"Proud, powerful and transforming." Asked to think of words to describe the Minne Lusa neighborhood, these came to my mind immediately. I was sitting with a friend in Omaha recently, talking about the changes in North O, and they asked me what I thought of it. I easily remembered summers riding bikes up and down Minne Lusa Boulevard, going to the Viking Ship regularly, eating ice cream and buying cassette tapes at Four Aces Pawn Shop. Even as a kid, I thought the neighborhood was special, with its giant houses on the boulevard and polite houses up and down the blocks, all with an overall feeling of respectful suburbanity.
The following is a short history of the neighborhood that I write out of admiration for Minne Lusa's beauty, my memories, and the people who fill the homes today.
Growing Out Of A Cornfield
|A composite view of the Minne Lusa neighborhood circa 1921. This view is looking west to east with Mary Street in the middle and Miller Park to the right. Newport Avenue is the dirt road to the left near us.|
"When we bought the land that is now Minne Lusa it was a big cornfield of 128 acres. Endowed by nature with beautiful rolling contour, it needed but the magic wand of man to turn it in a few days into a district of contented home owners." - Charles Martin
The roots of the Minne Lusa neighborhood go all the way back to 1893, when nationally renowned landscape architect H.W.W. Cleveland designed a citywide boulevard and park system for the City of Omaha. The cherry on his vision was called "Omaha's Most Beautiful Mile," which was a tree-lined boulevard packed with fancy homes; a smooth, winding roadway; and gorgeous flowerbeds along its mile-plus length. Its subdivision, called Norwood, was packed with riverview lots for large and medium sized houses. Today, this is part of the section of Florence Boulevard between Storz Expressway and Reed Street.
Fancy Name, Better Land
|This 1916 map shows the Minne Lusa neighborhood in relationship to the rest of North Omaha taken from the Omaha Bee.|
In 1880, the Florence Water Works were completed immediately west of the town of Florence. Nine years later, the American Water Company built the Minne Lusa Pumping Station at the Water Works, and sold the City of Omaha private water that was purified there. The station's owners said the words they made up, "minne lusa," supposedly meant clear water in the Sioux language. In reality, the name was a hyperforeignism. A hyperforeignism is a type of qualitative hypercorrection that makes speakers mis-say loanword, and then use it for purposes it was never intended. In this case, the name of the neighborhood was probably taken from the neighboring pumping station or from the creek running through the neighborhood. The creek, which was known colloquially as Manuel Lisa Creek, was named after the Spaniard fur trapper who had a small fort to the north a century before the neighborhood was built.
The Miller Park was established on the northern edge of the city limits in 1891. More than 30 years after the Florence Water Works were established; 25 years after the Miller Park was created; and more than 20 years after Florence Boulevard was finished, a successful farmer sold his land to a real estate developer. The farmer, named James M. Parker, was a founding father of the town of Florence, Nebraska. An early manager of the Bank of Florence, he eventually bought the land that became Minne Lusa.
Parker's son, Frederick Parker, kept a studio west of present-day North 30th and Redick Streets. After Frederick and the other heirs got a hold of the Parker Estate, for a long time they kept sowing his acres with tight rows of corn. In 1891, they sold a large chunk of the estate to George Miller. Part of that became the Miller Park and the Miller Park neighborhood. Later another chunk was sold to a man who helped develop the Norwood subdivision mentioned earlier, as well as the Belle Isle subdivision in the Miller Park neighborhood. His name was Charles Martin.
The Biggest Subdivision in Omaha
|This is a street in the Minne Lusa neighborhood in 1926.|
When it was built, Minne Lusa was the biggest subdivision in Omaha to date.
Located in the northern end of present-day North Omaha, present-day Minne Lusa is bounded by North 24th Street to North 30th Street; Craig Street to Redick Avenue. When he built it, Martin bragged about the subdivision having "six miles of water mains, 47 fire hydrants, 12 miles of sidewalks, an ornamental lighting system, 1700 shade trees, and last but not least, a clubhouse."
As World War I was starting, a local developer named Charles Martin made plans to develop that cornfield. It was one of the last great uncompleted spaces between the Miller Park neighborhood and Florence, and between 1915 and 1926, Martin finished his vision. Different from all of his peers, Martin did not plan a small town like Benson, Dundee or Florence. Instead, he built the largest subdivision in Omaha's history to that point. Centered on the lulling Minne Lusa Boulevard, the Minne Lusa neighborhood supported a dozen east / west streets, too, along with three north / south roadways.
