Tag Archives: Nancy Mammel

Omaha’s First Neighborhood (Forest Hill)

February 21, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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.

02 December 2017- Marie Sedlacek is photographed in front of her home for Omaha Magazine.

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.

Rustic Roots

October 30, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It took two-and-a-half years of eager anticipation for the new Blue Barn Theatre to take shape at 10th and Pacific streets, as producing artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer waited impatiently to start creating in the new space. The wait was worth it.

This welcome addition to the booming 10th Street corridor gives her a new playground in which to produce stage magic.

Blue Barn is part of a mixed-use project on the site, which also houses the Boxcar 10 condos and restaurant on the south side, and public green space to the west that the theater opens onto.

The theater’s distinctive design by Omaha architect Jeff Day of Min|Day, with input from international theater space consultant Joshua Dachs, is a whimsical play on the Blue Barn name and purpose. Weathered steel and slatted wood evoke the barn motif. A vertical wall of rebar suggests a curtain. Splashes of blue appear throughout.

Great pains were taken to express the organic qualities that distinguish the way the company makes theater, including the use of salvaged materials and hand-made fixtures by area artists. Elements from the old 11th and Jackson space were integrated. The house was kept small to preserve intimacy with audiences.

“Rehearsing our opening play I had a moment where I was transported back to our old space and it felt like I was home. We worked long and hard to create a space that felt familiar from our old digs but also inspiring in new ways, and I think we have done that,” Clement-Toberer says. “For awhile during the building process I was a little freaked out that it was too big, but it’s not. Once the walls and the reclaimed wood slats got put up and our comfy chairs from the old space were installed, I clearly saw this new building—with the expanded lobby and adjoining back garden—offers incredible new spaces for us.

“But they still feel like the Blue Barn. I feel like the building is a body that warmly embraces our work.”

Occupying a permanent, dedicated space is a giant leap forward for a theater that rented and repurposed venues for more than 27 years, and even went homeless for a time.

“It’s very exhilarating to know we actually have a full space of our own that we will get to know every nook and cranny and creak in the floor and not have to go anywhere else to create our art.”

Amenities include larger dressings rooms, and, for the first time, backstage restrooms the actors won’t share with patrons. There are also enhanced lighting and sound systems, more expansive wing and storage areas, and a much higher ceiling for flying props and lights.

Clement-Toberer says, “I became adept at creating around limitations. Now my head’s spinning with the possibilities. We don’t have to have any confinement in how we create anymore and that’s the biggest transformation—what we’re able to do on our stage.

“If we want a scene to take place outdoors we can open the back doors of the house out onto the porch yard. We can let the actors and audience feel the wind blowing and see the moon. That to me is a gift.”

The potential configurations excite the director in her.

“I can see us…putting in a long table that runs from the indoor space all the way outdoors and having a beautiful dinner with the show happening around on the green space. I can see seating on the fixed stage and the performance being on the porch yard.”

Indeed, she regards the building and its signature indoor-outdoor flex space as “a set design malleable enough to allow the Blue Barn to grow into it and find different ways of utilizing it. Hopefully we have created a palette and a place that will continue to inspire us as artists as well as our audiences in the different forms we can create and in the different feelings we bring about through the stories we tell.”

Blue Barn hasn’t come to all this without struggle. The building’s a testament to resilience and community support built over time.

“We’re very lucky and full of gratitude that people in Omaha believed in us enough to help us grow ourselves in all the right ways,” she says.

Through it all, Blue Barn stayed true to itself.

“Our voice is a little more grown-up but it’s still speaking the same language we were 27 years ago.It is kind of like having our child grow up, and we still get to play hard and fierce.”

The new theater also strengthens Blue Barn’s position as a regional professional theater now that it meets equity standards.

Clement-Toberer credits Omaha philanthropist Nancy Mammel—who donated the land to Blue Barn and developed the adjoining Boxcar project—“as the real visionary for knowing 10th Street deserved a revitalization.”

This 2015-2016 season Clement-Toberer’s making sure to “savor every moment.”

Visit bluebarn.org to learn more.

BlueBarn1