In the history of Omaha, more than a few spectacular architects, builders, interior designers, and master craftspeople have lived in North Omaha. Early on, characters like Clarence Wigington, Francis Bailey, Joseph Guth, Charles Strehlow and others molded the beautiful places we’ve all come to love throughout the city, especially North Omaha. Jacob Maag, a highly regarded spokesman for Omaha’s Swiss community, is rightfully included on this list. This is a biography of North Omaha sculptor Jacob Maag (1881-1980).
The Craft of Jacob Maag
Jacob Maag began stonecutting and sculpting in Switzerland when he was 16 years old. When he was 18, he worked in Italy for a year and a half before returning to his family’s home and leaving again to immigrate to the United States.
Maag was recognized as a master sculptor in a city with visions of grandeur, and for several decades he was sought after for his skill. Into the 1960s, he carved and chiseled, sanded and finished some of the finest stonework in the city. Polishing marble, blasting alabaster and forming fine details with hands, Maag made statuary, carved details, formed the Ionic columns and helped build the buildings Omaha is loving more and more everyday.
Maag’s work is in historical homes around Omaha’s finest historic addresses, including Kountze Place, Bemis Park and Fairacres.
Once in Omaha, he became a well-regarded sculptor whose work was in more than 50 public buildings across the city. Today, his work can still be seen around Omaha, including at the Durham Museum; the New York Life Insurance Building; the Brandeis Store; Capitol, Central and Tech High; the Scottish Rite Cathedral; and at the Nebraska State Capitol. He did all the carving and every statue at Saint Cecilia’s Cathedral, as well as much of the work at First Presbyterian, Holy Name and many other churches. When he died, his daughter said it broke his heart when the buildings he worked on were demolished. They included the original Woodmen of the World building and the old Civic Auditorium.
In the 1910s, Swiss stoneworker Maag went into business with a German woodcarver named Carl Gloe. Together, they offered a 1-2 punch that was celebrated throughout the city. They worked on the largest buildings and projects throughout Omaha, and were highly regarded. However, after the Great Depression began, their business dried up and they stopped working together. Gloe moved to California, and Maag stayed in Omaha.
After the Great Depression, people stopped building with original marble, plaster and other elements Maag worked with. Because of that, Maag’s work was never the same, and it took more than 25 years for him to receive a major commission again. His final work in Omaha ended when he was 80 years old in 1961.
The Life of Jacob Maag
Jacob Maag left his native Switzerland to live in the United States in 1906. He came to Omaha because of an uncle, who was a pioneer grocer in the city from 1856. In 1914, a younger Jacob and his wife Frieda lived at 2195 Maple Street in the 1890s. Near North Side neighborhood. Then, after the redlining of that neighborhood began in 1919, they moved.
By the early 1920s, they lived in the Kountze Place neighborhood. They lived here for more than 35 years, raising their children and retiring here. During this time, Maag was busy throughout his community and the entire city in civic activities, too. He was involved in the Bethany Chapel Presbyterian Church and was frequently recognized as the informal spokesman for Omaha’s Swiss community. He was also treasurer for the Lothrop School Parent Teacher Association.
The Maag’s daughter Jacqueline was a student at the University of Omaha in the early 1940s before she went to Northwestern University in Illinois. There, her activities were regularly cited by the Omaha World-Herald. For instant, they noted when she joined a sorority there; when she earned a spot on the university choir; and when that choir performed at the Omaha Civic Auditorium
Frieda passed away in 1961 at the age of 85. Soon after her death, the home went on the market and Maag moved from Omaha to his daughter’s home in Michigan. He died in 1980 at 98-years-old.
The Greater Omaha Historical Society conducted an interview with Maag in 1962, raking details from his memory. I’ve found two citations of them so far, and I assume the Douglas County Historical Society has them now.
Maag’s Kountze Place House
The 1914 house designed by Clarence Wigington at 1820 Lothrop was built for Hollis M. Johnson, the president of the Omaha Sanitary Supply. Built across from the Harford Memorial United Brethren Church, it was a prime address in the Kountze Place neighborhood. However, Johnson didn’t stay there long.
By 1920, Jacob and his wife Frieda had bought the home. It was advertised as custom built with four rooms and a den on the first floor, as well as four bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor. There was “expensive hardwood trim” throughout the home, too.
In a feature written about Mr. Maag’s impending departure, the Omaha World-Herald said his home was a “museum of alabaster and marble table pieces.” The house sat on the market for a few years, and with the frequency it was advertised in the 50-plus years since, I think its been a rental for a long time.
Maag’s North Omaha
These are buildings in North Omaha that Jacob Maag contributed to.
- Technical High School Auditorium (1921)
- St. Cecelia’s Cathedral carving and all models
- First Presbyterian Church
- Holy Name Church
- Holy Angels Catholic Church
- Bethany Presbyterian Church
- Pella Lutheran Church
- Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, black walnut frame for mosaic Madonna and ornamental plaster
- Benson High School
- Lake School (new part)
- Forest Lawn Cemetery, Crofoot Memorial Cross and Ritchie Memorial Cross
- Omaha Home for Boys model for bronze plaque, superintendent Jesse G. Arnold
You Might Like…
- “Embellishing the Truth” by Gary Rosenburg for Omaha Magazine. This is a featurette on a house Maag worked on.
- Interview with Jacob Maag, “Mallet and Chisel: A fifty Year Saga of Architectural Sculpture,” (The “I Remember” Series, Interview No. 9) TS. Omaha, NE: The Greater Omaha Historical Society, September 14 and September 16, 1962.
- “Jacob Maag (1881-1980), Stone-Carver” by the Nebraska State Historical Society