Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission

Introduction 

More than 160 years of history are reflected in Omaha’s urban landscape. Expressed in the patterns of the built environment are the ideas, energies, traditions, and dreams of those who have inhabited the city since its beginnings as a frontier townsite in 1854.
…sturdy, turn-of-the-century schoolhouses speak about a community that valued the education of its children.
…the 1880 New York Life Insurance Company Building (now knows as the Omaha Building), the tallest structure in the city at the time of its construction, attests to Omaha’s commercial confidence during the 1800s business boom.
…brick building facades lining South 24th Street represent the “Main Street” of the former City of South Omaha, once the site of the world’s largest livestock market.
…and, late-nineteenth century parks such as Bemis, Elmwood, and Miller show the foresight of early civic leaders in planning ahead for the welfare of future generations. Historic places such as these remind us of the people and events that have shaped Omaha, and further, they provide us with direct, physical links to that history.

When historic properties are destroyed or demolished, sources of remembrance cease to exist, and connections between successive generations are broken. If the memory of what we were as a city is lost, we can also lose some of what we are now, or what we hope to be. We need historic places as points of reference, not just to tell us about the past, but to help us put the present and future in perspective.  This view has guided the City of Omaha in developing a heritage preservation program aimed at creating a richer future by conserving the resources of Omaha’s past.

The intent of this section of the website is to describe the City of Omaha’s heritage preservation program and also provide information about the state and federal programs that may apply to historic properties in Omaha. The first part describes the City of Omaha program. Because this program has met certain standards, it has been certified to participate in state and federal preservation programs which are described in the second section.  Americans have long been involved in efforts to preserve their history. The preservation of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the restoration of a synagogue in Rhode Island and the rescue of the Old South Meeting House in Boston – all are notable examples of attempts beginning in the early 1800s to save America’s architectural heritage.

For the most part, such early preservation efforts were initiated by private citizens and organizations: government, on either the federal, state, or local level, did not play an important role in the protection and enhancement of historic properties until the early nineteen hundreds.

Local government first took action in the early 1930s when the city of Charleston, South Carolina, enacted zoning laws to protect an historic neighborhood. Following Charleston’s lead, preservation ordinances were established over the next two decades in such cities as Alexandria, Virginia; New Orleans; Boston; and Santa Fe.  Local ordinances, however, did not become common until the 1960s. By that time older cities had seen the devastating effects of urban renewal projects that attempted to stop deterioration by leveling vast tracts of older buildings. As it became apparent that this “bull-dozer approach” to urban revitalization was not effective, local legislation was instituted to further the conservation and rehabilitation of historic buildings and neighborhoods. By 1980 all fifty states and more than 500 municipalities had enacted legislation to encourage or require heritage conservation.

The strength of these ordinances was tested in 1978 when the first major preservation case was heard before the Supreme Court. In Penn Central Transportation Co. vs. City of New York, the court ruled that New York City’s preservation ordinance could prohibit the construction of a tower above Grand Central Terminal, an action that would have destroyed the historic integrity of a city-designed landmark. This case upheld the right of municipal government to protect historic properties, setting legal precedent in favor of preservation.

City of Omaha Program

In 1977, the Omaha City Council adopted the Landmarks Heritage Preservation Ordinance, the first comprehensive preservation ordinance in Nebraska. Patterned after legislation that had proved successful in Seattle, New York City, and Savannah, the Omaha ordinance contains provisions for the creation of a commission that has the ability to designate structures and districts of local significance; regulate work done on designated buildings; and identify and implement overall goals and objectives for preservation in the city. Chapter 24 of the Omaha City Code, the ordinance serves as the foundation for the City’s comprehensive program of historic conservation. For more than a decade, it has mandated a broad range of public sector preservation activities under the direction of Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission.

The Commission

The 1977 ordinance created the Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission. Nine members compose the commission; an architect; a curator; a professional historian; three members active in a preservation related field; an owner of a landmark property and 2 lay persons. Commission members are appointed by the Mayor to terms of three years, subject to confirmation by the City Council. The Commission selects its own chairman and rules of procedure; the body meets generally monthly with special meetings held by call of the chairman.

The ordinance also specifies duties of the Omaha City Planning Department staff in carrying out the work of the Commission. Included among those specified are: the identification and evaluation of properties worthy of preservation; the maintenance of an inventory of significant properties; the dissemination of information concerning the preservation and use of historic properties; the recommendation of properties for City of Omaha landmark designation; and the preparation of National Register nominations.

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