A wealthy streetcar suburb in North Omaha was home to businessmen, bankers, doctors and retired pioneers whose money built fine homes, decadent churches and strong businesses. Lined with enormous churches, filled with a lavish history and home to some of the best homes in Omaha today, the fancy area has had many lives. This is a history of the Kountze Place neighborhood.
Where Kountze Place Came From
Popular after the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition of 1898, Kountze Place was a middle- and upper-class development built in North Omaha at the turn of the century. Omaha banker Herman Kountze laid out the neighborhood in 1882 as a commuter suburb, reachable only by streetcars running up and down North 24th Street or wagons along Florence Boulevard. The neighborhood was intended for wealthy people, including Omaha’s bankers, lawyers, doctors and business leaders. Although it took time to become popular, it worked.
The new Florence Boulevard, designed by renowned landscape architect H.W.W. Cleveland in 1890, ran the entire length of Kountze Place. Early on, passengers enjoyed the country ride in their carriages, and later, in their new automobiles. Between its establishment in the 1880s and the 1920s, the neighborhood became home to several lavish homes and distinct family names, giving it an air of exclusivity and wealth. Extravagant churches filled the neighborhood, and all of the luxuries local businesses could provide were at hand, too.
Businesses lined North 24th Street on the north and south ends of Kountze Place, with several dotted along the neighborhood too. There were also hospitals and theatres, the Omaha Old Folks Home and the St. Paul Lutheran School. A reward of hosting the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in 1898 was the fine Kountze Park, with its beautiful lagoon and lush lawns. The Kountze Place Golf Club was located at Florence Boulevard and Emmet Street for a few years, too. Truly, the neighborhood was intended to be and became a grand place to live.
“Herman Kountze has greatly developed the residential parts of the city, having, during the year 1887, laid out one of the finest additions to the city known as Kountze Place, on which 75 of the handsomest residences of the city are in the course of erection, which about as many more to be added during 1888.”—Omaha Illustrated, January 1888
People from Omaha had been traveling to Herman Kountze’s land for at least two decades before the Kountze Place neighborhood was platted. Following what was then called Winter Quarters road, people went a few miles north of present-day downtown Omaha. Spread out on a wide, flat plain, Kountze’s land was an ideal spot for festive events before houses were built on it.
The Douglas County Fair, the Nebraska Fair and several other fairs were held at a large field off of what is now Commercial Avenue since the 1850s. In the 1870s a group of businessmen made a track on that field to race their horse-drawn buggies around. That Omaha Driving Park lasted for the next 25 years, until the turn of the century when the area was subdivided and made into several blocks of housing on Kountze Place’s northern fringe. Legacies of the Park include Sunset Speedway, which originally began on the site, and a car wrecker which still operates there.
Easily the most important event in Omaha’s early history, the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition happened in Kountze Place in 1898. Over nine months over 2.6 million visitors came to the Expo, which had a grand court lined by buildings more than five stories tall and made to look like glimmering Greek temples.
Featuring displays from a variety of industries across the western US, including agriculture, mining, logging and shipping, there were also more than 23 states with exhibitions to promote their wares. A long, wide lagoon carried visitors in gondolas, and new brothels were opened next to the grounds to serve a variety of patrons. This grand parade of importance significantly raised the profile of Kountze Place, and in the following years there was a boom and the neighborhood was filled in.
The buildings were made of a temporary material, and after a second, less-important exposition was held there in 1899, they were all demolished to make way for homes in the neighborhood.
A Wealthy Streetcar Suburb
Herman Kountze envisioned Kountze Place, as an escape from the hustle and bustle of downtown Omaha for the business owners, lawyers and others who worked there. Planting vast acres of trees, laying out sidewalks and street lamps, and ensuring the finest amenities landed him wealthy Omahans and earned his neighborhood high status homes. The only ways to get there were either by wagon, horse, or streetcar. As one of the first so-called “streetcar suburbs” in Omaha, the Kountze Place neighborhood was a commuter’s delight.
