Caring for seniors was hard in Omaha for almost a century. Over the decades, several organizations tried to solve the situation. Just after World War II, Omaha Catholics took a major step towards promoting healthy aging for the oldest citizens by building a large new facility in North Omaha. This is a history of St. Vincent’s Retirement Home in North Omaha.
As early as 1927, there was a group in Omaha called the Catholic Home for the Aged Association that was raising money “for a home for Catholic old people in Omaha.” A newspaper from that year said said the purpose would be, “The privelege of old people hearing mass every day without having to go out in bad weather, and taking the Catholic old people to the poor house and saving them from a pauper’s grave.”
Starting in the 1930s, the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha began planning a retirement home to fill in some of the gaps for Omaha’s seniors. A 1946 letter to the newspaper asked what happened to plans, to which the paper replied, “Frankly, Omaha is not prepared to care for its aged properly.” That year, the archdiocese was considering buying the Fort Crook Hospital to convert it into a hospital, but didn’t move forward with the plan despite having $65,000 earmarked.
In 1950, the Archdiocese decided to begin a campaign to raise $2,000,000 for a new retirement home between North 45th and North 46th Street along Ames Avenue.
Designed for 230 residents, it was planned to be ready in 1952. Designed by William L. Steele, Jr. of Steele, Sandham & Steele, Architects, the company received an Award of Merit from the American Institute of Architects for the building. Located at the top of a hill, it was a six-story structure on two blocks. Rooms overlooking Fontenelle Park had large glass windows to take advantage of the view, and the grounds were heavily landscaped to echo the park’s beauty.
Among the building’s other features were a “wall-to-wall window in the spacious main floor living room,” ramps and elevators in place of stairs, diathermy and hydrotherapy rooms. These was also a two-story high chapel that seated 200 people with clerestory windows. Outside of the chapel was a ramp and sacristies for the chapel. A large “semi-public lounge” was on the first floor, along with a “billiard lounge, library, coffee shop,” and a stand selling candy, tobacco and magazines. Each floor had “snack bars, rooms equipped with refrigerators, hot plates and sinks.”
Originally called the St. Vincent’s Home for the Aged, the facility’s address was 4500 Ames Street. Operated by the Sisters of Mercy, the facility was dedicated in 1963 by Archbishop Gerald T. Bergan (1892-1972) in front of a crowd of 6,000 people. In addition to serving the public, there were sections for retired priests and nuns. The Sisters of Mercy were in charge of fundraising for the facility, too. To fund the construction, each parish in Omaha was assigned a quota for raising money to contribute. A variety of fundraisers were held, including invite-only luncheons, dessert events and more were also held to raise money.
Structural steel was finished in 1951, when the Watson Brothers Company finished building a total of 606 tons of structural framework. There were another 145 tons of bars joists and 32 thousand square feet of decking in the building as well. During construction, in 1952 a 42-year-old worker named Howard Johnson was killed after falling 35 feet during construction. Involved in pulling down concrete forms, Johnson fell backwards into an elevator shaft. In 1953, a labor strike threatened to delay the opening of the facility. It didn’t.
In 1953, the Omaha and Council Bluffs Street Railway Company changed the route of the Ames Avenue line to serve the home.
The facility was dedicated on August 1, 1953.
After he retired in 1969, Archbishop Bergan went to live in the facility he blessed 16 years earlier, which was the only retirement home operated by the Archdiocese. He died there in 1972.
Closing the Facility
Today, it is evident that retirement center suffered from poor fiscal planning by the Sisters of Mercy. Failing to establish the essential capital base it needed to continue existing beyond its first years, there was no long-term plan to ensure its sustainability. Despite continually receiving bequests from parishioners in the archdiocese and from residents’ estates, the organization struggled.
In 1975, administrators announced that combined with St. Catherine’s Continuing Care Center in South Omaha, St. Vincent’s was projected to lose $285,000 for the next year. With half of all patients on welfare and “the state-set payment for welfare patients only met 60% of the need,” the organization was running in the red and administrators anticipated permanent closure. According to the Lincoln Journal, another major factor was “the increase in the minimum wage for nursing home employees from $2 per hour to $2.35.”
St. Vincent’s closed permanently in 1976.
Scheming New Purposes
On left is a c1960 aerial pic of the site with St. Vincent’s. On the right is a modern Google satellite image showing the same site, now infilled with houses. Pic on left courtesy of the Durham Museum.
In 1976, the home was renamed the Mercy Fontenelle Center and became a retirement home for priests and nuns specifically, but that effort ended in 1982. The building was never used for any formal purpose again after that.
The next year the building changed hands, but sat empty. Vandalism became rampant at the vacant tower, with broken windows and graffiti throughout. Illegal parties, camping for homeless and runaway people, and other activities happened there for more than 15 years.
In 1989, the Omaha Economic Development Corporation (OEDC) won a $500,000 federal grant to redevelop the building as a residential care facility for elderly and disabled people who were low-income. With an overall price tag of $3,000,000, the rest of the project was going to be funded by public and private funds and “some loan money.” Renovation was slated to start in late 1989, and provide “efficiency apartments for about 200 people.” In addition to providing homes for people who didn’t need skilled care, the building was planned to be the location for several small enterprises that would provide services for residents, including an “adult daycare center, home healthcare firm, gift shop and snack shop.”
A 1996 editorial in the Omaha World-Herald said, “Today the property is a testament to neglect and the destructive instincts of punks who have been wrecking the place since it closed 14 years ago.” That year, the City of Omaha Planning Department got approval from the Planning Board to buy the property to demolish the building.
That year, the Holy Name Housing Corporation redeveloped the site as a sub-development with 48 new houses. Selling for $85,000 to $100,000 apiece, the houses were planned to be three-bedroom single family homes. The Omaha World-Herald editorial that year said, “Selling homes for $85,000 to $100,000 in this relatively low – income area seems optimistic. Still, this plan may be the best chance to again make this property useful and attractive. Nearby residents should not have to endure still more years of St. Vincent’s going to pot.” The project went forward, and today the houses there are 25-years old. In 2022, the average value of the houses is $160,000 to $185,000.
There is no sign that St. Vincent’s ever stood on the site.
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