Smith who confronted the mob saying that if they needed to hang someone, hang him. Smith was cut down by police and lingered near death in Ford Hospital for several days before recovering. When his term ended th enext year, he left politics.
1819 Farnam Street at southeast corner of 19th Street
In 1890 Omaha invested $550,000 in a grand new Victorian pile of a city hall that was awash in towers and steep roofs and gargoyles. Composed of red sandstone above a granite base, its medieval vibe inspired the nickname the “Old Red Castle.” The soft sandstone was crumbling by the 1960s and it was sold to the Woodmen of the Woodmen of the World who tore it down for their new tower while the city government shuffled a block over to this modern office tower.
Union State Bank Building/Service Life Building
1904 Farnam Street at northwest corner of 19th Street
John Latenser was born in Liechtenstein, Germany in 1859, the son and grandson of architects. He trained in Germany before sailing to America and eventually settling in Omaha in 1885. He settled into a long career as one of the town’s most prolfic architects, designing buildings from the Victorian Age into the Art Deco era of the 1930s. Here he added this early expression of Art Deco architecture to the Omaha streetscape in 1927. Spawned from the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in Paris in 1925 the style that emphasized verticality and a clean modern look would soon afterwards become the design of choice for brawny government buildings and high-reaching skyscrapers.
TURN RIGHT ON 19TH STREET.
Bankers Reserve Life Company Building/Farm Credit Building
206 South 19th Street at southwest corner of Douglas Street
This beefy office building was constructed in two phases ten years apart, wedded into a seamless composition by architect Frederick A. Henninger. The east half, fronting 19th Street was raised in 1923 for the Bankers Reserve Life Company and the west half, along Douglas Street was added in 1933 for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal creation, the Farm Credit Association. Passages on each floor linked the sections and enabled all Farm Credit functions to operateunder one roof. After a recent stint of vacancy the building is being reconfigured for apartments.
Northwestern Bell Telephone
1902 Douglas Street at northwestern corner of 19th Street
Northwestern Bell was incorporated in 1896 to handle telephone service in Iowa, Minnesota, the Dakotas and Nebraska. The area had enjoyed rudimentary telephone service since 1878, two years after Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the first telephone, with small exchanges in Deadwood, South Dakota and Minneapolis. Headquartered in Omaha, Northwestern Bell erected a 15-story office tower in 1918 that, with additions through the years, was the tallest building in town for half a century. It was home to The Northwestern Bell headquarters until 1991 when U.S. West merged its three Bell Operating Companies.
TURN RIGHT ON DOUGLAS STREET. AT 18TH STREET TURN LEFT AND WALK THROUGH THE PEDESTRIAN WALKWAY. CONTINUE ACROSS DODGE STREET.
Trinity Episcopal Cathedral
113 North 18th Street at southeast corner of Capitol Avenue
Nebraska’s first Episopal parish was established here in 1856 and served as the base for many Episcopal missions across the West. The Gothic Revival church building, designed by English architect Henry G. Harrison, dates to 1883. Composed of rock-faced Illinois bluestone, the building is laced with 43 lancet windows, some sporting Tiffany stained glass. After three years of construction the price tag was $100,000.
ACROSS CAPITOL AVENUE IS...
Omaha Civic Auditorium
1804 Capitol Avenue
Big-time entertainment came to Omaha in the 1920s with an indoor arena and horse racing complex built to fund the civic and philanthropic activities of the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben. After 1954 most big events and all the town’s sports teams moved into the 9,300-seat Civic Auditorium. Elvis Presley held one of his last concerts here in 1977 less than two months before his death and America’s most memorable Vice-Presidential debate, when Lloyd Bentsen reminded Dan Quayle in 1988 that he was “no Jack Kennedy,” was staged in the convention hall. New facilities being built around Omaha have siphoned much of the recent action from the Omaha Civic Auditorium.
TURN LEFT ON CAPITOL AVENUE. TURN LEFT ON 19TH STREET.
St. Mary Magdalene Church
109 South 19th Street at southeast corner of Dodge Avenue
A simple wooden structure, 24 feet by 40 feet on the east side of Eighth Street between Harney and Jackson streets, was built by Omaha Catholics in 1856, becoming the first church in the Nebraska Territory. Within a decade St. Mary’s Church had grown into four parishes, including St. Mary Magdalene and St. Philomena in Omaha. By 1900 there were more than 70 parishes in the Archdiocese of Omaha. The Romanesque and Gothic-flavored St. Mary Magdalene Church was dedicated in 1903.
TURN RIGHT ON DODGE STREET.
Central High School
bounded by 20th and 22nd streets and Dodge and Davenport streets
When Nebraska Territory was formed in 1854 Omaha was designated as territorial capital. Atop this rise, with views of the entire settlement down to the Missouri River, the capitol building was constructed and it remained here until 1867 when Lincoln wrested the capital away. Although this grand Neoclassical structure looks like a statehouse it is actually a high school. And architect John Latenser envisioned it to be even grander. His plans for Central High School called for a 250-foot central tower that was not built due to lack of funds when the four-story building was completed in 1912. Still in use 100 years later as the oldest active high school building in the city, notable alumni include two Nobel Prize recipients, a Medal of Honor recipient, acting legend Henry Fonda, football great Gale Sayers and the children of Wall Street wizard Warren Buffett.