According to a 1936 article from the “Social” section of the Omaha World-Herald, the first house in the 1887 development was built at 1816 Wirt Street. An architect named Henry Voss designed it for his own family, including his socialite wife who had her own pottery kiln in the basement. There was a carriage stone at the front door, along with two horse hitching posts along the street for guests. The claim about the house’s role was only partially true though, since there were a few houses built in the area that pre-dated Kountze’s development. Today this house is long gone and has been replaced with a park.
There were many other notable homes throughout the neighborhood. Dr. and Mrs. A.W. Edmiston built the home at 2121 Spencer Street on the north end of Kountze Place. Their home was remarked as “a gathering place for North Side society,” and it was called “one of the liveliest spots in the city.” This house still stands today. Louis Mendelsson, an premier architect in Omaha, owned a large mansion from the 1870s on the southwest corner of North 21st and Emmet Streets. Surrounded by a large iron fence, it was later owned by a doctor who only served Omaha’s high society. This house is long gone.
Wirt Street offers a collection of still-standing homes that are remarkable today for their historical integrity. Originally, the street included the A.D. Jones Mansion that eventually belonged to Anna Wilson, as well as the Weller House, which sat at 2102 Wirt and was larger than the Jones Mansion. The Van Cort House still stands at 2004 Wirt Street, serving as a social hotspot for decades, and the family that built the Shepard House at 1802 Wirt Street owned it into the 1960s.
Similarly, Binney Street is packed with spectacular houses today. There was once a large mansion at 1909 Binney Street that overshadowed many of the surrounding blocks. The John P. Bay House standing on the corner of North 21st and Binney Streets was recognized as one of the finest mansions in Omaha for a long time. Over the years it served as a sanitarium, a retirement home, and as apartments. The Corby House on the northwest corner of Binney Street and Florence Boulevard has been a longtime landmark in the neighborhood.
Several rich Omaha businessmen took it upon themselves to build their mansions in the neighborhood. The John P. Bay House was built by a railroad man who became a mogul who sold ice around the Midwest. The house was later owned by Thomas A. Fry, a highly respected retail businessman in Omaha. The Storz House was built by the owner of the Storz Brewery, Omaha’s largest brewer for a long time. Not far away George Kelley built a house with many materials from his fine millworking plant in downtown Omaha. Similarly, George Shepard was the owner of a masonry plant who built his mansion of the finest works from his business. Today, each of these homes, along with many others, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and / or have been labelled as official Omaha Landmarks.
In addition to businessmen, all kinds of notable Omahans lived in Kountze Place. They included A. D. Jones, a vital early pioneer; John Reagan, a politician and state legislator; Anna Wilson, a notorious madame who left $1,000,000 to charity when she died; and Omaha’s first doctor, Elizabeth Reeves.
One of the most famous residences in Kountze Place at the time was the Redick Mansion. Originally built as a farmhouse in the 1870s, it was refurbished and expanded by real estate genius John Redick. In 1909 Redick’s son sold the mansion to the Omaha University, which eventually became the University of Nebraska at Omaha. In 1917 the University decided to sell the house, and it was sold to an entrepreneur in Minnesota who took it apart and moved it there to be a resort, only to be burnt down there within a decade.
A Golf Course and Glory
The Kountze Place Golf Club was located at Florence Boulevard and Emmet Street. It was a nine hole course that was organized in 1899 and lasted through 1901. The initiation fee was $1 and the annual dues were $2. In 1901, there were 35 members.
A 1936 description of the neighborhood in the Omaha World-Herald romantically described Kountze Place, saying “Tall houses stand today in a northern district of the city that boasts some of the most noteworthy vestiges of architectural grandeur that marked old Omaha. There are gables, balconies, long verandas and slate roofs. Narrow driveways, now paved, wind through porte-cochers to barns twice the size of modern cottages.”
Today, more than a dozen notable homes throughout Kountze Place are still there. Some are important because of who lived there, while others are important for how they look. There are several that are remarkable because of the pedigree of the architect. Among those is a home designed by a nationally important African American architect named Clarence Wigington. Wigington, who moved with his family as a young man to Omaha, became a student of Thomas Rogers Kimball. After learning the craft, Wigington practiced in the city for several years, designing the home at 1820 Lothrop Street in 1914. Wigington’ real vitality came out after he left Omaha for St. Paul; however, his standing work in the city is still an important testament to his ability.
