OMAHA, Neb. (CN) — At an unassuming brick church on the west side of downtown Omaha, the original front doorway now serves as a window, resting about 30 feet above the street.
The new front doorway — installed in the early 20th century at St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church on 19th and Dodge streets — would have once been deep underground. It’s the most obvious sign of a major and human-made topographical change in Nebraska’s largest city — one with parallels in other hilly cities in the United States. At the start of the 20th century, officials in Omaha and elsewhere flattened or regraded slopes like this one with the goal of easing transit and promoting economic growth, a somewhat obscure but nonetheless important part of urban American history.
These days, not much remains of this once steep area in west downtown Omaha. Most of the original buildings were demolished, and most of the original residents and businesses moved, driven out by the nuisances of living in the middle of a major earth-moving project.
Not so for St. Mary Magdalene, the current building of which was built about 15 years before the project. Church leaders here solved the problem by building down to the new and lower street level, adding an entirely new floor and expanding the church.
An area for services was installed on the new ground floor, while parts of the original ground floor became a balcony. More than 100 years later, the church is still thriving. “We are over capacity every single weekend,” Father Rodney Adams, pastor of St. Mary Magdalene, said in an interview at the church in early September.
As for the church’s unique architectural background, “we don’t talk about it a lot as a staff or parish,” Adams said. In part because of its downtown location, non-members do regularly stop by. “Where they ask questions, we are happy to explain the history.”
The story of this hill, this church and its two front doors starts around the turn of the 20th century.
Civic leaders in Omaha, who hoped to see the city continue to grow, were troubled by a large hill on the west side of downtown. At the time, it was known as Capitol Hill.
Omaha was founded on the western side of the Missouri River in the 1850s. Because Council Bluffs, Iowa, occupied the east side of the Missouri RIver, Omaha would have to grow west. But the hill hindered the expansion of downtown by creating a steep grade for vital arteries in the area, including Dodge Street — the main east-west thoroughfare in Omaha. It also just generally complicated dreams of growth for the city, as the sharp incline made building more difficult.
Talk of grading the hill went back decades. As early as 1890, an unsigned editorial in the city’s Evening World-Herald newspaper decried the slope as an “unsightly hog’s back.” In 1891, the city did some grading on nearby Douglas Street.
A more significant grading project on Capitol Hill kicked off around 1918. Many locals tried to stop it with lawsuits, said Chelsea Olmsted, curator of the Durham Museum in Omaha, a regional history museum. Property owners sued, complaining of damages and the noise.
Court fights like this weren’t unique to Omaha, as city officials around the country took on similar earth-moving projects. In Seattle, community members around former Denny Hill also advocated and litigated against the regrading, said Leonard Garfield, executive director of the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle.
In Seattle at least, most of those who lived in the neighborhoods where regrading was performed were immigrants and members of minority groups. “Generally speaking, the people that were opposed to it were the people who did not have much of a presence in terms of the powers that be," Garfield said.