TURN LEFT ON 20TH STREET.
Scottish Rite Masonic Temple
2001 Douglas Street at southwestern corner of 20th Street
In 1912 the members of the Omaha Valley of Scottish Rite broke ground for their new temple. Architect John Latenser, who brought such Neoclassical monuments to the Omaha streetscape as the Douglas County Courthouse and Central High School, delivered another temple for the Masons. The building covers 47,000 square feet on four floors and opened to the members in the fall of 1914.
Riviera Theatre/Rose Blumkin Peforming Arts Center
2001 Farnam Street at southwest corner of 20th Street
John Eberson was a nationally celebrated theater architect in the 1920s known for his “atmospheric” movie houses that would transport patrons on exotic journeys of the mind. For the Riviera Theatre in 1926 Eberson created a Moorish fantasy with oriel windows and domed towers and columns topped with griffins, all set into a facade of diamond-patterned brick. He crafted the inside to resemble a Mediterranean night with a star-sprinkled sky. Presenting elaborate live performances as well as movies, the Riviera, and later as the Paramount and still later as the Astro, was one of premier stages in the Midwest. Like most of its downtown cousins across the country the grand movie palace lost a war with television and suburban multiplexes and closed in the 1980s. It was one of the lucky ones, however, and was purchased by Rose Blumkin who restored it to its original glory.
Sanford Hotel/Conant Apartments
1913 Farnham Street at southeast corner of 20th Street
John Latenser applied classical detailing to an orderly Chicago Style in 1916 for this seven-story building which he dressed in buff-colored brick. The price tag was $140,000 when completed the next year. This was the second hotel developed by moneyman Harold Gifford in a town that boasted 117 hotels according to the city directory that year. Gifford was an internationally renowned leader in eye surgery and helped found Methodist Hospital and the University of Nebraska College of Medicine. The Sanford was operated to Harley Conant who eventually purchased it and changed the name to the Conant Hotel. It was one of the last high-rise hotels in downtown Omaha before being converted to apartments.
TURN LEFT ON HARNEY STREET.
Omaha Public Library
1823 Harney Street at southeast corner of 19th Street
The first books were lent on a subscription basis in Omaha in 1857 through the Omaha Library Association. The enterprise closed its doors after three years but in 1877 the Omaha City Council levied a tax to fund a public library that operated from a room in the Simpson Carriage factory. This is the first dedicated library building in Omaha, constructed in 1894 on land donated by Byron Reed. Reed, who came to Omaha in 1855 and opened the first real estate office in the Nebraska Territory, was considered one of the greatest collectors of the 19th century. He donated his rare books, manuscripts and a coin collection believed to be the most complete ever assembled to the City of Omaha after his death in 1891. Thomas Kimball designed the three-story structure that served Omaha library patrons until 1977. This rare souvenir from the 1800s is hailed as the best Second Renaissance Revival building in Nebraska.
319 South 17th Street at northeast corner of Harney Street
For this early seven-story commercial building in 1911 John Latenser employed the Chicago Style with horizontal-influenced ornamentation that reflects the emerging Prairie style based on the work of master architect Louis Sullivan.
TURN RIGHT ON 17TH STREET.
Flatiron Hotel Building
1722 St. Mary’s Avenue at Howard and 17th streets
When a diagonal thoroughfare is inserted into an orderly street grid the result is a an occasional triangular lot that often becomes a park because of it awkward footbprint for cosntruction. But not always. The most famous diagonal street in America is Broadway in New York City where the original Flatiron Building was constructed in 1902. It influenced similar triangular construction projects across the country. Architect George B. Prinz tackled this lot in 1912 and created a distinctive four-story Georgian Revival flatiron building, rendered in brown brick and trimmed in limestone. The point of the triangle ends in a circular tower. The money man was Augustus F. Kountze who envisioned the property as office space but within two years it was renovated as a hotel. It celebrated its 100th birthday as office space again.
TURN LEFT ON HOWARD STREET.
Aquila Court building
1615 Howard Street between 16th and 17th streets
Aquila Cook built a brush manufacturing business in Rhode Island in the early 1800s, which his son Ira took control over after returning from the Civil War. After his father died Ira sold the business and came west to build a real estate empire in a young Chicago. His sons Chester Aquila Cook and Raymond C. Cook became trustees of their father’s estate in 1898. In 1923 the Chicago real estate men came to Omaha to raise this block-swallowing four-story structure. The fabled Chicago architectural firm of William Holabird and Martin Roche, in one of their final projects, based their design on the U-shaped structure on the Bargello, a 13th century Italian palace. The Cooks named their mixed-use building, which has been a hotel for long stretches, in honor of their grandfather.
TURN LEFT ON JACKSON STREET.