Because it was wealthy, Kountze Place had a lot of services and amenities for its residents. Four hospitals were located in the area. They included the Kountze Park Hospital at 2102 Wirt Street. I’m not sure when it opened or closed, but it was open in 1910. Presbyterian Hospital at 1626 Wirt Street opened in 1892, and moved its services elsewhere later. The Swedish Mission Hospital opened in Kountze Place at 3706 N 24th Street in 1905, and became the Evangelical Covenant Hospital in 1927. Opening a new building in 1931, the facility served a lot of Omahans before it closed permanently in 1938.
Other landmarks in Kountze Place that still exist include the Sacred Heart Church, Calvin Memorial Presbyterian Church, and Lothrop Elementary School. 50 years the Presbyterian Church ran a seminary that graduated hundreds of pastors for congregations throughout the Midwest. The Omaha Presbyterian Theological Seminary opened in 1891 and was closed after the church decided it was redundant in 1943. Located on a block along North 21st Street, after the Seminary closed it was converted to apartments. The Corby Theater is located at North 16th and Corby on the eastern edge of Kountze Place, along with the 16th and Locust Historic District.
White Flight Strikes
A nefarious plot twisted the fate of the neighborhood though, and still affects it today.
The neighborhood stopped being fashionable in the 1920s, when new neighborhoods along Omaha’s western fringes (which then were along 60th Street) started becoming popular. The neighborhood sustained its glory for the next 30 years. In the 1950s white flight spread throughout the area as African Americans moved northward from the Near North Omaha neighborhood. The Presbyterian Seminary was closed in the 1940s.
Race restrictive covenants became popular in Kountze Place starting in the 1920s. The language behind them explicitly enforce white supremacy, including such disgusting phrasing such as,
“This property is conveyed upon the express covenant that it shall never be sold or leased or permitted [to] be occupied by a colored person…”
In Omaha World-Herald advertisements for home buyers and help wanted ads, the phrases “White only” and “No colored” were used for homes in Kountze Place.
While the 1968 Fair Housing Act made racial covenants illegal, it took years for the law to be fully enacted. It was 1970 when the Omaha City Council was asked by Omaha’s chapter of the National Negro Congress to prevent setting up of restrictive covenants by Kountze Park Improvement Association.
By the time racial covenants stopped affecting the Kountze Park neighborhood though, another insidious reality had kicked in after white flight left the area abandoned by white residential homeowners. Instead, many people who lived outside the neighborhood and outside the city owned the houses, and rented them cheaply to people who would live in the neighborhood. Neglectful, dismissive and disinterested in keeping up the value or appearance of this formerly plush “streetcar suburb,” the neighborhood and the area surrounding it plummeted in social perceptions led by Omaha’s mainstream media and popular myth-making. In addition to this, bank lenders, insurance agents and others in the real estate industry tanked the values of the homes in the area further to ensure their demise. While this seemed antithetical to real estate investment, it actually served to ensure racial segregation continued in Omaha—but appearing to be because of economic value rather than skin color.
Kountze Place Today
Today the neighborhood is sustaining; however, many of the grand old houses feel inaccessible to the city’s white community because of the racist, entrenched images of violence, drugs and poverty promoted in Omaha’s mainstream media. As a result of white flight, the neighborhood is almost entirely African American. I have not found home ownership statistics for this specific neighborhood, but if its similar to the rest of the community then its abysmal still. There is little emphasis on home ownership for low-income people throughout Omaha today, and there is a lot of incentive for absentee homeowners to continue allowing the Kountze Place neighborhood and others around it to languish.
Despite this, there are a growing number of efforts to restore the neighborhood from within. The increasingly successful North 24th Business Improvement District (24th BID) is beautifying and improving the corridor through the neighborhood, and other individual buildings and businesses are staging comebacks throughout the area.
