Historical integrity includes the original facade and interiors of old buildings. It includes some semblance of sustained commitment to the well-being of structures. The story of the Minne Lusa Station at the MUD Florence Water Treatment Plant, aka the Florence Water Works, shows just how challenging it can be.
Throughout its whole history, the city of Omaha has renovated or demolished many historical buildings. In the 1950s, the city government wrecked the Old Post Office and the Old City Hall; in the 1970s, they razed housing throughout the city, especially ripping through North Omaha. During that decade, MUD nearly demolished the gigantic beauty of the Minne Lusa Pumping Station which had once graced the city’s northern fringes. Following is a history of the Florence Water Works including the Minne Lusa Pumping Station.
|The Florence Water Works in the early 1880s.|
|The Florence Water Works in the 1890s.|
|The worker houses at immediately north of the Minne Lusa Station and the Florence Water Works.|
|The backside of the workers’ houses.|
Florence Water Works
Omaha needed water. Originally pulling water from the Missouri River in downtown Omaha or pumping water from wells in their backyards, residents wanted cleaner, more consistent water for drinking, cleaning, and plumbing. Entrepreneurs stepped in.
|The fountain in front of the Minne Lusa Pumping Station was beautiful. In the 1970s it was removed, and in the 1990s it was placed in the lake at the Heartland of America Park.|
The City Water Works Company, a private local company, was established in the late 1870s. Starting construction on a massive new water filtering system along John J. Pershing Drive in Florence, the facility was about seven miles north of downtown. finished in 1880, the Florence Water Works was seen as a marvel. With millions of gallons of capacity, the system drew water up a hundred foot cliff from the Missouri and filtered it through several large pools.
This is a closeup of the entryway to the Minne Lusa Pumping Station at the Florence Water Works.
Living so far from Omaha, several employees lived in company-owned houses on the grounds of the water works, including the plant’s superintendent. The homes were renowned for being large, plush environments guests liked to visit because of the beauty of the water works. The superintendent regularly played host to guests, and was frequently included in the city’s newspapers’ gossip and society columns.
In 1887, the City Water Works Company defaulted on the loans that allowed them to build the Water Works. The company and its facilities were purchased by the American Water Works Company that year.
American operated private water companies in many cities, including South Omaha and Denver, and on the East Coast. They had ambitious plans
|The Minne Lusa Station soon after construction finished in the 1880s.|
|The Minne Lusa Station in the late 1890s.|
|The Minne Lusa Station in the 1890s.|
|The Minne Lusa Station in 1907.|
|The Minne Lusa Station in the 1920s.|
Minne Lusa Pumping Station
|Looking south over the Florence Water Works and the roof of the Minne Lusa Pumping Station in 1915.|
When they bought the system, the American Water Works Company started construction on the Minne Lusa Pumping Station immediately. They hired Mendelssohn, Fisher and Lawrie, an important architecture firm in Omaha in the late 19th century. They designed the building and it was built between 1888 and 1889.
|The backside of the Minne Lusa Station in the 1930s. It was located at the very north end of the Florence Water Works.|
The station was named for a local creek that was later rerouted to the Missouri River at the north end of Minne Lusa Boulevard. A beautiful, massive building made of Warrensburg sandstone, the Minne Lusa Station sat on five acres of landscaped park-like areas. The building had a central tower rising four stories over an arched entrance, and housed a high service pump and huge boilers that filtered water flowed to the city water mains. Jim Dahlman, Omaha’s cowboy mayor, opened the station in a grand ceremony in August 1889.
In 1895, the facility was sold to a local operator called the Omaha Water Works. The company contracted with several others to provide ice and distribute it throughout the region.
In 1912, the Florence Water Works and its Minne Lusa Station were acquired by the City of Omaha and operated by the Metropolitan Utilities District (MUD).
Taking Away and Restoring History
After operating it for almost 60 years, in 1970 MUD took the direction of local Frank N. Latenser of the firm John Latenser & Sons. Frank was an active preservation advocate who launched an effort to install a Florence History Park similar to Colonial Williamsburg. However, he was also the architect responsible for the desecration of the Minne Lusa Pumping Station. In the late 1960s, he drafted plans for the “modernization” of the plant. These designs…
- Removed the four-story tower;
- Removed the entryway;
- Removed the fountain at the entryway;
- Clad the remainder with metal siding and a new roof.
Demolition was underway and redevelopment happened. MUD renamed the structure as the Howell Filter Plant and went on operating the water works for the next 40 years.
|According to the Omaha World-Herald, the MUD remodeled the Minne Lusa Station on April 11, 1970.|
Starting in 2013, MUD began exploring renovating and restoring the Florence filter plant. Local architectural firm HDR redesigned and re-engineered the structure for MUD. In addition to updating many of the engineering apparatuses within the plant, HDR succeeded in bringing back some of the historical value of the building, restoring the arched windows and installing an appropriate roof for the structure. Their work won several national awards, and the Howell Filter Building at the Florence Water Treatment Plant has been toured by the Nebraska Chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Its held in high regard within its field, and today stands as a new testament for MUD’s commitment to the community.
Missouri River Intakes
Originally built in the 1910s, the Missouri River Intakes were designed to draw water from the river and into the settling ponds at the Florence Water Works. Designed in a park-like fashion, they were as regal at the City’s popular Walnut Hill Reservoir originally. Today, although they’re fenced in and off-limits to the public, they still serve the same purpose for the Metropolitan Utilities District.
|The Missouri River Intakes as they appeared in 1919.|
Today, the Florence Water Works continues to filter water for the city as part of MUD.
In 2017, MUD began restoring the plant as part of a larger program to improve the plant. Removing the metal cladding, they reinvigorated the building’s exterior and reinstalled the original window shapes, and more.
Today, the remainder of the old Minne Lusa Station stands proudly near J.J. Pershing Drive and is the site of MUD’s water treatment plant museum.
- Walnut Hill Reservoir
- A history of the Florence Water Works and the Minne Lusa Pumping Station on the North Omaha History Podcast
- Historic Florence article on the Florence Water Works
- Trial and Triumph: The First 100 years of the Metropolitan Utilities District
- Florence Water Treatment Plant – Vrana was a construction contractor on the 2014-16 renovation
|A pic from a 1958 magazine shows a sterilizing basin at the Florence Water Works.|
|These are presedimentation basins where sand and larger silt particles are filtered out, from a 1958 magazine feature.|