1517 Jackson Street at southeast corner of 16th Street
Michigan-born George Fisher and Scotsman Harry Lawrie were two of the busiest architects in Omaha in the dying days of the 1800s. This Chicago Commercial Style building from 1910 was one of their last projects before the partnership dissolved in 1913. The client was the Kennedy Investment Company and its most notable tenant was the Union Outfitting Company, purveyors of furniture, rugs, stoves and pert near everything one would need in a home.
TURN LEFT ON 16TH STREET.
509 South 16th Street at southeast corner of Howard Street
John McDonald began as a working architect in Omaha in 1887, building his reputation as a designer of high-end homes. His son joined the business after graduating from Harvard in 1915 and the McDonalds became the foremost cheerleaders for the Colonial Revival style in town. This hotel, constructed for John W. and Lem H. Hill in 1919, is their best commercial work to make it to the 21st century. The Georgian Revival tower was converted into apartments in 1989.
City National Bank Building and Creighton Orpheum Theater
southeast corner of 16th & Harney streets
By 1910, when the Chicago architectural firm of William Holabird and Martin Roche came to Omaha to give the town its first skyscraper, it had established itself as one of America’s leading builders of steel-framed office towers. The client for the 220-foot, 16-story tower was the City National Bank and the price tag was a few pennies north of $800,000. Today it is known as the Orpheum Tower because of a vaudeville house that was added in 1927; it is the descendant of the original Creighton Theatre that was funded with money supplied by John A. Creighton in 1895. Creighton was an Ohio man who spent his early years installing telegraph wires across the West. He settled in Omaha in 1868 when he was 37 years old, running a grocery business in Jobber’s Canyon at today’s Old Market section of town. By the 1890s Creighton controlled a railroad company, was said to own more good Omaha land than anyone else and had endowed through his wife the Catholic university that bears his name.
312 South 16th Street at northwest corner of Harney Street
The Regis Hotel was a major player in downtown Omaha from its inception in 1918 until its shuttering in 1970. Look up above the ho-hum street level to see finely crafted classical detailing on the ten-story structure.
TURN RIGHT ON HARNEY STREET.
Redick Tower/Hotel Deco
1504 Harney at northwest corner of 15th Street
One of the town’s best Art Deco structures is the handiwork of Omaha architect Joseph G. McArthur. The 11-story commercial tower boasts such hallmarks of the form as setbacks, strong emphasis on verticality and decorative terra cotta. It is built on ancestral Redick family land, pioneer settlers of Omaha, and now functions as an upscale hotel.
TURN LEFT ON 15TH STREET.
306 South 15th Street at southwest corner of Farnam Street
Joseph Barker was a well-traveled English minister and author who settled in Omaha during 1856 for a spell, purchasing a large chunk of Nebraska prairie land. He stay was brief as he was soon off on a long lecture tour, preaching against slavery in most of his appearances. Over the years the value of his holdings grew in his absence as he checked back into Omaha only rarely before his death in 1875. This is actually the third Barker Building his descendants constructed here, rising in 1929 on Neo-Gothic plans drawn by James Allan and Noel Wallace. The first two Barker structures burned but it appeared this one’s demise would be scheduled after its was boarded up in 1999. Instead, after a long vacancy it was rescued with an $8.8 million conversion into living quarters.
106 South 15th Street at southwest corner of Dodge Street
Would you pay $1 for this building? Douglas County didn’t want to when it had the chance. The 13-story government building came online in 1934 as the result of federal stimulus dollars during the Great Depression. Like most big government projects from the 1930s it features the stripped down classicism of the Art Deco style. The granite, limestone and brick structure occupies the same site of the first United States courthouse in Omaha, built in 1872. Through the years it did duty for the Internal Revenue Service, the Weather Bureau, the armed forces, the Department of Agriculture and more. When it was declared surplus in the 2000s no government agency wanted the building so it was sold at auction with $23 million plans to turn the old federal stalwart into a 152-room hotel.
TURN LEFT ON DODGE STREET.
First National Tower
1601 Dodge Street at southwest corner of 16th Street
First National Bank’s string of owning the tallest buildings in Omaha culminated in 2002 with this 634-foot tower. It is also the tallest building in Nebraska by more than 150 feet. In a nod to the 232-foot Medical Arts Building that stood here for 75 years a slice of its exuberant facade was retained inside the lobby.
TURN LEFT ON 16TH STREET.
J. L. Brandeis and Sons Store Building
200 South 16th Street at southwest corner of Douglas Street
Bohemian immigrant Jonas L. Brandeis ran a store in Manitowoc, Wisconsin before coming to Omaha in 1881 to start the Brandeis Department Store. J.L. Brandeis died in 1903 at the age of 68 but by 1906 his sons (there were three, including Emil who would perish on the R.M.S. Titanic in 1912) were able to pour $1 million into the grandest shopping palace Omaha had yet seen. John Latenser drew up plans for the eight-story emporium, leaving scarcely a foot of undecorated space in the Beaux Arts creation. Through the years the flagship store grew to ten stories with a penthouse bungalow and its chain of stores expanded to 15.
CONTINUE ONE MORE BLOCK ON 16TH STREET TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT FARNAM STREET.