Today, the ghost of Kountze Place lingers over North Omaha as its once-powerful residents, including doctors and lawyers and politicians and preachers, have died and shuffled along. We will see what the future holds.
Kountze Place Timeline
- 1860s – Omaha’s founding fathers – rich guys, all of them – build estates up N. 16th St and around North O, including the Kountze Place area.
- 1867 – John McCreary builds his country estate along Saunders Road, which eventually was called N. 24th, and Pratt Streets.
- 1870s – Herman Kountze, one of the two brothers who started First National Bank of Omaha in 1867, buys the land between N. 16th, N. 30th from Locust Street on the south to Pratt Street. He sits on it for a decade.
- 1880s – Kountze starts to sell lots. He lays some sidewalks and places some light posts, and promotes the area as a posh suburb. Eventually he convinces the horse-drawn streetcar to run a line out there, making it seem more exclusive. Some lots sell, but not too many. A few houses are built there, but not too many.
- 1885 – Clifford Mayne buys the Miller farm at N. 24th and Pratt and builds his grand mansion there.
- 1887 – John P. Bay House is built at 2024 Binney Street, and today it is on the National Register of Historic Places.
- 1889 – John Redick buys the Mayne Mansion.
- 1890 – By the insistence of Herman Kountze, Florence Boulevard cuts right through Kountze Place.
- 1890s – In 1897, 3 years after preparation began and everyone got their bids in, Kountze comes in at the last minute and offers his property with a sweet deal: Use mine for the Expo, and I’ll give YOU money, and a park! They take him up on it.
- 1898 – The Presbyterian Hospital opens near N. 16th and Wirt Streets.
- 1898 – The Trans-Mississippi Exposition is held in Kountze Place.
- 1899 – The Greater America Exposition was held in Kountze Place.
- 1899 – Kountze Park opens at 1920 Pinkney Street on the site of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition and the Greater America Exposition, and today it is on the National Register of Historic Places.
- 1900s – The neighborhood fills in entirely by 1920. Big foursquare houses and fine mansions, lots of business and other stuff.
- 1901 – The Jewish community opens a hospital at N. 16th and Locust.
- 1902 – Sacred Heart Catholic Church opens a new building at 2206 Binney, and today it is on the National Register of Historic Places.
- 1902 – The Presbyterian Theological Seminary opens in Kountze Place along Florence Boulevard.
- 1903 – The George F. Shepard House is built at 1802 Wirt Street, designated an Omaha Landmark in 1981, and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
- 1904 – The George H. Kelly House is built at 1924 Binney Street, and today it is on the National Register of Historic Places.
- 1905 – The Swedish Mission Hospital opens at N. 24th and Pratt in the former McCreary Mansion.
- 1907 – John Redick sells his mansion to the new Omaha University, which opens at N. 24th and Pratt, across the street from the hospital.
- 1908 – John E. Reagan House was built at 2102 Pinkney Street, and was on the National Register of Historic Places. It ahs been demolished.
- 1909 – The Charles Storz House is built at 1901 Wirt Street, and today it is on the National Register of Historic Places.
- 1911 – The North Side Christian Church was designed by Lloyd D. Willis (1877-1926) and built at 2123 Lothrop Street. It stands today as Paradise Baptist Church and is unrecognized for its historic value.
- 1928 – The Swedish Mission Hospital becomes Evangelical Covenant Hospital. They have a massive new building constructed that year.
- 1937 – The University of Omaha moves from North Omaha to West Dodge Road.
- 1938 – The Evangelical Covenant Hospital goes out of business and sells its building at N. 24th and Pratt to the Salvation Army to be used for the Booth Memorial Hospital.
- 1943 – The Presbyterian Theological Seminary closes permanently. Grace Bible College is located there for a short period, then moves to South Omaha.
- 1950 – The Salvation Army Booth Memorial Hospital is demolished and replaced with a new building, which is still located there today.
- 1970s – The Presbyterian Theological Seminary building is demolished. It is replaced with public housing projects, which were converted into privately owned condos in the 1980s.
