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Medical Arts Building: Omaha’s Original Medical Campus

Medical Arts Building: Omaha’s Original Medical Campus

Natalie Kammerer


Omaha has a strong reputation in the Midwest for its medical resources, and today boasts several state-of-the art complexes that serve as healthcare hubs providing many services on one campus, or even under one roof. This certainly wasn’t always the case, but the history of combined medical facilities in Omaha goes back farther than you might have realized.

Around the turn of the century, Omaha was home to innumerable small hospitals, clinics, sanatoriums, and other medical facilities of religious, secular, private, and public persuasions. Some were large organizations like the Douglas County Poor Farm (originally located on St. Mary’s Avenue, ultimately residing at the location of the current County Hospital near 42nd and Woolworth) or St. Joseph’s Hospital (10th and Castellar), but many others were small private institutions housed in homes or office blocks, for instance, the Birch Knoll Sanitarium at 22nd and St. Mary’s Ave.

In fact, records from the 1920s point to the existence of 16 to 22 different hospitals,[1] an impressive number for a town whose population hadn’t yet topped 200,000.[2] Certainly, there were benefits to having so many small and large facilities distributed across Omaha’s neighborhoods (but still largely centralized in the Midtown and Downtown areas), but many local physicians and other healthcare professionals had a desire to form an association (the Medical Arts Association), and by 1919, property had been purchased at 17th and Dodge Street, and well-known local architects—Thomas Kimball and John and Alan McDonald—had been hired to furnish designs for a 17-story mixed-use structure.

Despite local enthusiasm, construction was delayed due to a rise in the cost of building materials and labor. By September of 1921, construction had begun, and was anticipated to cost about $1.8 million[3]—the largest building project in Omaha at the time.[4] Not long after, though, just as the building’s steel frame was completed, progress came to a grinding halt. Financial issues had arisen again, this time in the form of a legal battle over design and construction fees and a lien being placed on the partially-completed structure. The steel skeleton stood in place for three years before it was bought by the Selden-Breck Company at a sheriff’s auction in 1925. The original architects had pulled out of the project, and it was finished by Crosby and McArthur, with some changes to the original plans.[5]

The steel structure as it stood for three years. Image source: Omaha World-Herald. April 27, 1925.

Work resumes on the building in the fall. Image source: Omaha World-Herald. September 27, 1925.

The building was finally completed in 1926, with a variety of amenities, including: the first electric passenger elevators in Omaha (Otis Signal Control); a 500-seat auditorium for clinics and other professional gatherings; individual lavatories with hot and cold water, electricity, compressed air and gas lines, and the possibility to connect x-ray apparatus in each office; and “in addition to complete men’s toilet rooms on all floors throughout the building, the unusual convenience of a well-equipped combination women’s toilet and rest room…on each floor.”[6]

In 1927, one year after the building had opened, 75% of rentable space had been let, 185 medical professionals had set up shop, and an average of 6,651 individuals took advantage of services in the building each day.[7] Tenants included physicians, dentists, and also such businesses as Barber Dental Supply Co., Robert D. Jones Dental Lab, Medical Protective Co., Omaha Brace Shop, W.A. Piel Drugs, Riggs Optical Co., and Standard X-Ray Co.[8]

Floorplan of Medical Arts Building, Floors 5 through 16. Curtis Johnson Printing Company. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society.

The Medical Arts Building was a mainstay in Omaha’s healthcare landscape for decades, and was ultimately demolished in 1999 to make way for the First National Bank tower which currently occupies the block.

[1] Schleicher, John. McGoogan Library of Medicine. “UNMC History 101: Omaha’s history of hospitals. Accessed May 6, 2021.

[2] Drozd, David and Jerry Deichert. “Nebraska Historical Populations.” University of Nebraska at Omaha. Accessed May 6, 2021.

[3] “Work on New Medical Art Building Begins.” Omaha World-Herald. Page 10. September 25, 1921.

[4] “Buildings Here Worth Twenty Million Go Up.” Omaha World-Herald. Page 12. May 23, 1920.

[5] “Medical Arts Name Will Not Change.” Omaha World-Herald. Page 14. September 20, 1925.

[6] Brochure, “Medical Arts Building.” Curtis-Johnson Printing Company, Chicago. Circa 1925.

[7] Advertisement, Omaha World-Herald. Page 12. December 13, 1927.

[8] “Directory of Tenants, Medical Arts Building.” Omaha World-Herald. Page 2. November 23, 1927.

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:


[1] “From the Archives: Happy 140th, Omaha Public Library!” The Omaha World-Herald. October 15, 2019.

[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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