However, Martin didn't want to focus everything on a business district, but instead, just homes. Adding just a few property amenities to the neighborhood, Minne Lusa became a unique contribution to the City of Omaha's growth. Some of those amenities included the park-like Minne Lusa Boulevard and the exclusive Prettiest Mile Club.
Martin choose the area carefully. When he started, streetcars roamed from Dodge Street to Florence along North 30th Street, and from downtown Omaha almost to Reed Street along North 24th Street. He was designing for Omaha's growing middle class population. When he began in 1916, a lot of people started buying his homes: accountants, bookkeepers, buyers, clerks, comptrollers, contractors, dentists, department Managers, engineers, foremen, lawyers, managers, mechanics, small business owners, physicians, postal clerks, salesmen, secretaries, stenographers, teachers, travel agents and company vice presidents. They generally didn't own cars, rode the streetcars, and shopped very locally. However, within a decade, although the same types of people were still buying the homes, they were driving their own cars and needed garages. Almost every home in the neighborhood ended up with a garage.
Following are some of the features of today's Minne Lusa neighborhood.
|A typical home in the Minne Lusa neighborhood, circa 1926.|
- Well-designed homes
- Wide front porches
- Low-pitched, gabled roofs
- Pointed window arches
- Tapered columns
- Partially paned doors
- Multi-paned windows
- Earthtone paint jobs
- Single dormers
- Exposed rafter tails and beams under deep roof eaves
- Knee braces
- Brick fireplaces and wooden fittings
- Stone and tiles
- Asymmetrical composition
Seeking a house designer who reflected his intent, Martin hired Omaha architect Everett Dodd. Dodd designs for Minne Lusa were particularly important because of their simplicity and adaptability. Dodd created a home design catalogue that could be used for the entire development with several home styles repeating through a number of variations that made each one look unique. Unlike other subdivisions built in the same time period, Martin didn't require brick exteriors. Instead, he wanted a variety of surfaces covering his neighborhood, including stucco and wood. Keeping with the Craftsman tradition, a lot of wood was used to build Minne Lusa.
Other housing styles throughout the Minne Lusa neighborhood include the Colonial Revival, Neo-Classical, Tudor Revival, and Ranch styles, with two Prairie style homes, too.
800 lots were sold on 30 blocks throughout Minne Lusa. Martin was so successful with this subdivision that he took on the development of 211 acres north and west of North 30th Street that formerly belonged to the Army at Fort Omaha. It was called Florence Field. The Florence Field subdivision designed by Martin had 1,100 lots and was intended for a more exclusive homeowner.
Minne Lusa School
|The Minne Lusa School as it appeared in 1924.|
Prettiest Mile Club
|The Prettiest Mile Club at Minne Lusa Boulevard and Redick Avenue in 1926.|
In the 1930s, the Odd Fellows took ownership of the building and renamed it the Birchwood Club for the trees that lined the park's driveways. The Hayden House restaurant moved in during the 1940s, adding an air of exclusivity to the club. A state-of-the-art swimming pool was also installed to the east of the building. During this period, the Birchwood Club's rule excluding African Americans was strictly enforced, demonstrating Omaha's strict commitment to both de facto and de jure segregation. A lot of former Minne Lusa residents have lovely memories about the Birchwood Club, many centered on the swimming pool and the restaurant.
Minne Lusa Boulevard
|An early image of the Minne Lusa Boulevard, possibly near Bauman Avenue.|
The City of Omaha's beautiful boulevard system, designed in 1892, was designed to supplement the city's parks by acting as a ribbon that ties them all together. Upon seeing the city complete the Belvedere Boulevard at the southwest corner of Miller Park, Charles Martin had a vision for his new neighborhood.
He saw two meandering avenues lining either side of the Minne Lusa Creek that weaved its way in a gentle valley between the hills Martin bought for his neighborhood. He laid concrete curbs and streets immediately, channeling the creek through a sewer and covering it with trees on a grass-covered median, and planting soft glowing streetlights the entire length of the strip. The lots lining the Minne Lusa Boulevard were designated for larger houses and cost more to buy.
Martin originally wanted to join his boulevard with North 28th Street in Florence, which was supposed to be made into a boulevard, too. However, when that didn't happen, Charles Martin designed Martin Avenue to connect to the Fontenelle Boulevard in the far western end of his Florence Field subdivision. This completed a wonderful loop that tied together his neighborhoods into the lifeblood of citywide traffic via the boulevard system.
|A street in Minne Lusa as it appears today. The earthtones and stunning foliage are a payoff of longterm planning by Dodd.|
In the 1970s, the City of Omaha seriously considered running the North Freeway straight through the neighborhood in order to have a connector directly from downtown Omaha to I-680. However, concerned neighbors and community organizations successfully fended off this attack, and the highway ended south of the Miller Park neighborhood.
