Fellow detectives, many gathered here behind this darkened hedge are not members of the My Omaha Obsession’s Facebook page, which is fine with me. I understand. I am fortunate to have met you at all. As an aside, many of my favorite exchanges are with people who “have never been online” or “avoid computers like the plague.” I do wish we didn’t have to communicate in this manner, on this forum but here we are. I prefer to pretend we have just huddled by a tall hedge; some of us have just come grassy-kneed from the tool shed, clinking a glass of iced-tea, while others still will sip champagne with newly applied pink lips and a wide brimmed straw hat. Either way we will drink and discuss important matters in the expansive shadow of this ever growing hedge… or is it a mansion? Another sip is needed to discern these details. The point being that I made a Facebook post back in October of 2017, right after leaving the formal website to focus on the book. This original post on the Dundee Sunks might have passed you by. If you did catch it back then, you just keep right on sipping and fanning yourself. Some of you may want to pick up your pruning shears again. But I can not wholly endorse that option. There is great importance that should be placed in standing on a mossy brick path, this side of the garden, laughing with fellow sleuths. And we’ve got whispering to do also. I’ve got plenty of exciting investigations coming your way in the near future.
From October 8, 2017–
Big plans are being hatched for the old Dundee Sunken Garden, long ago lovingly coined “The Sunks” by the locals. If you are not from around here, you might not have ever heard of The Sunks and even if a regular, you might not have noticed this sunken grassy area while driving near Underwood Avenue and Happy Hollow Boulevard. But for those of us who walk and ride bikes or years past, had the honor of playing football, soccer or ice-skating in this year-round playground basin, well, then, you’re in on the local secret. And this may be upsetting or this may be exciting news, dependent.
Long ago this stretch of peaceful trees and grass was formerly George Lake, just north of the Patrick Mansion (later the Happy Hollow Country Club and currently Brownell Talbot School.) **Correction from a fellow detective: C. C. George Lake was thought to be at about J. E. George Boulevard/60th Street to about 58th along the north side of Underwood.** Aside from being hidden, beautiful and meandering, The Sunks offer a modest but essential service many are not aware of. The Sunks are a quiet Omaha swale–a depressed, grassy area that helps channel rainwater. If you go on a spying mission you will find the old drain and notice that the water is rerouted to the creek bed, running along Happy Hollow to Elmwood Park. According to the American Guide Series Omaha: A Guide to the City and Environs written and compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project from 1935-1939, “Directly north of Underwood Avenue the boulevard parkway is enhanced by a sunken garden and a long, narrow lagoon.” Yes, friends, there was a lagoon.
Swale drainage. October 2017.
Omaha hired a well-known landscape architect, H. W. S. Cleveland, of Minneapolis, to help design a park and boulevard system in 1889. Cleveland’s broad plan laid out what would later become Bemis, Elmwood, Fontenelle, Miller and Riverview Parks. Cleveland aimed to connect the city’s parks with “broad ornamental avenues, known as boulevards or parkways.” From “Omaha’s Historic Park and Boulevard System,” the landscape architect proposed the boulevards should offer, “a tasteful arrangement of trees and shrubbery at their sides and in the center.” The city would then begin work on the boulevards, starting with Florence Boulevard. By 1916, the city had a park system connected by boulevards. The Dundee Sunken Garden, although modest, was an integral part of this boulevard system.
The flat area of The Sunks, facing south at Underwood Avenue. October 2017.
Beautiful Sunks as is, facing east, with Happy Hollow Boulevard in the distance. October 2017.
Current Sunks on the west side of the Happy Hollow Boulevard, facing north to Cuming Street. October 2017.
The old Omaha boulevards continue to serve as a respite– contemplative, unadorned areas, aside from the formal parks. Many of us enjoy the view, the cool air and the plantings found but rarely stop to experience the boulevards on foot. If you have had the good fortune of spending time in The Sunks, you know it can be a very peaceful, hidden in plain view experience. Whether you are discussing the important matters of life with a good friend under a tree or playing Frisbee, the people walking the sidewalks above or neighbors spending time in their front lawns and gardens bordering Happy Hollow will not be disturbed by your activities in The Sunks. Please go there as soon as possible and investigate for yourself. A true pastoral getaway as designed by our early city planners.
