Jim McKee: Lincoln’s development in the 56th and O area

January 20, 2019

Because O Street was also a major highway, when I grew up on South Cotner Boulevard, which was outside Lincoln’s city limits, I was not allowed to cross to the north side of O Street. I did, of course, watch the development of businesses from 56th to North Cotner Boulevard, including the Italian Village, which featured Domino’s pizza before there was an entirely unrelated Domino’s Pizza chain of restaurants, and later morphed into the Legionnaire Club.

With the completion of the paving of North Cotner Boulevard from “the Havelock pavement” to O Street in about 1927, the two blocks from 56th to 58th grew almost instantly with four businesses. On the south side of the street were Azzarello’s Fruit Co. and Fleetwing Service with Home Landscaping Nursery and Phillip’s 66 on the north. By 1933 the north side developed a new business at 1520 O as the Gus Piazza Fruit Market just east of the landscaping company which was itself in a house rather than a purpose-built structure.

Scarcely two years alter the 56th and O street’s farm house was repurposed as the Hillcrest Restaurant & Inn and the fruit market expanded as Peter Dittenger’s Piedmont Inn. In August of 1936, still outside the city limits, George Dasher opened the Italian Village Café/Restaurant at 5730 O Street which, because street numbers outside the city limits were still a bit fluid, may have been yet another reincarnation of the old Piedmont Inn which seemed to simply disappear from directories at the same point in time. The directory also noted that Ned and Tony Domino had arrived in Lincoln, living at 2824 O St. but with no occupations listed.

Mrs. Lillian Flynn moved into the house at 5720 O St., Ned and Tony moved to 2536 R St. and Domino’s Italian Village Restaurant was in business at 5730 O St. with Tony noted as owner in 1942. Lincoln was still technically dry in terms of liquor by the drink when Tony applied for a “dine-dance license” for the Italian Village, which was approved in November of 1946 on the condition that the building inspector approve the premises and that “licensee not sell liquors ale or beer.” This was the era of diners bringing their own liquor which was kept under the table or, in the case of the Turnpike Ballroom, the bottle was stashed in a five-pound coffee can attached to a table leg and hidden by the table cloth.

Tony moved to 1817 D St. in the late 1940s and, after operating a fruit market and grocery on the northeast corner of Cotner Boulevard and O for a short time, his brother opened Ned’s Restaurant in the now recently razed building at 404 South 13th St.

Early on Sunday morning May 28, 1951, after the Italian Village had closed for the night, a fire broke out completely destroying the wooden frame structure. One fireman was injured and Joseph Delphia (Delphis), who lived in the basement as a caretaker, died of smoke inhalation. So many people drove to the area to see the remains that a traffic jam of an estimated 600 vehicles completely tied up the vicinity of Cotner and O streets.

With damage estimated at $83,000, it was obvious nothing could be salvaged, and in 1952 Lincoln architect Selmer Solheim designed a new cut stone restaurant with a full basement and large picture window on the south, front elevation. A year later, Tony installed a large marble fountain in the window, which he brought back from one of his annual trips to Italy and became a trademark for the restaurant. The house to the east was also acquired by the Dominos who operated it as the Italian Village Motel. The new restaurant/supper club was large enough that in addition to small bands, entertainment was added and in October of 1954 “Variety” magazine noted that “Andre & Delphine balancers” had been booked and at one point even a small ice-skating duo performed in the stage area.

By the early 1960s the city directory showed the Italian village and Legionnaire Club occupied the same building, but it was soon only the American Legion’s Legionnaire Club with Bob Logsdon as manager. The building was enlarged several times and within a decade the club was catapulted into being the second largest Legionnaire Club in the United States, second only to Denver’s with Lincoln reporting an almost unbelievable membership of over 37,000!

In the 1960s the house at 56th and O became the Hilltop Club Tavern, but the entire two block stretch was about to change dramatically. The marble fountain from the old Italian Village was moved to Antelope Park, the house at 56th Street was razed for the First National Bank’s high-rise, the filling station disappeared and even the “new” Legionnaire Club was replaced with an auto showroom/service center and huge outdoor car lot.

Perhaps most amazingly, West Gate Bank’s 50th and O Street location, also once outside Lincoln’s city limits, was termed their mid-city branch as houses and businesses now march ever eastward towards Hillcrest Country Club at 95th Street.

Lost restaurants in Lincoln