A.J. Simpson Carriage Factory

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Omaha’s First Public Libraries

In 1857, just three years after Omaha was officially incorporated, the young city established an Omaha Library Association. They disbanded before they were able to open a facility, and it wasn’t until twelve years later, in 1872, that a public collection became available to Omaha’s population. It was small, but it was a start – the first library was housed on the second floor of the A.J. Simpson Carriage Factory located at 14th and Dodge Streets.[1]

The A.J. Simpson Carriage Factory, ca. 1870. Image courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Over the following years, the library board became more established, and the collection was re-located around the city on several occasions. It wasn’t until seventeen years later that the city was able to provide a permanent facility, following a land donation by real estate man Byron Reed. In addition to the large lot at 1823 Harney Street, he gave much of his personal book and coin collection.

The young architect Thomas Rogers Kimball had recently returned to Omaha from Boston, and his firm Walker & Kimball submitted designs for the library, competing with about seven other local architects.[2] Walker & Kimball was awarded the contract in 1892. It was one of Kimball’s earliest projects in Omaha, and is still standing today (used as offices).

The plans for the Harney Street library were displayed at that year’s World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, but rather than being credited to Nebraska development, they were showcased as “representing the best work of Massachusetts architects.”[3] (Kimball had attended – but did not graduate from – MIT.)

Omaha Public Library, 1823 Harney Street, ca. 1904. Image courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

There were some delays experienced in the construction – the sandstone used for the building’s exterior was purchased at bargain rates from a new quarry near Hot Springs, SD, and it wasn’t until some time later that the quarrymen discovered they’d miscalculated how difficult it would be to get the right quality of stone from the quarry. They also discovered that the quarry was located inconveniently far away from the railroad, and it took lots of extra time and effort to transport the stone by wagon.[4]

Despite those delays, the building was opened on schedule and very well-received: “Great credit should attach to Mr. Kimball and his partner, Mr. Walker, not only for their successful production, a beautiful architectural design, perfect and appropriate, but also for their economy in the use of money at the board’s disposal, and the prompt execution of the work.[5]

Thomas Kimball spoke of the finished product in somewhat more measured terms…speaking with a World-Herald reporter, he said of his design: “I wish that you would say as little as possible about the style of architecture. As a matter of fact it is the Italian Renaissance, but what we have attempted to build is a square, honest, sensible building, adapted inside and out to the purpose to which it is to be devoted. And I believe we have succeeded. … Of course we have had to sacrifice many of the things we wanted to have, and about all that can really be said of our work is that we have provided a handsome outside protection for the books. The amount appropriated barely sufficed to do what we have done, and as I said, we have had to sacrifice many of our ideals.”[6]

Omaha Public Library Circulation Department, ca. 1900. Image source: https://cdm16747.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p16747coll7/id/25/rec/1


[1] “From the Archives: Happy 140th, Omaha Public Library!” The Omaha World-Herald. October 15, 2019. https://omaha.com/blogs/from-the-archives-happy-th-omaha-public-library/image_8bc805a5-9278-5f37-bddf-72bbaa8a6a20.html.

[2] “Plans for the Library.” The Omaha World-Herald. March 26, 1892, p. 4.

[3] “The New Library.” The Omaha World-Herald. February 12, 1893, p. 2.

[4] “Laying the Corner Stone.” Omaha World-Herald, August 5, 1893, p. 5.

[5] “Omaha’s Public Library.” Omaha World-Herald. June 24, 1894, p. 11.

[6] Ibid.

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