In August, 2003 after several years of research and planning, the Central Hastings Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Nebraska State Preservation office and the Department of the Interior recognized this stately old area of Hastings as being worthy of historic preservation. The historic district extends from Seventh Street on the south to Twelfth Street on the north, and from Bellevue Avenue on the west to Colorado Avenue on the east. It documents the development of Hastings from 1880 to 1950.
The earliest residences in what would become Hastings, a dug out and a sod house, were constructed just prior to the city's platting in 1872. That fall the St. Joseph and Denver City Railroad crossed the Burlington line, and Hastings was soon transformed into the commercial hub of central Nebraska with a population of 2,847 by 1880.
North Street, now Seventh Street, was Hastings' original northern boundary. In 1872 Samuel Alexander homesteaded the quarter section extending north from Seventh Street. He built the town's second frame house and first store building, as well as serving as the first Hastings postmaster. In January 1878 Alexander's First Addition to Hastings was platted from a portion of his homestead. By 1880 15 homes had been built in the area that would become the Historic District. Hastings had passed through its frontier period and settled down to a decade of growth, which has never since been equaled.
Influenced by the demand for housing lots, adjacent landowners quickly surveyed their land for inclusion in the town's boundary. Between 1878 and 1887 all of the area that would become the Central Hastings Historic District was platted and annexed. Houses were constructed at a rapid rate, with an estimated 700 homes being built in Hastings between 1884 and 1887. It was during this period that large frame houses, conspicuous in size and design, were erected in the District. These houses were constructed primarily for land speculators and moneylenders. Residential blocks were not as densely occupied as they are today; the average density at that time was three houses to one block. Often large residences were placed at a distance from their neighbors in order to entice others to build homes on nearby grounds, usually owned by the same man. In addition to Hastings' well known brick factories, the demand for building materials in the area resulted in the establishment of two sash, door and blind factories in Hastings during the 1880s.
In 1887 Hastings experienced a huge boom fueled by speculation of railroad construction. From January to March, the daily value of land transfers ranged from $50,000 to $100,000. By June lots that sold in February for $300 to $500 increased to $1,200 to $1,800 each. Hastings was filled with Eastern speculators. But in July the boom ended. Prices declined by as much as 75 percent, and a number of Hastings businessmen left town to try to recover their fortunes elsewhere.
In an 1891 attempt to stimulate investment, the Queen City Land Company published a 95-page booklet extolling the benefits of investing in the Hastings area. Woodcuts of many large Hastings homes, including fourteen still standing in the Historic District today, illustrated the booklet.
By 1900 the depression was over and building resumed. Judge Burton in his 1916 history of Adams County credits Mayor C. J. Miles, who was elected in 1902, with helping turn Hastings' fortunes around. Beginning with the Miles administration businessmen, reinvigorated by new blood and assisted materially by good crops and advancing prices for farm products, worked to make use of the possibilities that confronted the city. This ushered in a period of substantial growth, and Hastings' population increased steadily during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Population reached 9,339 in 1910, 11,647 in 1920 and 15,490 by 1930.
In 1902 the new B & M Railroad depot opened on First Street. Designed by Thomas Rogers Kimball in the Spanish Colonial Revival Style, one of its features is a tile roof. The building was much admired by Hastings citizens, some of whom subsequently had tile roofs installed on their 1880s era frame houses. An example in the historic district is 851 North Lincoln.
The dominant house style during the first decade of the Twentieth Century was the American Foursquare, a basic box configuration that was a response to the extravagance of the Victoria Era. Beginning in this time period, the large lots of the 1880s were also subdivided to accommodate new growth.
Another factor in Hastings economic growth during the 1920s was the development of a large wholesale industry. Railroad lines radiated out of Hastings like spokes in a wheel, enabling Hastings to serve a larger territory in a shorter time. Hastings location on the east-west DLD Highway (later US Highway 6) and on Highway 281 running north and south was another important factor. In 1929 the manager of the Paxton and Gallagher Company reported that he had seen business volume increase five hundred percent in seventeen years in Hastings. He attributed that increase to improved roads and the use of trucks. To promote better housing development, Hastings passed its first zoning ordinance in 1928.
