A History of the Governor Alvin Saunders Estate in North Omaha

Salvation Army Women's Hospital, North 16th and Grace Streets, North Omaha, Nebraska
  • Built: 1880s (est)
  • Address: 1510 Sherman Avenue / 2008 North 16th Street (street numbers changed) / 1702 Grace Street
  • Architecture: Second Italianate Renaissance Style
  • Demolished: 1975 (est)

All About Alvin

Alvin Saunders portrait
Alvin Saunders portrait

Alvin Saunders was a normal guy who wanted to learn. After college, he became a postmaster in Iowa and then opened a store. He went into Iowa Territory politics in the 1840s and served in the state senate there in the 1850s. Soon after Nebraska was declared a territory, he moved to Omaha.

In 1861, he was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln to serve as the governor of Nebraska Territory. With the longest term of office for Nebraska’s territorial governors, he served until statehood in 1867. During his term, Saunders was largely responsible for getting the Union Pacific bridge built across the Missouri River in present-day downtown Omaha, instead of further north or south. He secured lots to donate to the Union Pacific, too, ensuring the development of the Union Pacific Station and the Union Pacific Shops.

After leaving office, Saunders made money through a variety of enterprises. He was president of the State Bank of Nebraska; vice president of the Omaha and Southwest Railroad; and one of the original shareholders in the Omaha Smelter. However, during the financial panic of 1873, Saunders lost his shirt. With his wealth tapped, he had to sell the fine home he built at 18th and Farnam, moving to a small house for several years.

First Saunders Residence, 18th and Farnam Streets, Omaha, Nebraska
Saunders’ original home at 18th and Farnam near the Nebraska Territorial Capital in downtown Omaha. He had to sell this house during the financial panic of 1873.

Making a Comeback

Saunders Mansion, 1703 Grace Street, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is the Saunders Mansion at 1703 Grace Street after it was the Salvation Army Hospital for Unwed Mothers and when it was the German Old Folks Home.

However, in 1877 he staged a comeback by winning a term as a U.S. Senator from Nebraska. While there, he served as chairman of the Committee on Territories in the 47th United States Congress. He also accumulated influence and power, and likely fortified his wealth.

After serving, Saunders stayed busy with civic affairs in Omaha. He also continued his business activities, running the Omaha Real Estate and Trust Company for several years; serving as vice president of the Mutual Investment Company; and becoming a director in the Merchants National Bank and the Nebraska Savings and Exchange Bank.

Saunders did a lot of things for Omaha, not the least of which was landing the bridge and building businesses. He was highly regarded at the end of his life for all he’d done to promote Omaha.

One of his most obvious legacies today are the Nebraska county and former Omaha school named for him. However, he’s also partially responsible for the construction of the Omaha landmark Memmen Apartments. It was built in 1889 in “Franklin Square,” a subdivision of Saunders’ estate. He also served on the original board of regents for Omaha High School, and is credited with securing the resources to build the first high school in the city.

Building a Fine Home

The Saunders Mansion had at least THREE different addresses – all at the same location – during its lifetime.

As he was elected Senator, Alvin and his wife, Marthena, had a fine new home built on his North Omaha estate along Sherman Avenue. Built in the exquisite Second Italianate Renaissance style, the home featured a “Pink Room” where Mrs. Saunders entertained female guests, and in 1891, Saunders had a “President’s Room” installed. That May, President Benjamin Harrison came to visit while still in office.

After serving his term, Saunders frequently played host to visiting luminaries such as President Harrison. However, Harrison was special. Way back in 1878, Benjamin Harrison helped his son Russell move to Helena, Montana. During his time there, he met and married Mary Saunders, the daughter of Governor Saunders, in 1884. So when President Harrison came to visit it was personal and there were surely grandchildren discussed, as well as other family affairs.

The couples at Saunder’s Presidential reception read like a who’s-who of early Omaha history, including the the McKees, Caldwells, Yates, Rosewaters, Orrs, Doanes, Poppletons, Browns, Deuels, Paddocks, Horbachs, Burkes, and Mercers. Many of their older unwed daughters attended, too. There were at least 100 people there. A band played along the winding driveway off Sherman Avenue, and hundreds of other people stood outside the property to see the President arrive and leave.

Life After Being a Mansion

German Old Folks Home, 1702 Grace Street, North Omaha, Nebraska
Located at 1702 Grace Street, the Deutsche Altenheim-Gesellschaft was also called the German Old People’s Home, and was located here from 1954 to 1969. Included in the 1964 edition of “1001 Best Places to Live When You Retire”, it was touted for being in the central part of the city, close to grocery stores and churches, and for residents being able to speak German to all of the staff. Most of the home’s records at the Nebraska State Historical Society from this time period are written in German.

Alvin Saunders died in 1900, and his wife died in 1928. They’re buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery. The Saunders mansion always stayed large, and only got larger. However, it was never again a single-family residence.

After the ex-Governor and his wife passed away, the house changed hands. His son, Charles Saunders, who served as a Nebraska state legislator, lived in the house for several years after his father passed away.

In 1928, the Omaha Salvation Army opened the Rescue Home and Maternity Hospital in the old Governor Saunders Mansion at 2008 North 16th Street, and stayed there until 1938.

After a three-day long dedication ceremony, the German Old Folks’ Home began operating from the building in 1947. Originally incorporated in 1928, the home was originally located on J Street. Mayor Leeman, the Omaha Music Verein and several other people performed. A German-born minister ran the home starting in 1949. In 1955, the home received a commemorative cup from West German Ambassador Heinz L. Krekeler to mark a visit he made to the home, and the German minister, Rev. F. Wilhelm Grundmann, received it. In 1971, the home closed permanently. Raymond A. Peter, the leader of the organization then, said federal programs made the home unneeded. They dispersed funds to nonprofit senior homes nationally, and closed forever.

Saunders Mansion, N. 17th and Grace Streets, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is the Saunders Mansion at North 17th and Grace Streets.

Then, in 1970, an outreach program for developmentally disabled young people called Project Chance moved into the facility. It operated there for five years, along with Greater Omaha Community Action, or GOCA. With several floors going unused because of their poor condition, in 1974 thieves stole more than two dozens radiators from the building. This demolished the facilities below those floors, and apparently ruined the offices there. Project Chance and GOCA moved out immediately.

In 1975, the mansion was demolished.

Today, there is no plaque or other historical marker that designates this place’s important role in Omaha history.

Special thanks to Michele Wyman for her assistance locating this home.

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Elsewhere Online

  • Found: The White House Parrot” – The story of “Poll” Harrison, given to the President by his daughter in law, Mary Saunders. The bird lived in Omaha after the President and his wife died, surviving beyond the age of 35.
  • Alvin Saunders Biographical Note” by the Nebraska State Historical Society

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