This entry is by Linda Williams, an up-and-coming architect and local historian in Omaha. Check out her bio following the story, and share your comments!
Growing Up in Omaha
Clarence ‘Cap’ Wigington, was Omaha’s first African-American Architect. Born in 1883 in Lawrence, Kansas, his parents moved to Omaha when he was just 5 months old. They lived throughout the city, including the Walnut Hill neighborhood. He did not start school until he was 10 years, but went on to Omaha High School (now Central) and finished eight years of school in just five years. When he was 15 years old, Wigington won three first prizes in charcoal, pencil, and pen and ink at an art competition at Omaha’s 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition.
Cap also went to art school in the evenings while he was in high school. Because of his promise and determination, two of his teachers paid half of his tuition. Finishing school, he became an apprentice to Omaha’s highly renowned architect Thomas Kimball. Kimball, who attended the L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, France, brought the classical style to Omaha. His designs for St. Cecilia’s Cathedral and the city’s first public library are still among some of the most ornate designs in the downtown area. He also designed several residences in North Omaha.
Career in Omaha
Wigington apprenticed for Kimball for 6 years, and despite never receiving formal training, he started his own firm in downtown Omaha. Wigington designed Zion Baptist Church at N. 22nd and Grant Streets, and a house on N. 28th Avenue and Pratt Street for a custodian; another on N. 18th and Lothrop Streets for a doctor; and a duplex just south of Midtown Omaha at 125-127 S. 38th Street. However, Wigington frequently went without commissions. Instead of sitting idle, he entered into architecture contests and often won first place prizes.
In his personal life, he married his wife Viola, who was of black, cherokee and white descent, and had two daughters, names of Mildred and Muriel. His daughter Mildred and her husband gave Wigington a grandson by the name of Michael Bohanon. During his lifetime, he also served as president of Omaha’s Urban League chapter.
With increasing racial discrimination in Omaha, Wigington left the city in the 1910s. He moved his family to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he became city architect. He designed numerous public places there, including the Central Park, high schools, and other public works. Wigington served in the Minnesota National Guard, which is where he received the nickname “Cap” while he held the rank of Captain. By 1918, Wigington petitioned Minnesota’s Governor Burnquist to formulate a separate African-American battalion. Even though the governor was active in the NAACP, he granted the petition anyway to satisfy white citizens, who still believed in segregation.
After retiring from the City of St. Paul in 1949, Wigington opened an office in Los Angeles. He moved to Kansas City, Missouri in 1967, and died later that year. Today, several of his buildings in St. Paul are on the National Register of Historic Places, and he is recognized as one of the nation’s first African American architects.
Recognizing a Legacy
A book called Cap Wigington-An Architectural Legacy in Ice and Stone explores Wigington’s architectural legacy. It also highlights the ice palaces Wigington used to design for St. Paul’s winter festivals where residences could ice skate in Central Park. The main author of the book, David Vassar Taylor, is an African-American who graduated from the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
At the end of the book, there is a final chapter that is entitled,”Who will speak for me?” In this chapter, the authors questioned Omaha and St. Paul’s memories of Wigington’s contributions to the cities’ architecture. I answered this question in Omaha for the New Years 2012 edition of the Omaha Star newspaper. Just before that, Wigington’s Broomfield and Crutchfield Row Houses appeared in a redevelopment plan for North Omaha, which recommended it be demolished.
These row houses were designed by Wigington in 1909, and submitted to a national Good Housekeeping magazine contest. He won first place, and after Omaha’s notorious 1913 Easter Tornado, the designs were built at 2502 Lake Street in the Near North Omaha neighborhood.
I wrote and published an article in the Omaha Star in order to create awareness that as with this redevelopment plan for a North Omaha neighborhood created by African-Americans, we were going to destroy our own history.
