Big pine and oak trees, patches of green space, historic mansions, and single-family homes (many of which were built in the late 1800s, not long after Omaha first became a city)—that’s what you’ll find in the area affectionately known as Omaha’s First Neighborhood, located just south of the Old Market between 10th and 13th streets.
You’ll see grand, welcoming porches where neighbors stop to greet each other on picturesque walks; multi-story gables flaunting tall, stained-glass windows; and architectural styles ranging from Victorian to Romanesque.
You can stroll by Bishopthorpe (1240 S. 10th St.), a large Victorian mansion that Bishop George Worthington built as his residence while he served as Episcopal Bishop of Nebraska. Just down the street is the majestic St. Francis Cabrini Church (1248 S. 10th St.), a shining example of Spanish Renaissance Revival style designed by the renowned architect Thomas Kimball. A few blocks down is the Cornish Mansion (1404 S. 10th St.), known as one of the best examples of French Second Empire architecture in Omaha.
“The neighborhood has a lot of character and charm, which is what draws people here,” says Nancy Mammel, who has owned property in the area for several years.
The problem is, over the past several years, the neighborhood has also been drawing more and more new development, some of which residents believe is threatening the area’s origins and integrity.
“Many people who are living in the homes are concerned about the future of these homes and this neighborhood,” says Marie Sedlacek, who moved to the neighborhood in 1985.
In 2015, John E. Johnston & Son Funeral Home on 10th and William streets, formerly the Kountze Mansion, was demolished to make way for William Rows, a cluster of 27 row houses. Grace University’s announcement to halt operations at the end of the 2017-2018 school year has attracted a developer’s proposal for more high-density apartments on some of the property. Omaha Public Schools purchased land at 10th and Pine streets to build a new 600-capacity elementary school, which residents are concerned will take away green space and bring more commuter traffic.
Progress itself isn’t bad. But residents believe progress that changes the historic look and feel of the area—the quaint community vibe and distinguishing architecture that holds an important place in Omaha’s past—isn’t good, either.
“We just want people building and developing in a smart way,” Mammel says.
While it’s colloquially called Omaha’s First Neighborhood, the area’s official name is Forest Hill. The parameters go north to south from Pacific to Bancroft streets, and east to west from Sixth to 13th streets, according to Arnie Breslow, president of the neighborhood association, who owns the Cornish Mansion and other properties.
The residents who live in the area, either as homeowners or renters, are diverse in both age and ethnicity. Sedlacek says her neighbors range in age from 30 to 70 years old, including single people, families with kids, and people who are older or retired. And these neighbors represent many different ethnicities, including Latino, Italian, Czech, and Bohemian.
The neighborhood began to form in the late 1800s. Some of the city’s first businessmen built the first homes in the area because they wanted to live close to their downtown businesses, but not right downtown, to get away from muddy streets, odors, and a general abundance of soot and pollution.
Breslow says about 28 large-to-mid-sized mansions were originally built on the “hill,” and he estimates maybe five remain. As the development of railroads increased commercial development and a need for more workers, immigrants began moving south of downtown, building more modest homes around the parameter of the mansions.
The three things residents love most about the area—what they believe is important to maintaining the neighborhood’s authenticity—are these homes (big and small), the bigger plots of green space, and the walkability around the neighborhood as well as to several popular destinations (a trait that is also attractive to developers).
Depending on which direction you are headed, the Forest Hill neighborhood is roughly a mile’s distance from two of Nebraska’s most popular tourist attractions—the Old Market and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. The Durham Museum and Lauritzen Gardens are also easily accessible. Residents who work downtown can easily walk to work. And everyone who lives in the area can enjoy walks to some of the area’s popular independent businesses, some of which have been around for generations, such as Cascio’s Steakhouse, Sons of Italy, Johnson Hardware Co., and Olsen Bake Shop.
In an effort to be proactive about the neighborhood’s future, Breslow, along with a group of several neighbors, worked with an architect to draft a plan to revitalize South 10th Street with more gardens and green space, new streetlights, and sculptures. The plan for “District 108” was approved by City Council about 10 years ago and even won Omaha by Design’s Neighborhood Leaf Award in 2009. Unfortunately, funds have not yet been made available to move significantly forward.
“Part of our plan is to do some things to try to slow the traffic down,” Breslow says. “People don’t like to walk down a street where a car is driving 50 miles per hour.”
Several aspects of the neighborhood’s future remain uncertain, and some are out of the homeowners’ control. However, Sedlacek, Breslow, and Mammel love this neighborhood. They love its history, its vibe, and how it has evolved since it was founded more than 100 years ago. And they will continue to do what they can to preserve it.
“We just really want our neighborhood to be sparkly,” Sedlacek says. “We have the kind of details people don’t realize we have until they are gone.”
This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Home.