- 1971 – Kountze Park is informally renamed Malcolm X Park by community activists. The Kountze family rejected the renaming and today its still called Kountze Park.
Kountze Place History Tour
- Florence Boulevard, Lake Street to Ames Avenue
- John P. Bay House, 2024 Binney Street
- George Kelley House, 1924 Binney Street
- George F. Shepard House, 1802 Wirt Street
- Site of the Redick Mansion, 3612 North 24th Street
- Original Site of the University of Omaha, 3600 North 24th Street
- Site of the Omaha Presbyterian Theological Seminary, 3303 North 21st Street
- John E. Reagan House, 2102 Pinkney Street
- Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop, 3116 N 24th Street
- Allas / Atlas Apartments, 1609 Binney Street
- Charles Storz House, 1901 Wirt Street
- House, 2438 Manderson Street
- House, 1618 Emmet Street
- House, 1614 Emmet Street
- House, 1805 Wirt Street
- House, 1902 Wirt Street
- House, 2210 Wirt Street
- House, 2004 Binney Street
- House, 2002 Emmet Street
- Clarence Wigington-designed House, 1820 Lothrop Street
- Jacob Williams House, 1905 Lothrop Street
- Rachman House, 1629 Lothrop Street
- Good Tidings Evangelistic Church, 2443 Evans Street (former St. Paul Lutheran)
- Faith Temple Church of God in Christ, 2108 Emmet Street (former First United Presbyterian)
- The Church of Jesus Christ Whole Truth, 3105 N 24th Street (former North Presbyterian, Calvin Presbyterian)
- Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 2206 Binney Street
- Church of the Living God, 2029 Binney Street (former Trinity Methodist Episcopal)
- Rising Star Baptist, 1823 Lothrop Street (former First Universalist (1890), then Hartford Memorial United Brethren (1906))
- Paradise Baptist, 2124 Lothrop Street
- Second Baptist, 1802 Emmet Street (former Plymouth Congregational Church)
- Corby Theater, 2801 N. 16th Street
- St John Baptist, 3912 N. 16th Street
- Good Tidings Evangelistic Church, 2443 Evans Street (former St Paul Lutheran Church)
- Site of the Immanuel Baptist Church, 3499 North 24th Street
- Site of the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, Florence Boulevard and Pratt Street
- Site of Anna Wilson’s Mansion, 2018 Wirt Street (Demolished)
- Site of the Kountze Place Golf Course, Florence Boulevard and Emmet Street.
- House, 2102 Spencer Street
- Safeway, 3603 North 24th Street (1936-1951)
- House, 3124 North 16th Street
- Intersection of North 16th and Locust Streets, including the Grand Theater, Lane Drug, State Bar, and much more
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MY ARTICLES ABOUT THE HISTORY OF KOUNTZE PLACE
General: Kountze Place | Kountze Park | Omaha University | North 16th Street | North 24th Street | Florence Boulevard | Wirt Street | Binney Street | 16th and Locust Historic District
Houses: Charles Storz House | Anna Wilson’s Mansion | McCreary Mansion | McLain Mansion | Redick Mansion | John E. Reagan House | George F. Shepard House
Churches: First UPC/Faith Temple COGIC | St. Paul Lutheran Church | Hartford Memorial UBC/Rising Star Baptist Church | Immanuel Baptist Church | Calvin Memorial Presbyterian Church | Omaha Presbyterian Theological Seminary | Trinity Methodist Episcopal
Hospitals: Salvation Army Hospital | Swedish Hospital | Kountze Place Hospital
Events: Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition | Greater America Exposition | Riots
Businesses: Hash House | 3006 Building | Grand Theater | 2936 North 24th Street | Corby Theater
Listen to the North Omaha History Podcast show #4 about the history of the Kountze Place neighborhood »
- “The Buffalo Bill House” by Teresa Gleason for Omaha Magazine on December 24, 2017.
|“Kountze Place – The Home of Omaha’s Business Men” screamed this 1896 advertisement from the Omaha Bee.|
|Sacred Heart Catholic Church moved to the Kountze Place neighborhood when Herman Kountze donated land, and they’ve been here for more than a century since.|