The article made its way to the current owner, Ethel Mitchell. She is an African-American historic property developer who is also from North Omaha. I met with her in the spring of 2013 at an event opening of Big Mama’s sandwich shop along with the completion of the Bemis/Carver Bank project pushed through by an African-American artist, Theater Gates, from Chicago. She thanked me for speaking up for her building and showed me the inside. It has the original wood flooring and is painted earth tones on the inside. Mitchell completed the paperwork and succeeded in having the property listed on the National Historic Register in 2007.
Today, because of my advocacy and the work of several others, the plans have been changed and the status of the Broomfield and Crutchfield Row Houses is stable. In addition to my business in Omaha, ShotgunHaus Designers, I am planning to give back to North Omaha in a variety of ways in the future.
Cap Clarence Wigington’s Omaha Historical Tour
Many of the buildings Cap designed are still standing in Omaha today! Take a drive through North Omaha with an additional stop in South Omaha if you want to see what this man’s skill really looked like.
- Issac Bailey House, 2816 Pratt Street (1908)
- Dr. L.E. Britt House, 2519 Maple Street (1912)
- Thomas Peterson House, 3908 N. 18th Street (1912) – Built for a white streetcar operator
- Jack Broomfield Apartments, 2502 Lake Street (1913) – Built for a kingpin of North Omaha crime and crony of Omaha’s boss Tom Dennison
- Site of Crutchfield Apartments, 2510-12 Lake Street (1913) – Demolished
- G. Wade Obee House, 2518 Lake Street (1913) – Built for a Black undertaker
- Zion Baptist Church, 2215 Grant Street (1913)
- Duplex, 125-127 S. 38th Street (1914)
- Site of Apartment, 1232-34 S. 11th Street (1914)
- Hollis M. Johnson House, 1820 Lothrop Street (1914) – Built for the president of Omaha Sanitary Supply
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About the Author
Born in 1975 and from in North Omaha, Linda Williams holds a Master of Design Studies degree in Historic Preservation from Boston Architectural College, which she received in May 2014. She is the first African-American woman to hold this degree from the school.
Linda wrote her capstone/thesis project on a community-based design center to be located in North Omaha so that the local youth and residences could learn about the architectural treasures within its neglected boundaries. She believes by doing this, pride will be re-instilled in the residences despite the negative stigma and stereotypes the weekly news reports about North Omaha.
A member of an organization called Restoration Exchange Omaha (REO), Linda gives historic tours of North Omaha’s architectural epicenter of North 24th Street, including buildings designed by Clarence ‘Cap’ Wigington.
Linda is currently working on a Master’s Degree in Architecture from the Academy of Art University. When she completes this, she will become Nebraska’s first licensed African-American female architect! Prior to her current endeavors, Linda was Nebraska’s first African-American woman to ever attend the United States Air Force Academy, where she was at from 1993-1995. Today, she is a service-connected disabled veteran.
In 1996, Linda married Ernest Gause and had two children, Andrew and Queen. Divorced since 2002, Linda currently works for a nonprofit in Omaha called the League of Human Dignity where she is a Housing Design Specialist who incorporates elements of universal design for people with physical disabilities.
Linda began her career as a draftsperson in 1996 at the University of Nebraska-Omaha in their facilities management department. Earning her bachelor of science in design from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Architecture, Linda graduated in 2001. She is only the second African-American female to graduate from this rigorous program. She interned in the Union Pacific Railroad Engineering Department, and with HDR, Inc where she worked on the UNL Culture Center. Linda served as an AmeriCorps VISTA member in 2008-09 with Omaha’s Habitat for Humanity, revamping low-income housing plans for them and coordinating their Blitz Build focused on building several houses in a week.
As a registered Tier I Small Disadvantaged Business with the City of Omaha, my business, ShotgunHaus Designers, is certified as a Woman-Owned Small Business, Economically Disadvantage Owned Small Business, Service-Connected-Disabled-Veteran Owned Small Business, and as a Minority Owned Small Business. She will soon become an 8a certified company as well.