This is a history of one of Omaha’s oldest neighborhoods where the site of it’s first school, the homes of many Native Americans, first American neighborhoods for many eastern European immigrants, leisure for the working class, and it’s “Hobo Park” were all wrapped up in one. Buried under I-480 near downtown, most people have forgotten this neighborhood. This is a history of the Jefferson Square neighborhood.
For the focus of NorthOmahaHistory.com, I include everything north of Dodge Street to the Washington County line and east of North 72nd Street. On the southern edge is downtown Omaha, or as it was known for its first 20 years, “Omaha City.” A place of slow progress, this emerging urban center took more than 25 years to start acting like a city. For a long time it lagged in paved roads, parks, schools, and the other amenities that made Eastern cities look and act like… cities. However, occasionally it tried, and the Jefferson Square Park was one of those attempts.
An Emerging Neighborhood
When Omaha was originally laid out in 1854 by Alfred D. Jones, there was a park designated at North 16th and Cass Streets. It was one city block big, and a neighborhood emerged around it named after the park. This was the Jefferson Square neighborhood.
In 1869, the neighborhood was located three blocks from the U.S. Army corral, a predecessor to Fort Omaha, the site was six blocks from the Union Pacific shops, four blocks from the original Douglas County courthouse, six blocks from the old Nebraska Territory Capitol building, and on the stage coach north road to Florence, which eventually became Florence Boulevard.
Sandy, wet soil once covered the are around North 16th and Cass Streets. An 1880s report about the area said that the area wasn’t “suitable for the erection of structures of the weight and character” of “a heavy fire-proof structure.” This report said Jefferson Square’s soil was “watery, sandy and non-resisting.” With North 14th on the east, North 17th on west, Chicago Street on the south and Webster Street on the north, the Jefferson Square neighborhood was small.
The Gilded Age (1870s to 1890s)
The railroads were the largest original influence on the growth of the Jefferson Square neighborhood. The Union Pacific shops, located just a few blocks away, were a massive employer for men living in the area for decades starting in 1865. The Webster Street Station was built two decades later at North 15th and Webster, just a block from the square. The Chicago St. Paul Minneapolis & Omaha Railway, called the Omaha Road, ran from there, later becoming part of the Chicago & North Western Railroad. Several other lines used the station, too, including the Mondamin and the Missouri Pacific. After an 1899 expansion, the station was a going concern into the 1950s. The Chicago and North Western Freight Depot was just a block away, too. All of these businesses offered jobs to the working class residents of the Jefferson Square neighborhood.
Stores, restaurants and taverns filled the area immediately. Within a decade, most of the wooden buildings in the neighborhood gave way to brick buildings. It was always a popular place for hotels, first for tourists and later as low-incoming housing. In the 1860s, the Central House was built at 630 North 16th Street opposite of the park. The Park Hotel built in 1912 was at North 15th and Cass Streets. There were also several boarding houses in the neighborhood, including the Clowry Building at North 16th and Chicago Streets. Many of these hotel buildings were demolished in the 1960s and 1970s.
By the 1880s almost all the residential homes were gone from the immediate area. A bustling business district, the Jefferson Square neighborhood abutted several areas, including Little Stokholm. Located from North 21st to North 18th Streets, from Cass north to Cumming Streets, this nearby neighborhood lasted from around 1880 into the 1910s. A Jewish enclave was in the area, as well as other ethnic groups. Old houses belonging to the original settlers in the city were still in the area, too, along with a few blocks of apartments, tenements and small houses belonging to Omaha’s Black community. This was the first area in Omaha to be called the “Near North Side.”
The Belt Line Railway, Omaha’s suburban commuter train, launched from the Webster Street Station a block away from Jefferson Square starting in 1886. For the next decade, it happily shuttled passengers from around the city into the neighborhood and vice versa. When it converted to being exclusively for shipping in the 1890s, much of the area north of the square began converting from residential to light industrial usage.