During that decade, the Birchwood Club transferred ownership to private hands. Renamed the Viking Ship, it endured a poorly executed remodel that stripped it of its historical beauty. The warm, earthy stucco on the outside of the building was replaced with a tacky industrial-type siding and cheap-looking brick, while almost every element in the interior was demolished and rebuilt. The ballroom was repurposed as a gymnastics facility and the bowling alley was ripped out and replaced with a workout gym.
The insidious phenomenon of white flight has reared its head throughout North Omaha's history. Apparently, many middle class white people do not want to live by African Americans. Once thought to be a problem of the last century, student bodies in local schools and homeownership trends show that it is still a relevant factor in home buying in Omaha. Coupled with a generation of aging homeowners looking to move away or simply dying, white flight took a swipe at Minne Lusa.
In the 1990s, home ownership within the neighborhood took a hit as landlords began buying up the beautiful houses in the area that were undervalued by banks, the City of Omaha and Douglas County. The outcome of this behavior led to the degradation of the neighborhood as absentee landlords and under-capable renters lowered the morale of the neighborhood. Despite the value of being well-connected to the rest of the city through the surrounding highways, homebuyers saw Minne Lusa as undesirable and refused to buy homes there. At the same time, the ratio of African Americans to white people living in Minne Lusa raised higher, too.
Fortunately, determination and community building are showing us that mixed race, mixed income neighborhoods in Omaha can survive and thrive. Today, the Minne Lusa neighborhood is a prime demonstration of that reality.
|A typically elaborate Arts and Crafts doorway in the Minne Lusa neighborhood.|
Soon afterwards, a group of community members worked together and rallied local resources in support of placing the neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places. They were successful, and in 2014 they successfully secured a federal designation as the Minne Lusa Residential Historic District. Additionally, the Minne Lusa Boulevard is included separately on the National Register of Historic Places in a listing for the Omaha Parks and Boulevard System. One of the homes in Minne Lusa, the Harry B. Neef House, is also listed separately on the National Register, too, because of its unique construction in the city.
The neighborhood continues its rebound today. According to their blog, home values are rebounding right now and property ownership is reflecting a larger vision. Neighbors are taking care of their neighborhood again, and Minne Lusa is growing. Here's to a bright, bold future for my friends in North Omaha's Minne Lusa neighborhood!
|Here's a 1919 map of the Minne Lusa neighborhood taken from the Omaha Bee.|
- "A History of North Omaha's Viking Ship, Birchwood Club, and Prettiest Mile Club"
- "The Rebirth of an Historic Neighborhood"
- "A History of Omaha's Florence Water Works and Minne Lusa Station"
- "Go Minne Lusa!"
- "A History of The Miller Park in North Omaha"
- "A Short History of North Omaha's Belvedere Point Neighborhood"
- "A History of North Omaha's Miller Park Neighborhood"
- "A History of Omaha's Florence Boulevard"
- Minne Lusa Blog
- "Minne Lusa Historic District" on Wikipedia
- "Build a Dodds Home" official house catalogue for Minne Lusa
- Minne Lusa House on Facebook
|New signage for the Minne Lusa Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.|
|A Little League baseball uniform sponsored by the old Minne Lusa Tavern. Photo courtesy of the Minne Lusa House.|
|A typical street corner in the Minne Lusa neighborhood.|
|A streetscape in the Minne Lusa neighborhood.|
|This house is near North 30th Street in Minne Lusa Boulevard.|
|An original Arts and Crafts style home from the Dodds catalogue.|
|The current appearance of a Dodds home with little changed since it was completed.|
|Wide eaves, exposed footings, and circular stairs are indicative of Minne Lusa's beautiful architecture.|
|Apparently exceptional, this home is one of many larger homes throughout the neighborhood along the Minne Lusa Boulevard.|
|James Monroe Parker homesteaded the land where the Minne Lusa neighborhood stands. His estate sold the land to Charles Martin's company for development.|
|An ad for types of homes in Minne Lusa, paid by Charles Martin.|
|A featured home along Minne Lusa Boulevard.|
|The Minne Lusa Restaurant, formerly located on North 30th Street.|