The History and MysteryFeb 11, 2015 08:00AM ● By Judy Horan
Omaha eyes are drawn to the massive limestone building towering over 20th and Dodge Streets. How could we miss it? But it’s what we don’t see that tells the history of Omaha Central High School.
We don’t see the buildings that sat there before. A commonly held misconception is that the current school building was the original Nebraska territorial capitol. It wasn’t.
Built in 1858, Nebraska’s territorial capitol was the first of three buildings to sit on top of Capitol Hill. The second was built as Omaha’s first permanent public high school in 1872. Construction of the structure that is now Omaha Central High School began in 1900.
“Omaha became the territorial capital in 1854 when the Nebraska Territory was founded, a product of the Kansas-Nebraska Act,” says Barry Combs, who graduated in 1950. “The territorial capitol was never used as a school.”
Omaha’s territorial capitol lost its status in 1867 when Nebraska became a state. A village named Lancaster, which was renamed Lincoln, was instead chosen as the new state’s capital.
With nowhere else to meet, legislators continued holding meetings in Omaha until 1868 when a building was constructed in Lincoln as the first of three state capitols. Omaha’s original territorial building was then donated to the City of Omaha “for educational purposes only.”
“The Omaha people brought in an engineer who said the building was too dangerous to use,” says Combs, the school’s unofficial historian. “The original capitol was beautiful, but it was put up in such a hurry that it didn’t last.”
A second building, constructed in 1872 for both high school and grade school classes, featured a clock tower. But the red brick building was soon overcrowded. Plans began in 1900 for construction of a larger school building on the same site.
“But they couldn’t just tear down the second building,” says Combs. “Where would the kids go to school?”
So that classes could continue, builders did not remove the old building, but instead constructed around it, one side at a time.
Before the buildings’ completion in 1912, Omaha High School—renamed Omaha Central High School in 1915—had to decide what to do about the iconic clock tower rising from the old building’s center. The 185-foot-tall monolith had historical significance. Omaha’s first electric lights were switched on in the tower on July 4th, 1876, the nation’s Centennial.
“That tower was a magnet for any kind of VIP who came to Omaha,” says Combs. “A visiting VIP would be urged to climb the tower’s steps.”
The last dignitary to do so was President William Howard Taft. Combs contemplates the vision of the 340-pound president laboriously climbing the stairs. Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, Ulysses S. Grant, and Benjamin Harrison also visited the school, as did the Emperor of Brazil. All are believed to have climbed the tower.
But the school ran out of money and was not able to build a planned new tower after the old tower was torn down. “So the space smack in the middle of the school became a courtyard,” Combs says. “There was an attempt at shrubbery and grass, but kids went back and forth and it didn’t survive.”
Helicopters placed a translucent dome over the courtyard during renovations of the school in 1981-1982. Students now gather year-round in the covered atrium.
In 1915, the city decided to cut back the steep hill that ran from near the Missouri River to 24th Street. “Streetcars had a difficult time making the hill,” Combs says. Central High School still sat on a hill afterward, just less of a hill.