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A History of the Omaha Crèche

This is a history of the Omaha Crèche, which was located on North 52nd and Pratt Streets for a half century.

For more than 120 years, one organization set the pace for childcare and the treatment of children throughout Omaha. People saw this organization as the city’s leading conscience regarding children, and they revered its role throughout the community for decades. When they closed, this 127-year-old organization was the oldest nonprofit in Omaha history and the first charitable nursery. This is a history of the Omaha Crèche.


Founding a Legacy

Omaha Crèche, N. 52nd and Pratt Street, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is a 1957 picture from the Omaha Crèche showing children working on Valentine’s Day cards.

“We aim to help poor women, by strengthening their hands to work–not by filling them with gifts; and to make homes possible by supplementing them–not by taking their places. That is what Day Nursery works means.”

-Mrs. Mary Kimball in the Omaha World-Herald, February 6, 1888

In an era where poverty affected the majority of working people, Omaha’s upper class often looked down on the needs of these families. However, before anyone else in the city one group of women established a daycare for working class children, and it was called the Crèche, a French word for a a nursery where babies and young children are cared for while parents work.

The Omaha Creche was founded in 1887 as a daycare for the children of single, working parents. It was the first charitable daycare in Omaha, and was noted for a lot of reasons.

Mrs. Mary Porter Kimball (1831-1930), Omaha, Nebraska
This is Mrs. Mary Porter Kimball (1831-1930), founder of the Omaha Crèche.

The organization was later changed into a boarding home for children where they took children as boarders for $1.25 per week, and later it became a regular orphanage.

A 1900 newspaper report said the facility hosted 28 children since the time it was founded. Patrons were mostly “young mothers or widowers who could only find low-paying jobs such as waitressing, clerking, or working in factories. These types of jobs often required that the children’s parents work unusual hours, making it difficult for them to care for their little ones at night.”

Throughout its earliest years, public reports treated the organization kindly. An 1890 newspaper article called it a “plucky little institution” and said “It helps unfortunate people and does not pauperize them.” Newspapers also praised the people involved and their charity towards the people they were helping.

Thomas Kimball, Sr. Mansion, 1225 Park Wilde, Omaha, Nebraska
This is a circa 1890 picture of Thomas L. Kimball, Sr.’s home at 1225 Park Wilde, also called South 7th Street.

Mrs. Mary Porter Kimball (1831-1930), the wife of Thomas Lord Kimball (1831-1899) and mother of Thomas Rogers Kimball (1862-1934), was the first president of the Crèche, which was founded by a group of women from the Omaha Unity Club. The board members were Omaha elite, and included wives of many of the city’s leading capitalists.

However, those roots didn’t make the organization automatically successful. By 1896, a newspaper article reported that “Treasurer’s figures show that hard times have affected the finances of a practical charity.” A later report struck a similar tone saying, “The Creche has sometimes been hard-pressed to provide for the children. There is no definite income. The institution depends upon voluntary contributions. The ladies of the board do their work very quietly. They love the labor of providing a home-like place for these little ones, and only regret that they cannot care for more.”

During the earliest era of the Crèche, reporter Ellie Peattie covered the organization frequently for the Omaha World-Herald. Her angle included hyperbolizing the extend of suffering by children in the Crèche, as well as the abilities of the women who worked there being saviors and godsends.

From 1887 to 1907, the original home of the Crèche was at 19th and Harney Street. In 1907, the Crèche moved into Thomas L. Kimball’s former home at South 7th and Pierce Streets. In 1914, Mrs. Kimball donated her home at 1223 Park Wilde Avenue and stayed there until 1929.

Moving South

Omaha Crèche, 1303 Park Avenue, Omaha, Nebraska
The Omaha Crèche was located at 1303 Park Avenue from 1929 to 1949.

It wasn’t that they never had money though. In 1903, Jonas L. Brandeis (1835-1903), founder of the iconic Omaha department store, left a considerable amount of money to the Crèche in his will, like Anna Wilson (1835-1911), the notorious madame, who gave money to the Crèche throughout her life and bequeathed them money in her will when she died in 1911. Mrs. Kimball’s son, popular Omaha architect Thomas Rogers Kimball, continued giving money to the Crèche after his mother died.

In 1929, the Crèche moved into the former Arthur Crittenden Smith Mansion at 1303 Park Avenue.

The organization started promoting that “it does a lot with a little,” and it’s supporters built its reputation on that promise. During the Great Depression, they fed the kids for half the cost welfare workers thought it would take, and continually provided medical and dental care, recreational needs, clothing and salaries for the staff of six.

In the late 1940s though, the organization’s facility was condemned by the Omaha Fire Department, cited for having more than 30 fire hazards throughout the rambling old mansion. They were allowed to stay in the building as long as they had weekly fire drills to ensure the childrens’ safety.

Moving North

Crèche home, N. 52nd and Pratt Streets, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is a 1948 architect’s illustration of the Crèche home at N. 52nd and Pratt Streets in North Omaha.

