Gordon Hitchcock is a self-proclaimed “old house geek,” and has been since childhood. “I subscribed to This Old House magazine when I was 13,” he admits.
So, in 2013, when he went looking for an affordable, old home where he could invest some “sweat equity” and house his licensed massage therapy practice, he looked no further than the Gibraltar neighborhood of Council Bluffs.
Located at the base of the Loess Hills, it is one of the area’s oldest neighborhoods and includes the Willow/Bluff/Third Street Historic District. Its boundaries are the top of Fifth Avenue west to Fourth Street, and Ninth Avenue north to St. Peter’s Church.
Gibraltar was named for a rugged, 250-foot-high dirt mound resembling the Iberian landmark (the Rock of Gibraltar), which once sat at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Third Street. The massive hill was razed in the mid-1950s to allow for more home construction.
The neighborhood’s 200-plus homes represent a variety of architectural styles. Many were built by railroad titans, military generals, doctors, lawyers, and prominent businessmen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Gibraltar is also home to the historic Bregant House (at 517 Fourth St.), built for two married entrepreneurial vaudeville stars with dwarfism.
Hitchcock has spent six years converting his massive 1868 Italianate villa—which was originally built by a retired judge and included a small law office space—from apartments back into a single-family home. Thankfully, most of the house was brought up to code in the early ’90s, with new HVAC, plumbing, and electric wiring, he says.
While he’s made great progress on the first and second floors, the basement and large attic space remain unfinished. If converted, the house’s usable area will be 6,400 square feet. It’s “my little art project,” he jokes.
Where Community and Architecture Meet
Gibraltar’s ornate, one-of-a-kind, turn-of-the-century residences initially draw many prospective homebuyers. But it’s more than the homes that make the neighborhood special.
Retired couple Amy and Dave Adams have lived in Gibraltar for 20 years—first on Third Street, then relocating to Clark Avenue in 2003. Their Craftsman-style home, built about 1912, is on a dead-end street and backs to a private wooded area.
“But the best part of our home is the view,” Amy says. “We have trees all around us…beautiful red maples. And old, lovely homes that are well-maintained.” They have two porches from which to enjoy the scenery.
While they appreciate the hand-crafted woodwork, pocket doors, and charms of their “warm and cozy” home, it’s their neighbors that they would miss most if they left, Amy says.
They credit the Gibraltar Neighborhood Association (GNA) for promoting a real sense of community among a diverse homeowner base. Amy served on its board for a time, as did her husband as treasurer.
“The association does a wonderful job dealing with streets and curbing and other issues, working with the city to resolve them,” she says. “They’ve also done a lot to grow homeowner participation. There are always new members joining, serving, coming to events. We’ve met some great people.”
The Adamses enjoy attending the annual GNA Christmas party, hosted by a different homeowner each year, and try to attend the regular social meetings held by GNA. “It’s hard to get to meet everybody, so we’ve decided to appoint block captains to help with flow of communication.”
Developing Neighborhood Initiatives
Amy says that when they moved in 16 years ago, “We were the young people on the block. Now we’re the older folk. The neighborhood is transitioning. A young woman down the street just bought her mother’s house. You’re seeing that more…homes becoming multi-generational.”
A prime example is Cory Peters. The graphic designer has been a Gibraltar resident for most of her life. “I was born and raised four houses down from where I live now,” she says. Today, she resides in the midcentury ranch home she bought from her parents in 2000 (which was built where the namesake dirt mound once sat). A former GNA president and its current newsletter editor, Peters was instrumental in helping Gibraltar win second place in the Neighborhoods, USA national competition in the “Social Revitalization” category in 2016.
Peters says since its founding just 10 years ago, GNA has been proactive, partnering with groups like Habitat for Humanity, The 712 Initiative, City of Council Bluffs, historical groups, and others on ways to improve Gibraltar and the community as a whole.
To date, GNA has spearheaded the effort to create and install historic district banners on streetlights throughout Gibraltar. It’s also contributed funds to buy new holiday decorations for nearby Bayliss Park, as well as helped raise money for Historic General Dodge House.
Currently, GNA sponsors an annual spring clean-up day, and the association’s sidewalk repair initiative is ongoing. Gibraltar participates in a historical home bus tour, along with Fairmont Park and Bayliss Park neighborhoods. Recently, the association also initiated an art project at Fourth and Worth streets.
“We pitched the idea of a historic mural being installed on the south wall of the Pottawattamie County Genealogical Society building adjacent to some green space,” Peters says. “The contents of the mural will be decided by neighbors and include imagery from Council Bluffs from the last 150 years. The goal is to have the mural in place in late spring.”
Peters says GNA has worked with The 712 Initiative in recent months to purchase a block party trailer, which houses tables and chairs, barricades, carnival games, coolers, and other items essential for hosting community events. Gibraltar block parties are planned for this summer and fall.
“All of Council Bluffs will have access to the trailer,” she explains. “We’re going to share it. They can use it to build neighborhood relationships, as well as help bring all people together and build a stronger community.”
Peters is proud of what GNA has accomplished in its short existence, but says it has no shortage of goals moving forward. Its long-term planning guide on its website spells out the details.
“Being fairly young, we’re lagging behind many Omaha developments,” she adds. “We’re still learning and have a ways to go.”
Affordable History Near Downtown Omaha
Two of Gibraltar’s newest residents are David and Anna Brooks. The couple purchased a three-story Colonial Revival built around 1906 (the exact year is disputed), in December 2017.
David, 31, was drawn to Gibraltar because of its proximity to his downtown Omaha office, where he practices law, and Fairmont Park with its running trails. Anna, 28, who works in finance from home, also loves having Bayliss Park, the Old Market, the library, and Council Bluffs’ city center a close jaunt from home. The couple are expecting their first child, a girl, this spring.
The Brooks considered several Omaha metro neighborhoods when relocating from Iowa City, settling on Gibraltar because of the value it offered.
“The quality you get for the price over here is tremendous,” Anna says. “Our home has incredible character. We never thought we’d be able to afford a house in this neighborhood.”
Their home features 9-foot-high ceilings and 8-foot-tall windows, allowing great natural light. A three-season porch and an oversized corner lot are other features that captured the hearts of the Brooks. “And we have a great view of downtown Omaha from our second- and third-floor windows,” Anna adds.
David, who serves as GNA secretary, feels a civic duty to helping Gibraltar prosper. “Older neighborhoods have suffered and are still recovering from urban sprawl,” David says. “Having a strong downtown core is important, and this neighborhood is central to that effort in Council Bluffs.”
David says they look forward to spending many years in their home. “The character of the people in this neighborhood is amazing,” he adds. “Life throws twists and turns at you, and our neighbors are extremely supportive. We don’t have much family here, and so they’ve turned into our new family.”
Visit gibraltarna.org for more information.
This article was printed in the May 2019 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.