November 8, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

What do the Meat Puppets and Omaha have in common? Sunset Hills and local millionaire Carl Renstrom.

Renstrom, who died in November of 1981, left behind two grandchildren—Curtis and Christopher Kirkwood—who founded the Meat Puppets with drummer Derrick Bostrom. While the Meat Puppets have gone on to punk-rock fame, the Renstrom Farm behind Sunset Hills was sold and developed into One Pacific Place. Many residents still fondly remember the farm.

Joyce Green, a resident since 1979, can recall when they could see horses from the backyard. “We felt we were on the west edge of Omaha,” she says. “It was all agriculture.”

Green has even heard stories told by older residents of the Renstrom girls, either Vera or Lisa, selling farm vegetables from their chauffeur-driven car.

Bordered by 90th Street, Pacific Street, and Big Papio Creek, Sunset Hills is hilly with lush old trees, no through-streets, and little traffic.

Betty Salistean, now in her 90s, moved to Sunset Hills during the early 1950s. She relocated from the barracks at Fort Omaha when Pierce Street was still a gravel road. The city limits moved from 60th to 72nd Street in the early 20th century, and Salistean watched Omaha creep westward from her then-new home.

“It is hard to believe how fast the city has grown,” she says.

Sunset Hills’ neighborhood grew, too. An influx of young families caused District 66 to operate a temporary elementary from two houses on South 93rd Avenue. Finished in 1956, the Sunset Elementary School was built in the California-pod style— featuring sectioned rooms not connected by indoor hallways— favored for speed of construction.

“It was a kind of unique school; it actually doesn’t really belong in Nebraska,” says Steve Sorensen, who grew up in the neighborhood. “You were immediately outside when you step out the door [of the classrooms].”

In the early 1960s, hallways were added for security and practicality in Nebraska’s inclement weather, and the beloved Sunset Hills Elementary sign was constructed with beams from the original entryway.

A new renovation of the school was underway during this past summer. On Aug. 31, construction workers were busy erecting a canopy entrance for the new building. According to the school’s principal, Michelle Patterson, the local firm TACKarchitects interviewed students about memorable features. These conversations led to incorporating the sign, a canopy entrance modeled after the original entrance, glass block windows, and a beloved piece of concrete play equipment, dubbed “The Cheese,” into the new building.

It helped to have a lead architect on the project, TACKarchitects’ Christopher Houston, living in Sunset Hills.

The elementary school at the heart of Sunset Hills

“For how small the school is, we had lots of community support,” Patterson says, “which is kind of a theme around here.”

The design process included 15 meetings with an advisory committee of community members and informational meetings that filled the elementary school’s gym. This communication informed the school’s redesign—the low building height protected neighborhood views, and plentiful green space surrounded the educational edifice. Much of the surrounding greenery came from Sunset Valley Golf Course.

Some of the greenery, however, could be disappearing. Members voted on June 13 to sell the 46 acres of Sunset Valley Golf Course to NP Dodge. Speaking with Omaha Magazine in late August, company president Nate Dodge says they began a 90-day “due diligence” examination of soil to “test theory if development is possible in an area from an engineering and financial standpoint.”

NP Dodge may request a second 90-day period and anticipates developing 15 acres due to the Big Papio Creek’s flood zone. The company is considering some single-family lots and multifamily buildings, keeping green space and possibly some golf holes as amenities.

“We would love to develop this in a way that would reflect the neighborhood and district,” Dodge says. “We wanted to take in the concerns of people who would be neighbors of the development.”

NP Dodge held three public meetings attended by roughly 180 people, as well as meeting with individuals. According to the company’s president, they have made “meaningful changes because of the input and interaction of the neighborhood.”

“I live seven blocks from there. Not only have I played that golf course but biked that trail,” Dodge says. “I love that neighborhood and think it could be a great development.”

Dodge is not the only person who thinks Sunset Hills is “on the upswing.” According to Bob Zagoda, chief financial officer for District 66, the district expects growth in the area, and the new elementary building will increase to two sections. This continues a strong concentration of neighborhood students, 83 percent of the total population.

“There were gobs of kids,” Sorensen says of his childhood in Sunset Hills. “There were so many friendships you could have, and the whole neighborhood was your playground.” Residents describe the community as if it were a small Nebraskan town: “safe” and “nice.” Jack and Joyce Green, both from small towns, have hosted 37 block parties in an annual tradition stretching over 40 years.

“Omaha is made up of a lot of small-town people, and our neighborhood always had that feel,” Joyce Green says, adding that some of Sunset Hills’ newest young families are familiar faces. “That is really a compliment to the neighborhood, that kids want to come back and raise their kids here. They feel like they are coming home to raise their families.”

Sorensen is one of those kids, born in 1959, back since 2007. His family frequently visited Sunset Hills during the interim years. In fact, he considered moving into his mother’s house after her passing but instead opted to purchase a home a few blocks away.

The Sorensens now reside in a beautiful old house he has admired since childhood. As a kid, he enjoyed hot chocolate on Halloween with the previous resident. He also recalls accidentally hitting the former mailbox while showing off in his beige 1970s Pinto one winter vacation home from college.

“I’ve lived in Dundee, and there are some great things about living there. I’ve lived in Country Club, and there are some great thing about living there,” Sorensen says.“But I feel happiest living here.”

Visit sunsethills.westside66.org for more information about the elementary school at the heart of Sunset Hills.

This article was printed in the November/December issue of Omaha Home.

Steve Sorensen, a resident of Sunset Hills