The Omaha church that grew downwards | Courthouse News Service
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The Omaha church that grew downwards

A Catholic church in Nebraska offers a unique view into a peculiar chapter of U.S. history, one in which officials in hilly cities reduced or removed hills in hopes of promoting growth.

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.

An undated photo of St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church on the southeast corner of 19th and Dodge Streets in Omaha, Nebraska, during the hill regrading project that spurred the church to add a lower level. The door that faces 19th Street is now a window. (Douglas County Historical Society of Omaha Nebraska)

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.


Though the Capitol Hill area in Omaha does not appear to have been similarly disadvantaged, low-income and minority communities often find themselves on the front lines of such major infrastructure projects. It’s a trend that has continued in recent decades when it comes to highways, including in Omaha, where construction of the North Freeway around the 1970s cut through a historically Black neighborhood, leading to the demolition of another Catholic church. 

In Omaha, the Capitol Hill regrading project was difficult for many locals — and not just those whose homes and businesses were directly affected. 

Dust in the air left some residents unwilling to open their windows. The lack of air-conditioning at the time added to the stifling feeling. People complained of “cabin fever.” Wooden bridges spanned huge trenches, turning navigating parts of downtown Omaha into something like a treacherous hike.

“You were just one wrong step from dropping into some mud,” said Olmsted, the Durham Museum curator.

Large railways were built to haul away the dirt. Besides the court battles, the massive project also led to other disputes, including over when the noisy work could be done. Administrators at Omaha Central High School, which today still sits atop Capitol Hill, wanted breaks at the beginning and end of the school day so that students could more easily get to and leave school..In a 1920 article in the World-Herald newspaper, local journalist Ella Fleishman anticipated that the project, which was then due to end the next year, would ultimately remove that 350,000 cubic yards — “enough, if placed on a city block, to make a pile 150 feet high with vertical sides.”

The interior of St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in downtown Omaha, Nebraska. The ground floor in the foreground was added as part of the downward expansion. The balcony was the original ground level and main floor when the church was built in the early years of the 20th Century. (Andrew J. Nelson/Courthouse News Service)

Fast forward to today, and Omaha remains hilly, belying Nebraska’s reputation for flatness. Using geographic and topographic data, a 2021 analysis found that of the 50 largest U.S. cities, Omaha has the tenth most significant “mean slope” in its downtown. 

Though the definition of “mean slope” used in the analysis is a bit technical, the upshot is: Omaha is pretty hilly. In the study, it also ranked 21st in “relative hilliness.” To the west, the landscape gets flat again, with tract after tract of suburban houses sprawling seemingly endlessly into the prairie.

Thanks to the regrade, though, Omaha is now slightly less hilly. Olmsted, the local curator, thinks that’s a good thing.

Even in 2023, many Omaha neighborhoods can be difficult to drive through when roads are icy. Commuters avoid steep slopes, adjusting their routes to use side streets. The Capitol Hill regrade reduced these safety issues, as well as a steep slope that could have inhibited city growth. And besides, were it not for the project, what would have stopped a much flatter city — say, the state capital of Lincoln — from taking Omaha’s place as Nebraska’s largest?

“Downtown has thrived,” Olmstead said. “I’m convinced that easy access is something that changes the game in terms of business.”

As for St. Mary Magdalene, the hill regrading project was in some ways a nuisance. The church had to be significantly reconfigured, the old front door replaced with stained-glass windows, the old main floor gutted except for a balcony.

Monsignor Bernard Sinne, who ran the church from 1904 to 1961, had to oversee the redevelopment while also still conducting services. Dealing with all this was “the heaviest cross he had to bear,” said Father Adams, the current pastor, “but it was the most fulfilling.”

In the end, though, things worked out just fine for St. Mary and Omaha in general, as St. Mary got to stay where it was and the city continued to grow around it. These days, its downtown location means the pews fill on Saturday evenings, as the faithful get in in a service prior to going to dinner or seeing a show.

“We have so many hotels,” Adams said. “We get lots of out-of-town people.” Some come to learn the strange story of an Omaha church that grew not up but down. There is a historic display in the parish center, with before-and-after photos on display. ”We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors,” Adams said, “so we are always happy to tell our story.”

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