When hard times returned during the depression of the 1930s, Hastings population decreased and housing construction slowed dramatically. No new homes were built in the Historic District in 1934 and 1935 and during 1936 and 1937 only two were built each year. A new Union Pacific Railroad overpass was constructed for Highway 281 at 16th Street and Kansas Avenue in 1936, and the highway was rerouted down Burlington Avenue from its old Kansas Avenue route. The location of a busy highway in that residential area, would adversely impact that portion of the Historic District in later decades.
Alexander Square, the small park at Seventh Street and Lincoln Avenue, was deeded to the city in 1937 as a memorial to the pioneer Samuel Alexander family whose home had stood on the site. The Works Progress Administration erected a rustic limestone shelter that still stands in the park. Alexander Square, which has become the symbol of the Central Hastings Historic District, is currently being renovated by a gift from Mary Topp.
The District includes three apartment buildings. The Madgett Flats at 827-831 North Hastings was built in 1889. It is a 2-1/2 half story masonry structure with a projecting front bay that utilizes elements of the Victorian Era. The row house at 801-811 North Hastings were constructed in 1911. Maryland Hotel, a simplified Beau Arts design, was built in 1929.
By 1939 Hastings was coming out of the depression and 48 new residences were constructed that year, ten of them in the historic district. In 1940 Hastings had a population of 15,145, down 345 from 1930. English Cottage style homes, like the one at 1105 North Hastings Avenue, were built as infill in the District.
The year 1942 brought to Hastings the most startling changes it had known since its boom years of the 1880s. On June 10th the United States Navy announced that it would built a $45 million ammunition plant southeast of Hastings. By the end of the year the town was strained to house thousands of newcomers flocking in to work at the Naval Ammunition Depot east of town. In February 1942 a Chamber of Commerce survey located 268 vacant residences in Hastings. In June the city began planning how to house thousands of new residents and the city council established regulations for trailer parks.
By 1943 Hastings' population had increased to an estimated 22,252 a 47% increase in less than a year. Rents skyrocketed from $35 a month to $70 a month. The Office of Price Administration imposed rent controls in 1943. During the war years many large 1880s era houses were converted into apartment buildings. After the end of World War II, depot employment declined dramatically and the demand for housing in Hastings also decreased. During the 1950s and 1960s several of the stately old Victorians, which had been over used and poorly maintained, were demolished to make way for modern construction, and to accommodate new growth houses were squeezed in between homes of an earlier era within the District. H. L. Haberman built the one-story Modern Ranch style house at 901 North Lincoln Avenue in 1949. It is the most recent contributing structure in the Central Hastings Historic District.
The two Hastings architects who had the greatest influence on the historic district were C. C. Rittenhouse and C. W. Way. Rittenhouse, Adams County's first practicing architect, influenced the appearance of Hastings before 1900. He designed many buildings and houses in the city between 1877 and 1895, when he moved to the West Coast. Three of his buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places: the Farrell Block, and the Nebraska Loan and Trust building, both downtown, and McCormick Hall at Hastings College. A Michigan native, C.W. Way arrived in Hastings at age thirty-six in 1906. He established an architectural practice that led to contracts for most of the city's prominent buildings in the next generation. His versatility as an architect is evidenced by the range of his designs: he directed construction of everything from the towering Clarke Hotel to gas stations to private homes in Hastings. Two of his buildings, the Clarke Hotel and Dutton-Lainson's Victory Building are on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Central Hastings Historic District, comprising about 30 city blocks, contains 316 contributing buildings and one site, Alexander Park. The District contains two homes previously listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the William Brach house at 823 North Lincoln Avenue and the Nowlan-Dietrick house at 1105 North Kansas. It is an important physical representation of housing for people of all economic and social levels from each significant period of Hastings' growth, beginning in the 1880s and continuing until 1950. The Historic District is locally significant due to the unique story that it conveys about the growth patterns of Hastings. The District represents and documents the development of Hastings from 1880 to 1950. It is unified by its tree lined terraced avenues and consistent setbacks. The diverse architecture results mainly from two significant periods, the Victorian Era of the 1880s and the Arts and Crafts Era from 1900 through the 1920s. One-story houses with Queen Anne features, elaborate two-story Victorians, modest bungalows from the 1920s, and high-style architect designed mansions all reside together in a uniquely blended neighborhood. Together the structures in the District portray an accurate and integrated story of the development of Hastings from early settlement to the mid-1900s.