Brownbilt Residential Historic District
The Brownbilt Residential Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. Portions of the content of this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document [†] Adaptation copyright © 2015, The Gombach Group.
The Brownbilt District includes 40 acres of land platted in six small subdivisions between 1925 and 1946 in the central part of Lincoln, Nebraska, plus Randolph Elementary School adjacent to the north, and about a half dozen associated residences on the west side of South 37th Street. The land was platted from the west to east, and rises from the southwest to the east, gaining about 50 feet in elevation from 37th and A Street to 40th and Mohawk. The interior streets of the area lack sidewalks, although concrete sidewalks are provided on the perimeter streets of A and D, and along portions of South 37th and South 40th. Many large pin oaks are planted just inside the curbs on the interior streets, especially towards the west end of the district on C and Mohawk Streets.
A large majority of the lots were platted to orient the houses facing north or south, but the houses along 37th mostly are oriented toward that north-south street, and the same is the case along 40th Street on the east. The principle facade of Randolph School faces westward across a wide lawn to South 37th Street, while the narrow south end towards D Street is also well-finished and features a stone-framed entrance. The school has a series of rear additions along the north property line, set back across a wide playground and parking lot from D Street. They are not visible from the principle facade and have little impact on the school's integrity.
Houses in the area range from approximately 900 to 1,100 square feet of livable area, generally in a single-story or 1-1/2 story layout, though there are a few two-story houses of up to 1,700 square feet and a handful of duplexes of around 2,000 square feet, combined. Eighty percent of the homes in the area are masonry veneered, with brick (often trimmed with limestone) favored over limestone about 2-to-1. Only about 20 percent of the homes have clapboard exterior finish. Stylistically, most of the houses in the district are Period Revival, whether constructed by H. A. Brown or by the several other builders who construct 1/3 of the houses in the area. Among the houses that can be categorized more specifically, Colonial Revival homes are dominant, with decorative entrances, corner quoins in a few examples, shutters, oculus windows, and semi-circular ventilators. Brick homes are most common but Colonial Revival examples are also found in limestone and frame. Howard and Gladys Brown's first home in the area, 3756 Mohawk Street (1938), is a simple Colonial Revival, clapboarded cottage of a single story with a side gable, wood-shingle roof. Six years later they built and moved to 3831 Mohawk Street (1944), a home of similar scale but embellished with a limestone exterior, a small vestibule/entrance projection, and a small front wing with a semicircular ventilator in its facade gable.
The few two-story residences in the district are typically Colonial Revival, such as 3800 Mohawk Street (1947). That stately brick house has a broken pediment door frame at the centered front entry, with an oculus above. (The well-designed portico at the entrance is a recent addition.) The west side elevation towards 38th Street has a brick bay window with a copper roof, which like the main roof is embellished with an eaves board cut in a scallop-and-dart pattern. This ornament is seen on many houses in the area. Another two-story residence on a corner lot on 38th Street is a limestone duplex at 3794 C Street. The double house has twin central doors sheltered by a curved metal roof supported on wrought iron pillars.
A small number of houses in the area are French Eclectic in style, with polygonal vestibules tucked in the corner of an L-shaped plan, and pyramidal hipped roofs. 3718 C Street and 3756 C Street were both built in 1940, the former veneered in limestone and the latter in brick. Both have round arch entrances and tall, end-wall chimneys to the west side.
Most of the Brownbilt district homes fall only generally a Period Revival stylistic category, matching their more ornamented neighbors in materials, scale, and even plan, but lacking many references to a specific period. Small brick cottages with hipped or gable roofs and shutters at the windows might be regarded as Colonial Revival, and brick or limestone homes with taller hipped roofs and a projecting vestibule have a few French Eclectic features. More broadly, the homes of the neighborhood are highly compatible in materials, scale, and fenestration, whether or not they display much added ornament.
Between 1950 and 1955, the houses built in the district included some ranch style homes, along South 40th Street and towards the eastern end of Mohawk, along with a scattering of houses that in-filled vacant lots. They are more horizontal in orientation and some are longer in width than their earlier neighbors. They typically feature picture windows which are not common on the earlier houses, although large, multi-pane living room windows are common on Brown's houses of the mid-1940s. Overall, the ranch houses are very similar in materials and general scale to their neighbors. 3762 Mohawk (1952) is a limestone Ranch House, built among earlier homes. 3925 Mohawk Street (1952) is brick and stands in the west end of the district where the houses mostly were not built by H. A. Brown.