The Crèche finishing building a new facility near Benson at 3173 North 52nd Street in 1949. Announced in 1948, local architect James T. Allen designed the new building. Funded by donations from business tycoon Carl A. Swanson (1879-1949) and an anonymous donor, the new building at North 52nd and Pratt Street was promoted as being fireproof. It was built to house 40 children instead of past limit of 28.

1948 newspaper report said, “Crèche children attend the nearest Sunday School. The boys go to the YMCA for swims, have tool chests and benchwork in a basement room if they are inclined to putter with tools. The Crèche has a harmonica band. Children can take piano or violin lessons if they show aptitude. They are permitted to attend playmates’ birthday parties, or visit other children, when invited.”

By the late 1950s, the organization was the oldest in Omaha.

In 1967, the Omaha Public Schools opened a summer enrichment program at the Crèche, and the Crèche became the Crèche Child Care Center in 1970.

Closing and Legacy

Omaha Crèche, 3713 North 52nd Street, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is a 1949 picture of the new Omaha Crèche building at 3713 North 52nd Street.

In 2014, Omaha’s oldest nonprofit closed its doors permanently. Donating the remainder of their funds to the Omaha Community Foundation, a fund was started in their name that continues today.

That year, the Montessori Parents’ Co-op for Children moved into the former Crèche at North 52nd and Pratt Street. The building was not included in the 2002 Reconnaissance Survey of Selected Neighborhoods in Omaha, Nebraska Nebraska Historic Buildings Survey focused on Benson.

While their last home has been preserved in service to children by becoming a school, the building has not been listed on the National Register of Historic Places or named as an official Omaha Landmark by the City of Omaha Landmark Heritage Preservation Commission. There are no plaques explaining the Crèche’s illustrious history, and the city has almost forgotten their impact.

Hopefully in the future we will remember the Crèche’s history.

Omaha Crèche Timeline

  • 1887—The Crèche was founded and opened at 19th and Harney Street
  • 1907—The Crèche moved into Thomas L. Kimball’s former home by South 7th and Pierce Streets at 1223 Park Wilde Avenue
  • 1929—The Crèche moved to the former Arthur Crittenden Smith Mansion at 1303 Park Avenue
  • 1949—The Crèche moved into a brand new building at 3173 North 52nd Street
  • 2012—The Crèche Child Development Center contracted with another organization to running their facility
  • 2014—The Crèche closes permanently, and the Montessori Co-Op School opened in its former building

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8 replies on “A History of the Omaha Crèche”

My mother and aunt were residents of the Creche home, in the early 1940’s. They talked about their experiences some. Behind closed doors the children were not always cared for in a respectful, kind manor.

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You don’t ever truly know what goes on behind closed doors. Myself and three siblings ended up at Creche August of 1960, and left there in March of 1962, only to be placed at Nebraska Children’s Home Society to be adopted out. Were we fed and clothed and educated and exposed to Religion? Yes. Do I have good memories of the place and our treatment? No. I see the picture of the building and the lawn. We older kids raked the yard and didn’t do it good enough. Mrs. Swisher had us out there raking with our fingers. I remember that yard well. My history here is bitter and we shouldn’t have been there in the first place. When Judge removed us from our parents, Mrs. Swisher called me into her office and told me there had been a decision and we were going to be moved and had been taken from our parents. She also told me my father had fathered three children with three different women who had kids there. How she would know that, I can’t guess but you sure don’t tell an eleven year old something like that. She then sent me to school. I remember it probably was my first trauma. My world had literally gone black and gray. I didn’t understand all that she said to me, but I knew enough to realize our lives were going to drastically change. I don’t sugar coat anything. We existed there until we left. There were staff there who genuinely cared for children and showed affection. I remember them fondly. Do not have good memories of Mrs. Swisher, nor Miss Kay, the girl’s housemother. I have to wonder how the other children there when we were there have fared.

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Adam, your article mentioned a shop for the boys. I knew of no such shop or boys being worked with. I failed to mention my little sister, age 5, was put in a different room from me and was tied to the bed to keep her in place. She still has the scars on her wrist. She showed me just two years ago and she was 64. I remember one of the older girls ran away. When she was brought back she was put in isolation and separated from the rest of us, even at meal time. My brother was sexually assaulted by an older boy soon after we got there. Where was his protection? This article was hurtful to me as I saw it and lived it from the inside and seems like it is sugar-coated to make for good reading.

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Hi Sue, and thanks for writing again. I am sorry that it appears as an imbalanced account; I will make edits. The histories I write (like most histories) are often inaccurate, as I largely use only newspaper accounts and books to research my content. The problem with that is that I can only share what I find. Again, its stories like yours that make these /work/ more effectively. If its okay with you, I will use some of your accounts to revise the article. I will also spend more time researching abuse at the Creche to make it more accurate. This might take a few weeks, but I will fix it. I am sorry, and I appreciate you taking time to share corrections.

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I posted my email when I signed on to make a comment. If you’d care to contact me, I would be willing to talk to you whenever..

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