Nebraska’s largest city is wonderfully walkable, from its downtown district and the welcoming Gene Leahy Mall to the historic Old Market district with its outstanding restaurants, like Plank Seafood Provisions and Twisted Fork. A car can be helpful for seeing some parts of town, but, by and large, I found that the architectural treasures in this former pioneer and cow town can easily be reached by foot. These are my favorites.
#1 Union Station
Upon first sight of the now defunct Union Station in Omaha, Nebraska, I was awed by the grandeur of this gorgeous structure, opened in 1931 as Union Pacific’s first Art Deco station. At its peak, one of the world’s most beautiful train stations served up to 10,000 passengers per day on seven different railroads not only with rail service, but a 24-hour restaurant, newsstand, barbershop, telegraph office, and small hospital. During World War II, a USO canteen was set up for thousands of servicemen passing through. The station closed in 1971, and Union Pacific donated it to the city; it’s now home of the Durham Museum. The exterior is an eye-catching vocabulary of strong lines and stylized sculptures and fixtures. When I walked into the Great Hall, I was completely won over by the 60’-high ceiling with herringbone patterns, cathedral windows, chandeliers that weigh more than 2,000 pounds each, brass ticket windows, terrazzo floor with three large sunbursts, statues in period dress buying tickets or waiting on the high-back wood benches (that had both lighting installed at the top, and the heating system built into them, with the vents at the ends) or hurrying through the doors to board their train, and the giant birds on either side of two clocks, stylized with zigzags, squares, and lines. After taking it all in, I couldn’t resist sitting at the counter of the soda fountain, slurping an old-fashioned chocolate milk shake and watching the staff set up tables, chairs, and floral arrangements for a wedding later that evening.
#2 Joslyn Art Museum
I made my way through the outdoor sculpture garden (and past the outdoor yoga class) to the entrance of the Joslyn Art Museum—a long, broad staircase leading up to four fluted columns. This Art Deco beauty, completed in 1931, was a gift from Sarah Joslyn to the city of Omaha as a memorial to her late husband, newspaper mogul George, the richest man in Nebraska. The $3 million price tag for the building allowed for the use of Georgia Pink marble for the façade, with wonderful sculptural panels depicting the area’s original Native American inhabitants and European explorers and settlers. Inside Nebraska’s principal fine arts museum, I marveled at the 38 different marbles from around the world used in the construction of the three-level interior, including from Belgium, Italy, and Morocco. Throughout, I kept happening upon Native American themes and motifs, such as the thunderbird. The terrific art collection includes a work by Dale Chihuly, El Greco’s Saint Francis in Prayer, François-Barthélémy-Michel-Edourd Cibot’s wonderfully evil Fallen Angels, and the rewardingly deceptive Stone City, Iowa, by Grant Wood, where the trees, shrubs, and hedges, upon closer inspection, are really artichokes, asparagus, and peas. But the building itself is a work of art, particularly the gorgeous Storz Fountain Court, an inner courtyard with Moravian floor tiles, arcades on the upper level, and the strikingly colorful glazed-tile fountain and pool.
#3 Rose Blumkin Performing Arts Center
Given its rocky history, I was surprised that the Rose Blumkin Performing Arts Center is still standing. Originally called The Riviera when it opened in 1926 with more than 2,700 seats, it was sold in 1929 and renamed the Paramount Theater (which installed a lobby-level miniature golf course), which then sold it to Creighton University in 1957. The school leased it to J.S.B. Amusement, which turned it into a bowling alley, until it re-leased it the following year and restored it to a theater, the Astro, which lasted until 1980. Facing possible demolition, Creighton sold it in 1981 to successful businesswoman Rose Blumkin, who transformed it to the eponymous performing arts center, home to the Omaha Theater Company since 1995. Yet, throughout that century of tumult, the theater remains a striking structure. A rare Midwestern example of Moorish and Classical styles, the theater was an opulent dreamland for patrons during an era of “atmospheric” theaters, which often simulated outdoor Mediterranean courtyards with a night sky on the ceiling with winking stars and drifting clouds—a show in and of itself. The corner of the building, with its wraparound marquee, features a large copper-domed tower and two similar smaller towers, all encircled by balustrades. Exotic oriel windows, frilly cornices, glazed terra-cotta tile copings, balconets, and a series of free-standing columns that support griffins enhance the façade, itself a spectacular display of brick in a diamond pattern. Inside, restorations have brought the theater back to its glorious origins, with Mediterranean-style murals and balconies, sculptures and friezes, mosaic floors, fountains, tapestries, and, of course, the sky-themed mural.