In 1889, the Omaha city council strongly considered building a new city hall in the Jefferson Square neighborhood. After strong lobbying against that site by Edward Rosewater and others, it was built on Farnam Street instead. One of the main arguments against using the square was that, “Jefferson Square is on one edge of the city. We cannot grow towards the river; we must grow west, northwest and southwest…” Showing how off-base Rosewater usually was, Omaha grew mostly to the north during this era. Business owners and managers started taking horse-drawn streetcars north from downtown Omaha to the North Omaha suburbs then, particularly Kountze Place. Alas, a popular vote showed Jefferson Square losing by more than half the vote, and the new city hall was built elsewhere.
Fancy department stores lined the way, including places like The People’s Mammoth Installment House, which was at 613 North 16th Street in the neighborhood for two decades starting in the 1870s. Perhaps the most important anchors for Jefferson Square were a pair of banks nearby, the Bank of Commerce at North 16th and California and the Douglas County Bank at North 16th and Chicago. For more than 30 years, these banks acted as the main anchors for the neighborhood.
The Progressive Era (1890s to 1920s)
During the Progressive Era, the neighborhood was well-established and thriving. Packed with all kinds of businesses and located along the bustling North 16th Street, there were several immigrant populations living throughout the area, including Hungarians, Chinese and other Asians, Italians, and others. Part of Omaha’s early Jewish community lived nearby around B’nai Israel Synagogue, located at 1719 Chicago Street. The Cass Street School was a hive of community activities, including adult night classes, neighborhood events, and more.
Businesses around the neighborhood thrived during this era. Filled with families, itinerant workers, laborers from ASARCO and Union Pacific and more, sentiment towards the area was high during this era. There were all kinds of businesses still surrounding the Jefferson Square Park, including standard places like grocery stores and bakeries, liveries and blacksmiths then auto repair shops, vaudeville and then movie theaters. During this era the Park Theater was located at 516 North 16th Street. In 1898, Lou Farrell was excited to announce the opening of the new “strictly first class” Jefferson Square Theater, a vaudeville located on Chicago across from the park. The newspaper announcement said he “wishes to put great emphasis on the fact that a gentleman need have no fear about taking a lady to see any of his performances, as there will be nothing said or done that will offend anyone.” It lasted for a year. There were also multiple drug stores and several hotels, as well as restaurants, diners, and bars around the neighborhood.
In 1898, “four idiots on wheels” were accused of blowing up a massive stick of dynamite at the intersection of North 15th and Chicago. The bicyclists “jarred the earth for a distance of three blocks,” breaking windows and damaging a building’s wall. Nobody was caught.
Gordman’s, once a national department store, started in the Jefferson Square neighborhood in 1915. Opened as Outfitters to the Family at North 16th and Chicago, Sam Richman’s small store focused on clothing. After marrying Richman’s daughter, Dan Gordman joined Richman as a full partner in the business, which was eventually renamed Richman Gordman. Eventually occupying the entire building at Jefferson Square.
A streetcar bolted up North 16th during this era that carried commuters to the North Omaha suburbs of Kountze Place, Saratoga, and beyond. A separate car cut east-west on Cass Street in front of the park, too.
The Dirty ’30s (1930s)
It was a popular neighborhood for immigrants because it was downtown and urban, and it was surrounded by a large industry. There were coal-burning smokestacks and many of Union Pacific’s shops, so it had a large working community. Overall, it was a poor, but very lively neighborhood.
Jefferson Square was once home to Omaha’s Chinatown, which was concentrated along North 16th Street. Starting in the 1870s, Omaha was home to small numbers of Asian immigrants who worked as laborers on the railroads and throughout the downtown area. According to local historian Ryan Roenfeld, in the 1880s Omaha had a Chinatown centered at 12th and Dodge Street. In 1938, a dominant Chinese-American organization called the On Leong Tong relocated its building to the Jefferson Square neighborhood at 1518 Cass Street.