Interiors of houses in the district, especially those by Brown, typically feature gumwood woodwork and careful plaster finish. Many of the houses include a rear projection of the kitchen into the back yard—a "nook." Garages are included with most of the houses, typically freestanding. A few are attached, including Brown's first house at 3756 Mohawk, where the single stall is setback from the front facade of the house. Even the ranch houses typically have detached garages.
The Brownbilt District was largely the product of the business enterprise of Howard A. Brown, and its local significance in the areas of Community Planning, Social History, and Architecture can best be understood by first describing his career. However, this nomination does not argue the significance of Brownbilt District based on association with Brown as a historically significant individual, because the Lincoln community included several developers and building contractors with similar or greater community-wide impact, from the Woods Brothers (Frank, Mark, and George,) to Harvey Rathbone, Charles Stuart, Henry Luckey in north Lincoln, and Edward Gehrke, "The Bungalow Man."
Howard A. Brown (1905-1953), contractor and developer
Howard A. Brown was born in Brock, Nebraska, where his father and grandfather had been builders. He grew up in Nebraska City. The family relocated to Lincoln in 1931, the year Howard married Gladys Payne, who was active in their construction business. He was first identified in city directories as a plasterer (1932), then as a bricklayer (1933). H. A. Brown Co., building contractors, was first listed in 1935. As late as 1936, Howard and Gladys, and his parents Wilfred and Elsie, resided together. In 1937 Harold obtained building permits for ten small frame houses at scattered sites in south central Lincoln, over half of which were within a few blocks of the area that would become "Brownbilt District." In 1938 four of his five identified houses were within the 37th-40th, A-D bounds of the District, including a house at 3856 Mohawk Street, which he and Gladys occupied for six years. All five of those houses are frame and their primary cladding is clapboard, but three featured prominent chimneys of brick or limestone, and a matching, masonry-veneered vestibule. The next year his output increased to 17 homes, 75% of which were in Brownbilt, and half of those homes were fully veneered in brick or limestone, which became his predominant materials in the area. He built another dozen homes in 1940.
In 1941 Brown purchased about 11 acres of "raw" land and platted nearly 50 house-lots from A to D Streets, mostly on the east side of 38th Street, calling the subdivision "Brownbilt." All of his previous houses had been built on land platted by others. He produced 19 homes in 1941 on his own land and eight more in 1942. His focus shifted in 1943 to "Browncrest," a small subdivision he platted in northeast Lincoln, where that year he built ten houses on his own land and two more on purchased lots, doing business as Capital City Construction Company.
He returned his attention to Brownbilt in 1944, replatting an area adjacent to his original plat as Brownbilt First Addition. The limestone-veneered house at 3821 Mohawk was among the 19 houses Brown constructed that year, and he and Gladys resided at 3821 for the remainder of his life. He added another 19 homes in the Brownbilt area in the last year of WWII, then immediately after the war platted Brownbilt 2nd Addition, subdividing house lots all the way to South 40th Street. His efforts produced 15 houses in 1946 and 16 more in 1947. Then his major focus shifted to an excavating and grading business under the name H. A Brown Construction Company. Only a handful of building permits in 1948-50 bear the names of his companies. He and Gladys began selling lots to other builders and the three dozen houses that completed the area between 1950 and '55 , and two more in 1960, were the work of other contractors. Brown died at age 47 in 1953.
Brown's business files and blueprints for several of his homes are extant, indicating meticulous record keeping, close attention to cost and construction details, and FHA financing of many or most of the homes. Most of the houses appear to have been contracted to specific purchasers prior to construction, and owners could make limited choices among certain features. The blueprints are "marked up" by FHA inspectors, adding details such as corner braces at every exterior corner, and splash-blocks under all downspouts, then are stamped with FHA approval on the back. The records also indicate that Brown typically noted $10 to $35 paid for architectural services in the expense ledger for each house, although the Brownbilt plans are all inscribed "Plans by H. A. Brown Contractor."
Howard Brown's career as a builder closely coincided with the creation of the FHA and the resumption of building activity in Lincoln in the mid-1930s. Before Brown began building in what would become Brownbilt District, several of his scattered-site houses were located in East Lawn Terrace, which from 1917 had banned sale of property to "Africans, Chinese, or Japanese." East View Addition of 1925, the first land within "Brownbilt District" to be platted at the southwest corner of the area, also had race restrictions paralleling Sheridan Park's; as did Hillrose First Addition, abutting East View to the north, of 1938. Brown's own plats—Brownbilt (1941), Browncrest in northeast Lincoln, Brownbilt 1st Addition (1944), and Brownbilt 2nd Addition (1946) all prohibited ownership or occupancy of the property by a "person of other than the white race" except for servants of families in residence. The covenants were typically written to remain in effect through 1975.
