Orchard Hill Neighborhood - 40th and Hamilton
How do we rejuvenate the 40th and Hamilton area, while preserving its history and celebrating its current cultural diversity?
VIDEO: Omaha's Orchard Hill and Walnut Hill Neighborhoods. MIHV student interviews in 2021 with neighborhood leaders sharing the history of Omaha’s Orchard Hill and Walnut Hill neighborhoods plus ideas for the area’s future redevelopment.
The area of 40th and Hamilton streets is a convergence, or hub, of the Walnut Hill, Orchard Hill, Bemis Park and Clifton Hill neighborhoods. The success of these early, upper-class subdivisions, northwest of downtown Omaha, depended upon the streetcar, which arrived in the area in 1887. The establishment of these neighborhoods in the late 1800s, led to the development of commercial buildings near the intersection of 40th and Hamilton streets filled with drugstores, shops, theaters and people. Photo: The northwest corner of 40th and Hamilton Streets in 2017.
Map: 1889 Omaha Street Railways Map from Richard Orr's O&CB Streetcars of Omaha and Council Bluffs book.
The Orchard Hill plat was first established in 1886 when real estate developer Clifton E. Mayne acquired almost all the land on the north side of Hamilton between 36th and 41st Streets. As part of his plan to lure buyers to the area, Mayne ensured a streetcar line would service the area soon after its platting. At the same time, Dr. Samuel Mercer, a developer of the Walnut Hill area, used his involvement in the Omaha Motor Railway Co. to ensure the streetcar would travel from downtown Omaha to Cuming Street and then head west to his new development. In the end, Cuming Street was paved with bricks and the streetcar went west on Cuming, then turned north on 40th Street and then west on Military Road, now known as Hamilton Street.
The route connected to the town of Benson using the Benson Motor Railway. Streetcars served the area until 1948.
During this period, the commercial resources concentrated at the intersection of Hamilton and North 40th streets provided a variety of goods and services to support the surrounding residential community. Photos: View of the Fire Station at 4024 Hamilton St. in 1917. (The Durham Museum Photo-BF6153-052) and 40th and Hamilton Street photo showing Martin's Bakery. (Jane Rost Ardis/Forgotten Omaha)
The former Omaha Belt Line was a 15-mile-long railroad that circumnavigated Omaha starting in 1885. The organization behind the line, called the Omaha Belt Railway, was incorporated two years earlier, in 1883. Missouri Pacific's Omaha Belt Line included the main yard, Walnut Hill Station, at 42-43rd and Nicholas streets. Passengers used the line until the 1890s when streetcars and eventually cars took over, but industrial use of the line continued until the mid-20th Century.
The home for Dr. Samuel D. Mercer was built in 1885 on the northeast corner of 40th and Cuming streets in the historic Walnut Hill neighborhood. Mercer was the chief surgeon of the Union Pacific Railroad, and the founder of Omaha's first hospital at 26th and Cass Streets. A grand red brick mansion with 23 rooms built in the Queen Anne style, the key feature of the home is a three-story square tower that rises above the south side main entrance. The home is the crown jewel of the neighborhood Mercer platted in the 1880s. Photo: The Mercer Mansion on the northeast corner of 40th and Cuming Streets c. 1906. (The Durham Museum Archives)
Walnut Hill Reservoir is part of the original Omaha Water Works built in 1882 on the southeast corner of 40th and Hamilton. It drew water from the Missouri River, bringing it uphill to Hamilton Street. Ten years later, water was drawn from Florence Waterworks and brought to Walnut Hill. In 1909, a large group of people got sick and they discovered a creek north of Florence was the cause. Now the Walnut Hill Reservoir is a small park and there are discussions taking place regarding future plans. Photo: A 1947 aerial of Walnut Hill Reservoir looking west. (The Durham Museum Archives-JS6B(4)-199)
According to the County Assessor's site, the building at 4012 Hamilton St. was constructed in 1890. Over the years, the building has housed businesses catering to the needs of the neighborhood, including Muentefering Bar, All Makes Washer Service, Flamingo Pools, Aluminum Shingle Co. and Omaha Cycle Co. Currently, the owner uses it for storage. The basements of the buildings along the north side of Hamilton from 4002 to 4012 connect and feature 10' ceilings and smooth, cement floors. A central outdoor courtyard is located in the middle of the buildings on the north side.
The other buildings, all owned by John Hargiss, house the 40th Street Theater, which was formerly the Hamilton Theater from 1915 to 1930, the Winn Theater from 1931 to 1944 and the 40th Theater from 1944 to 1951. The old theater space can be rented for events. At the corner of 40th and Hamilton is Hargiss Stringed Instruments, previously Martin's Bakery. Photos of the interiors of Hargiss Stringed Instruments and the 40th Street Theater, both on the north side of 40th and Hamilton Streets, in 2021. (Nehemiah Barney Photographer)
Project Site Plan
The plan for the 4012 Hamilton St. building is for a two-story space.
On the ground floor there would be a grocery store catered to area cultural cuisines and featuring fresh, frozen and canned items. A “Grab and Go” area with a pick-up window will be available for a quick lunch or dinner. Off-site catering would be offered and could serve the theater rental space next door. The store would feature special tasting events to expand residents' palates.
In the basement, an art gallery would display work by local artists and neighborhood pictures both past and present. A monthly “Artist of the Month” would highlight one local artist’s work. People could purchase the displayed art and people of all ages and talent levels could take art classes.
My understanding of Omaha’s history changed a lot. The segregation with people of color, I did know it was a thing, but I didn’t really think it happened in Omaha. Before this I never wondered why where I live, I see more people of color rather than white. I have changed as from now on when I see any building I will know that there is a history behind why and how it got there. -Thee P.
Jeanine Dickes, Neighborhood Elder
Christian Gray, InCommon
Judy Howard, Neighborhood Elder
John Hargiss, Neighborhood Business Owner
Mary Thorsteinson, Neighborhood Business Owner
The Durham Museum Photo Archives
Omaha World-Herald Photo and Online Newspaper Archives
The Streetcars of Omaha on YouTube. 1950s Omaha Streetcar footage
Fletcher Sasse, Adam, North Omaha History Blog 28 Nov. 2015. A History of the Walnut Hill Neighborhood
Orchard Hill Commercial District, National Register of Historic Places Nomination. 2021
Orr, Richard. O&CB Streetcars of Omaha and Council Bluffs. 1996. Print
Omaha Historic Streetcar System an Intensive Level Survey of Preservation Resources. 2017
Omaha World-Herald (online), 6 Mar 1886 page 6. This is Orchard Hill Advertisement