Post-War Era (1945-1969)
During this era, the Jefferson Square neighborhood was surrounded by the central business district, Creighton University, and the riverfront industrial area. For 40 years after the war, businesses such as the Union Pacific Shops and ASARCO continued to clog the neighborhood with noxious pollution while the City of Omaha concentrated finances and structural support in the western edges of the city. Routinely ignoring the neighborhood, city services were rarely employed there beyond trash collection, street maintenance and regressive policing practices.
In the 1940s, the US federal government began intentionally moving American Indians from reservations into cities across the country. This included the Ho-Chunks, who are called the Winnebago, the Omaha, and other tribes in Nebraska. According to one study, “by the 1960s there were a lot of Native Americans living in the hotels and boarding rooms” around the neighborhood.
However, commerce and industry was still succeeding in the area. The once-iconic Canfield’s Army/Navy Surplus and Sporting Goods Store was a longtime neighborhood fixture that opened at 518 North 16th Street in 1948. Later it moved to North 24th and Cuming Streets, and then to west Omaha where it was shuttered forever.
The State of Nebraska and the City of Omaha were tied up in conversations about building interstate highways around Omaha starting in the 1950s. Designed to expedite the movement of military troops throughout the United States, these highways were seen as a boon to urban areas that wanted to spur the real estate income and taxes derived from the development of suburban communities, and the redevelopment of city core areas. The Jefferson Square neighborhood was immediately targeted for this work.
Streetcars stopped running through the neighborhood and citywide in 1955. While buses did stop on corners around Jefferson Square, some people attributed changes in the neighborhood to the end of middle class and office workers coming to the area.
With a route almost immediately planned to serve downtown Omaha, City planners knew the time had come to eliminate the gathering spot for homeless despised or forgotten by so many. Without regard for the century-old laws meant to preserve Jefferson Square as a park, they warmed up their bulldozers.
In 1967, the Omaha City Council voted to demolish the park and any business impeding construction of the interstate, and two years later in 1969 the work was completed. The City of Omaha wrecked its oldest park and some of its oldest buildings to usher in high speed commuter traffic in downtown Omaha.
Demolishing Jefferson Square Park and committing to building the interstate there led to the City of Omaha infusing millions of dollars in the revitalization of downtown south of the new interstate. At the same time, they succeeded in choking off the Jefferson Square neighborhood and stopping residential usage of the neighborhood entirely. The city council signed the death warrant for the larger region of North Downtown, allowing large entities to accumulate property and land parcels slowly for future redevelopment. Along with the construction of the interstate, the City allowed construction of the Hilton Hotel on top of North 16th Street. This strangled the economic viability of the Near North Side in order to force African Americans to integrate further north in North Omaha, in turn depressing commercial real estate values for decades and ensuring the ongoing white flight out of the community. This was not a conspiracy, as the plans were public, announced in newspapers and on TV, and otherwise enacted in full view. Thorough, deliberate, and well-executed, this trajectory effectively ended the Jefferson Square neighborhood.
The Last 50 Years
Long after construction of Interstate 480 and the demolition of the park, a group of commercial leaders started the Jefferson Square Business Association in 1976. In 1980, the president of the association joined the lobby trying to get a grand prix race in downtown Omaha. Securing the signatures of 150 businesses in his area, the association was proud to call for the race. It didn’t happen though.
Although it hasn’t been in the news since 1998, today the City of Omaha says this association continues to represents neighborhood’s interests for the large area extending from North 13th to North 30th Street, from Cass to Nicholas Street.
A 1983 report from an academic journal said that the Jefferson Square business area covered approximately 196 acres. Growing exponentially, the association claimed to represent every company from North 13th Street on the east to North 24th Street on the west, Cass Street on the south, and Nicholas Street on the north. At that point, there were 150 companies in the area that employed more than 3,100 people. Many kinds of businesses were reported, including “retailers and wholesalers, service industries, and light to medium industry and manufacturing.”