It is likely that Brown's consistent imposition of race restrictions on property he sold and his reliance on FHA financing were closely connected. During the 1930s and '40s in Lincoln, even areas earlier platted without race restrictions had such clauses added in preparation for sale. For instance, the Capitol Hill subdivision of Lincoln (east of South 27 Street, north of Calvert Street, in the Boulevards Historic District) was platted in the 1890s, well before covenants of any sort were commonly used in Lincoln. The area saw very little development until the 1930s through '50s. Builders in that area, including Brown, commonly imposed restrictive covenants (including racial restrictions) in piecemeal fashion upon land they purchased for development, at least as early as 1934 and as late as 1940. Some of those documents were submitted to FHA and stamped by the agency as "approved," indicating they were part of the process of obtaining financing.
Lincoln Public Schools had a consistent policy of an integrated student body, and all the students in the community attended the same high school (Lincoln High) until Northeast High School was built in the late 1930s. However, the district did not integrate its teaching corps until after WWII. Elementary school populations reflected their neighborhoods and hence were ethnically integrated mostly in central, poorer neighborhoods. Class photographs of Randolph School students do not appear to include African American students until the late 1960s or early 1970s.
Brownbilt District contains an excellent collection of smaller residences built in Colonial and other period revival styles from the late 1930s through mid-1950s. Howard Brown's background as a plasterer and bricklayer is apparent both inside and outside the homes. Exteriors clad in brick are predominant, with limestone second and clapboard a distant third. Even the frame, wood-sided homes commonly have a brick or limestone entrance feature, either framing the door or more often cladding a projecting vestibule. Tall, prominently placed masonry chimneys, usually on the sidewall towards a driveway, are also a common feature. In addition to materials and overall stylistic character, the district has strong continuity of smaller decorative features such as emphasized entryways, oculus windows or lunette ventilators, shutters, and eaves decorated with scallops or dentils. The smallest, least costly homes in the area may lack explicit Colonial Revival details, but match the larger or fancier homes in scale, materials, setbacks, and overall character, forming a very consistent district built in a relatively narrow span of time. Many of the Brownbilt interiors feature fine woodwork, usually of gumwood, and stone mantels. The plasterwork is well-executed and often includes a rounded corner or two, as if to emphasize the skill of the craftsmen.
The authorship of the designs built by H. A. Brown has been attributed to Dick Cohrman and Selmer Solheim, although their names appear on neither building permits nor plans—instead "Plans by H. A. Brown" is consistently mentioned in the legend. However, Brown's records indicate he paid a small fee for architectural services for each house. Homes which Solheim designed (and sometimes even built, on his own account) in Brownbilt District and elsewhere, match Brown's homes in many details. For instance. 3745 Mohawk Street, designed by Solheim and built by John Kaiser in 1939, is essentially a limestone version of two frame and masonry houses by Brown just across the street (3738 and 3748 Mohawk, of 1938). Solheim also signed the plans for war-worker housing Brown built in northeast Lincoln in 1943. After WWII Solheim partnered with Sweeney & Co., a house builder, as Sweeney-Solheim Co., of which Selmer was president. Sweeney-Solheim and Sweeney & Co. were among the few builders other than Brown to construct more than one or two houses in Brownbilt District, combining for a half-dozen. W. F. Steel Construction Company and Star Real Estate Company were the other builders of multiple homes in the area.
In addition to the houses, the area is anchored on the north by Randolph Elementary School, built shortly after the first land in the District was platted and well before most of the houses were built. Davis & Wilson, architects of the school, also designed Sheridan and Hawthorne Elementary Schools for Lincoln Public Schools in the 1920s, also in the Colonial Revival style. The firm remains in existence as Davis Design, the dean of Lincoln architecture firms, tracing their lineage to Ellery Davis' return to Lincoln in 1909 after completing his studies at Columbia University. They had the broadest practice in Lincoln, from public schools (Lincoln High of 1915, Sheridan Elementary of 1927; NRHP, 2008) to University buildings (Old Law, Love Library, Student Union, Morrill Hall, Coliseum, Memorial Stadium and more—all at UN-L), churches (South St. Temple/1923, NRHP/1982; Westminster Presbyterian/1924; NRHP/2008), to office buildings (Stuart Building, 1927; NRHP, 2003) and residences. The residences of Brownbilt District are highly compatible with the earlier school building in the prevalence of brick construction, limestone trim, and the Colonial Revival style.
† Ed Zimmer, PhD., historic preservation planner and Stephanie Brady, graduate intern, Lincoln/Lancaster County Planning Department, Brownbilt Residential Historic District, Lancaster County, NE, nomination document, 2012, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.