#4 St. Cecilia Cathedral
I found the third version of St. Cecilia Cathedral in a bosky Omaha neighborhood that was once considered “out in the country.” Although construction began in 1905, the cathedral wasn’t consecrated until 1959, when it emerged as one of the 10 largest Catholic cathedrals in the United States, measuring 255’ long, 158’ wide, and 222’ high. Designed by a local architect in the Spanish Renaissance Revival style, the cathedral has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The wonderful exterior, clad in Indiana limestone, wouldn’t look very much out of place in Madrid or Mexico City, and boasts soaring twin towers with volutes and domes. Three million red bricks, 100 tons of steel beams, and 12 kinds of marble were used during the construction. Inside, I strode down the main aisle of the nave under the barrel-vaulted ceiling toward the bronze and carrara marble altar rail. Behind it, an unusual crucifix commands attention, with Christ looking upward. Other wonderful details include simple bronze Stations of the Cross without any words describing the scene, the St. Cecilia rose window that measures 25’ in diameter, the gorgeous pulpit carved with the figures of St. Peter and four doctors of the church resting on a bed of green marble, and one particular stained-glass window with a simple message: “Be ye doers of the Word and not hearers only.”
#5 Joslyn Castle
Getting back to George and Sarah Joslyn….These native New Englanders married in 1874 and settled in Omaha in 1880 when George took a job as manager of a branch manager of the Iowa Paper Company, reorganized a year later as the Western Newspaper Union. Within a decade, George had become its president and general manager, running an operation that was recognized as the largest newspaper service organization in the world, including printing plants and publication offices in 32 cities, the largest publication plant in Chicago, 17 wholesale paper houses, and pulp and paper mills in Wisconsin. The job, and George’s investments, made him the richest man in Nebraska. The couple so loved their adopted city that they donated more than $7 million to community projects. That figure also happens to be, in today’s dollars, the same amount they spent on their new home, officially called Lynhurst but dubbed “Joslyn Castle” by locals. I wouldn’t consider calling it anything else. Completed in 1903 in the Scottish baronial style (chosen to lend an aura of old money and sophistication to new money and position) after only 11 months of construction, this magnificent four-story 35-room pile of Kansas silverdale limestone and chiseled stone features towers, porches, bartizans, crenellation, and a wrought-iron door that weighs more than a ton. Similar to other Gilded Age mansions, the castle combined ostentation with practical technologies. Inside, pocket doors and the rich use of carved wood, stained glass, and mosaic tiles that embellished the reception hall, music room, pipe organ, ballroom, library, drawing room, grand foyer, and Spanish mahogany staircase and mantle—all 19,360 square feet of it—were complemented by telephones, central heating, gas, electricity, a refrigeration room, and indoor plumbing with a bathroom for each bedroom. But it wasn’t reserved solely for the era’s one percent: The Joslyns often opened their home to parties for underprivileged and orphaned children. The couple, whose only child died in infancy, raised a foster daughter and lived on their 5.5-acre estate here until their deaths, George in 1916 and Sarah in 1940. After that, it served as the headquarters of the Omaha Public Schools’ administrative offices until 1989 and eventually was taken over by the Joslyn Castle Trust. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and designated an Omaha landmark in 1979, Joslyn Castle is open today as a house museum for you to appreciate the taste and refinement the Joslyns brought to Omaha a century ago.
- St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church (1903)
- Omaha Building (1889)
- Joel Cornish House (1886)
- Central High School (1912)
- Omaha Public Library (1891)
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