However, the organizing force of this association was blunted at best. Over the last nearly 50 years, the area went through a decline of mammoth proportions and lost its much of its commercial, industrial, and economic force. Today, Creighton University has purchased much of the land in the entire area of the Jefferson Square Business Association and demolished hundreds of buildings of both historical and industrial value. Nearby developments have re-imagined much of this area, and with the growing force of redevelopment there is not much time left for the remainder of the former Jefferson Square buildings.
The Present Day
Large new facilities were constructed or built near Jefferson Square after the interstate was built. The St. Joseph Hospital complex was completed in 1978, and along with it Creighton University constructed several buildings. Metro Area Transit built a major new facility on Cuming Street in 1990, and the InterNorth offices were redeveloped on Dodge Street not too far away in 1985. At the same time though, there was a lot of clearance of residential places in Jefferson Square, including notorious “flop houses” and other remnants of the “Bum Park” era.
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, the Jefferson Square Business Association stayed active in rallying property and business owners in the neighborhood, holding regular meetings and having research done on traffic in the area. However, by the 1990s signs of decay were rampant as the City of Omaha extracted its resources from Jefferson Square. Buildings were demolished rapidly, parking lots were paved and the entire neighborhood disappeared quickly.
Today, there are only two remaining business left from the heyday of Jefferson Square, Sol’s Pawn and Jewelry and Petit’s Pastry. In the late 2010s, a spate of development swept the region around Jefferson Square again with the demolition of dozens of blocks of buildings by Creighton University and the construction of TD Ameritrade Park in 2011, along several new hotels, and the continuing redevelopment of the Nicholas Street Historic District. While the Saint Joseph Hospital at Creighton University Medical Center was closed permanently in 2017, the complex was redeveloped into apartments and business spaces.
As of 2022 there are hundreds of acres immediately north of the Jefferson Square neighborhood simply sitting empty and awaiting development.
Historic Locations in the Jefferson Square Neighborhood
- On Leong Tong House, 1518 Cass Street—Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017
- Rudd Jewelers, 305 North 16th Street—Demolished
- Burkland Tailors, 308 North 16th Street—Demolished
- Burt Blacksmith, 314 North 16th Street—Demolished
- Davis Clothing, 320 North 16th Street—Demolished
- Omaha Bicycle Company, 323 North 16th Street—Demolished
- S. Mortensen Tailor, 404 North 16th Street—1892, demolished
- Gross Pawn, 410 North 16th Street—Demolished
- Jefferson Square Furniture Store, 412 North 16th Street—c1880-1901, demolished
- Weimer Shoe Brokerage, 412 North 16th Street—1920s, demolished
- Jefferson Square Stable, 420 North 16th Street—Demolished
- Boysen Shoe Company, 421 North 16th Street—Demolished
- Gentlemen’s Grocery, 501 North 16th Street—Demolished
- Petit’s Pastry, 510 North 16th Street—Open
- Cass Theater, 516 North 16th Street–Open 1936 to 1949, demolished
- Holiday Theater, 516 North 16th Street—Open in 1950, demolished
- Park Theater, 516 North 16th Street—Open 1911 to 1936, demolished
- Leslie & Leslie Funeral Home, 519 North 16th Street—1908 to 1919, demolished
- Osthoff Sign Painting, 519 North 16th Street—Demolished
- Swedish Auditorium, North 16th and Chicago—Built in 1913, demolished 1976
- Clowry Building, 1618 Chicago Street—Demolished
- Park Hotel, 1504 Cass Street—Built in 1912, demolished in 1970
You Might Like…
- A History of Jefferson Square Park
- A History of the Omaha Market House
- A History of Omaha’s Chinatown by Ryan Roenfeld
- History of 16th Street in North Omaha
- “The Jefferson Square Story,” Making Invisible Histories Visible Project, Omaha Public Schools.
- Jefferson Square: Omaha’s Indigenous Neighborhood by Sarah Pierce and Sarah Rowe for Omaha Public Schools.
- Review of Applied Urban Research 1983, 11(3), in March 1983 for the Center for Public Affairs Research (CPAR), University of Nebraska at Omaha.