In the 1890s, builders started putting up apartments in North Omaha. Steel was becoming an effective construction tool, affordable and plentiful enough for massive new buildings. Landowners were also learning they could make good profit from apartments. Meanwhile, renters were looking for places they could afford that were fancy enough to justify their brand-new middle class incomes. The first apartments in the entire city of Omaha were built in along North 16th Street, then called Sherman Avenue.
This article features some of the apartments that made up North Omaha’s great construction boom, and highlights what’s left for Omahans and tourists to see today. I’m also including any type of apartments here, like flats, rowhouses, duplexes, fourplexes, and other multifamily units.
This is a history, too, so you’ll learn a little bit about how, when, where, and why these buildings were important to North Omaha in the past, and why they’re important for the future of the community.
What Went Before
Between 1880 and 1962, more than 900 apartment buildings were constructed in Omaha, with more than half of them north of Dodge Street in North Omaha. According to the Nebraska State Historical Society, almost 500 historical apartment buildings still exist across the city today. However, of the approximately 450 apartment buildings in North Omaha before 1962, fewer than 125 stand today. Of that number, I approximate the remainder east of North 30th Street at fewer than 100 total.
There are several styles of apartment buildings. The earliest were tenements and flats. Then, early apartment buildings were vernacular, made in plain, easy-to-build styles that became common. The Garden City Movement brought sophistication to apartment design, and the apartment building boom spread buildings wide and far across North Omaha. High rise apartments were built in North Omaha after World War II.
This section highlights a few different styles across the community. Popular streets like North 16th, Florence Boulevard, North 24th, Lake Street, Fort Street, and Ames Avenue will come up repeatedly, while neighborhoods like the Near North Side, 24th and Lake, 30th and Hamilton, Prospect Hill, Bedford Place, Florence, Benson and the Florence Field will come up.
Style 1: Original Apartments
As the original and longest-standing apartment building in Omaha, The Sherman at 2501 N. 16th Street has an architectural and historic legacy that’s vital to the city’s history. Built in 1897 by a businessman, the building was designed in the Neo-Classical style in anticipation of the popularity of the 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, which was almost entirely in that style. The building has been used its entire life as apartments.
Style 2: Flats
Before 1910, Omaha was a popular place to build what were called “St. Louis Flats”. This style of apartments had commercial stores on the first floor and apartments on top, and were very popular along commercial strips that were developing between 1890 and 1920.
Despite being everywhere across North Omaha for more than 50 years, today there are few of these buildings left. Some examples dot the community though, including the building at 2506 N. 24th Street. Once home to a shoe store, barber shop, and several other businesses, the storefront here now houses Loves Jazz and Art Center. However, the second floor was an apartment for a longtime.
Style 3: Rowhouses
During that same time, rowhouses were becoming popular in Omaha, too. In Omaha, rowhouses are buildings with multiple apartments in them that are joined next to other buildings with apartments in them. There are one or more apartments in each building, which share walls and have different street addresses.
According to local experts, “a rowhouse is defined as a structure comprised of a series of attached dwellings. Rowhouses can be organized in a variety of ways. Some of the more common configurations include alignment along a street, L and U-shaped courtyards, and the street-court complex, alignment along a narrow, mid-block street.
There are a few great examples of rowhouses in North Omaha. They include the Free Classic Queen Anne style Memmen Apartments at 2214, 2216, 2218 and 2220 Florence Boulevard, which were designed by an architect named William Elliott Findley and built in 1889. Another fine example is the Broomfield Rowhouse at 2502 Lake Street.
It was designed by North Omaha’s architect, Clarence Wigington as a simple rectangle with a flat roof that has fine Craftsman style details throughout the building. Wigington also designed a missing element of the Broomfield Rowhouse, which was called the Crutchfield Rowhouse and was demolished by the City of Omaha.
Style 4: Modern Apartments
Middle class and working class people lived throughout North Omaha because apartments were available, well-appointed, and oftentimes affordable. Many of them had a streetcar right outside their house or nearby, and because of that apartment dwellers didn’t need to own a car. Some apartments featured double-decker porches with a lot of windows and large living spaces, while other early amenities included electricity, phones and skylights.
North 16th Street was clustered with fine places to live, while North 24th and Florence Boulevard were clustered with well-appointed smaller apartments. As North Omaha grew to the west, North 40th, North 60th, Ames Avenue, Benson, and Northwest Radial were all populated with apartments, while the Walnut Hill neighborhood was built out with many fine apartments.
Between 1910 and 1917, more than 100 apartment buildings were put up across the whole city. Rowhouses lost their popularity and people started seeking large apartments. Describing the Near North Side, the Nebraska State Historical Society says, “a significant number of apartments were constructed in this area by the 1920s, although this was only half as many as were constructed in central Omaha.”
Three sets of apartments in North Omaha reflect the community’s developments in this style: The Strehlow Terrace at 2010 N. 16th Street, built between 1906 and 1916; The Margaret, built in 1915 at 2103 N. 16th Street; and the Allas Apartments at 1609 Binney Street, designed in 1903 but built in 1919. Although not nearly as fancy as those, the Logan Fontenelle Public Housing Projects, which were federally-funded and government-built near the corner of N. 24th and Cuming Streets, reflected a modern design aesthetic too.
Style 5: Garden Beautiful
From 1909 to 1931, a LOT of garden style apartments were built in North Omaha. According to the Nebraska State Historical Society, seven percent of all the apartments constructed in Omaha were this design. Buildings were built to let air move through and sunlight into each of the homes. They all had plenty of green space surrounding the buildings, which were laid out like a cross, “L” and “U” shapes. They also had a large front lawn, and multiple towers with stairs in them that took residents right to their apartments.