Google Map depicting the elongated triangle of the Sunks. 2017.
I have included some historic photos of the Dundee Sunken Garden, where one can see how very open it has always been. The simple yuccas and cannas are much like the round, annual garden beds found in the south-west corner of Memorial Park and seen throughout north and south Dundee on what Miss Cassette calls the Triangles. Drive around and look for them. They are like large arrows leading you down to the Elmwood and Memorial parks. At some point after the Great Depression, the minimalist Sunken Garden gave way to the green space that The Sunks is today.
April of 1924. So precious.
July 1, 1924: Sunken Gardens in Dundee.
September 5, 1920: Flowerbeds at Sunken Gardens in Dundee- a line of trees are at the top of a hill, Happy Hollow Boulevard runs alongside.
June 25, 1913: A gardener overlooking Sunken Garden of Dundee. The garden, which is made up of a circular plot bordered by an arch-shaped plot, is at the bottom of a small hill sloping down from the road. I do believe this photographer faced the south–the road shown is Underwood Avenue. I surmise that the below photo shows the same area, with Underwood rising slightly above.
Last week I heard from a reader who tipped me off to some new developments being planned for the old Dundee Sunken Garden. As it turns out, they are years old. I had previously made a commitment to not use the name of the local developer or his company, so going forward I will be referring to him/them as the Unnamed Company. The Unnamed Company would like to redesign The Sunks and it would appear is winning some support in Omaha. Over a year ago $25,000 had been raised, landscape architect Big Muddy Workshop Inc was retained, along with support from City Councilman Pete Festersen. The new design involves a pergola, walkways, a covered stage-gazebo, formal and informal gardens, lights and stairs. **Update July 2018** Total cost of the project is $1,600,000. Endowment and Capital fundraising campaigns are moving right along, gaining traction. Mysteriously the Dundee Neighborhood Association jumped on board and is in full support. Fellow detectives have shared that the monthly Dundee newsletter reads as if all of Dundee supports the renovation. Meanwhile some homes bordering The Sunks have new Save the Sunks signs on their property.
Please survey the materials to make up your own mind. I have included Big Muddy Workshop’s original renderings along with two articles by Reader journalist, Michael Braunstein with some compelling arguments against the reconfiguring of the boulevard. I will refrain from sharing my thoughts and instead encourage you to review the findings. It is interesting to note that both sides of the discussion are using the historic Sunken Garden photos to bolster their argument, although they are being interpreted very differently.
Big Muddy Workshop Inc renderings of the new Sunks, as of October 2017. A place for concerts and weddings.
**July 30, 2018 update**Since writing my post, the Save the Sunks group started a website and yard signs can be found throughout Dundee. They also have a Facebook page with good information. Investigate these sites for further details.
Likewise the Omaha Sunken Gardens Project (the developer) has also created a website. Their view appears to be that The Sunks was “once part of Omaha’s historic park and boulevard system.” They want to “create a safe community green space.” It is unknown why they believe The Sunks no longer serve this function or how it is currently unsafe. Perhaps they are not implying it is unsafe, only that their new design will aim to ensure safety. At any rate, their apparent aspiration is to rejuvenate and re-market The Sunks, which I suppose is inherent in the development of properties. They have made some alterations to the initial plan, although there are no new renderings. There is a fairly vague proposed blueprint. Here is their website.
Is this a well thought out boulevard renovation? Do you believe the redesign benefits the Dundee-Happy Hollow neighborhood and honors the original boulevard-park system? Is it time for a change and a new use for The Sunks? Or is this a case of fiddling with a good thing just for the sake of fiddling? If it ain’t broke…? I welcome your feedback and comments on this treasured “Triangle” in Midtown Omaha. Please share your additional clues, insider tips and opinions in the comments, as we know more together. Everyone would love to read what you have to say and it makes the sharing of Omaha history more fun. I want to hear from you. You can keep up with my latest investigations by joining my email group. Click on “Contact” then look for “Sign me up for the Newsletter!” Enter your email address. You will get sent email updates every time I have written a new article. Also feel free to join My Omaha Obsession on Facebook. Thank you, Omaha friends. Miss Cassette
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