There are very few of these left in Omaha today, and one of the most outstanding remaining examples is in North Omaha at 2514 N. 16th Street. Built in the Classical Revival style by architect Richard Everett in 1929, there are four units in this building, also called a “fourplex” as part of a number of upscale apartments in the area. One of the most exquisite large-scale versions of this style is in North Omaha at 2536 North 16th Street. Called Bretnor Court and Rosewell, these apartments were designed in 1924 in strict accordance with the Garden City Movement.
Style 6: Mixing It Up
During and after World War II, many apartments were built in North Omaha in several different styles. Architects were building quickly, but often with innovations unseen before. Several examples of these emergent designs come from public housing projects scattered across North Omaha. They include the Alamo Plaza, built in 1948 at 116-124 N. 36th Street, and the Spencer Apartments at 1920 N. 30th Street
Style 7: High Rise
In the 1950 and 1960s, the federal government took it upon themselves to working with the Omaha Housing Authority to build high rises throughout North Omaha. They were the only high rise apartments in the entire community. They built several towers at the Hilltop / Pleasant View Public Housing Projects at N. 30th and Lake Streets. The others were senior retirement apartments, including the Evans Tower at 24th and Pratt; the Benson Tower at 5900 NW Radial Highway, and the Florence Tower. The Florence Tower was dedicated in 1970
High Development Ends
All is not well with the apartments in North Omaha. In the 1950s, the City of Omaha starting attacking apartments with evictions and bulldozers throughout North Omaha. Of the dozens of Garden City Movement style buildings throughout the community, there were two units left standing in the community. With the onset of white flight that decade, remaining renters were greeted with declining conditions in their apartments as middle class white people fled from the area.
Between 1960 and 1980, more than 2,000 apartment units were demolished across North Omaha. Some of them were taken out for other developments, including St. Joseph’s Hospital and the North Freeway. Others were simply demolished and never replaced. The Matburn Apartments; Crutchfield Rowhouse; The California, and; the Conamore Apartments were all historically valuable apartments demolished mercilessly. Another was the Spaulding Apartments at 3824 North 24th. As the original Salvation Army Women’s Hospital built in the 1890s, this was a high quality, highly functional apartment building that was eventually torn down by the City of Omaha in the late 1970s because City leaders didn’t want large groups of African Americans living together along North 24th. Similar fates met the University Apartments at North 24th and Evans in the same decade, and the Logan Fontenelle Public Housing Projects in the 1990s.
Left in their wake were empty lots and broken neighborhoods. It turns out that those large scale multiple family dwellings were some of the threads that held the integrity and well-being of much of the community. When people moved out from those apartments, they took their families, their shopping, their traditions and their civic engagement with them.
Churches, stores, transportation and everything was affected adversely, and nothing has ever been the same. In a bid to win back those apartment dwellers, the city and state and federal government tore down 2,000 buildings from Cuming through Himebaugh Avenue, from North 26th to North 28th. The ill-informed North Freeway was responsible for the destruction of some of the most beautiful buildings in Omaha history.
No major apartment developments have happened in North Omaha since the 1970s. Some modified developments of different sizes have happened, including large scale ones, but nothing of the very large size.
Several apartment buildings in North Omaha have been recognized as official city landmarks or placed on the National Register of Historic Places. They include the Allas Apartments, Melrose Apartments, The Margaret, Memmen Apartments, Apartments at 2514 N. 16th Street, Broomfield Rowhouse, and the Sherman Apartments. While recent development schemes throughout Omaha have shown these statuses offer limited protection from voracious developers, historic rehabilitators and preservations are discovering the valuable emotion connection renters and others make to these historically invaluable properties after they’re saved.
Today, high development has apparently ended in North Omaha. Only the future will show whether or not it will always stay that way.
North Omaha Historic Apartment Tour
- Site of the Wright Block Apartments, at 318 North 16th Street
- Strehlow Terrace, 2024 & 2107 N. 16th Street (National Register of Historic Places)
- The Margaret, 2103 N. 16th Street (National Register of Historic Places)
- Site of La Grata Court, 2116 N. 16th Street
- Sherman Apartments, 2501 N. 16th Street (National Register of Historic Places; official Omaha Landmark)
- Apartments, 2514 N. 16th Street
- Bretnor Court, 2536 N. 16th Street
- Rosewell Court, 2536 N. 16th Street
- Frederick Hospital Apartments, 1425 N. 17th Street
- Allas Apartments, 1609 Binney Street (National Register of Historic Places; official Omaha Landmark)
- Nicholas Street Historic District, bounded by N. 11th St, Izard St, N. 14th Street
- Omaha Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant (Tip Top Apartments), 1514-24 Cuming Street (National Register of Historic Places)
- Idalia Apartments, 115 N. 33rd Street
- Esther Apartments, 131 N. 33rd Street
- Harriet Court, 137 N. 33rd Street
- Melrose Apartments, 602 N. 33rd Street (National Register of Historic Places; official Omaha Landmark)
- Alamo Plaza, 116-124 N. 36th Street
- Radcliff Apartments, 105 N. 38th
- Browne Apartments, 122 N. 40th Street
- Carberry Apartments, 503 N. 40th Street
- Fairview Apartments, 706 N. 50th Street
- Nottingham Apartments, 3304 Burt Street
- Demolition of the Burt Tower in 2003
- Garden Beautiful Movement article on Wikipedia
- Apartments, Flats and Tenements in Omaha 1880-1962 Multiple Property Document, City of Omaha Landmark Heritage Preservation Commission
- Nicholas Street Historic District, City of Omaha Landmark Heritage Preservation Commission