by Julie Nichols
One of the last old neighborhoods in Lincoln, University Place embraces the edges of UNL’s East campus and historic Havelock to the north, 33rd Street to the west, and 56th Street to the east, encompasses the whole of Nebraska Wesleyan University campus. Drive north on 48th Street and you can’t miss it.
Old-timers remember the Buffalo Motel and the infamous Tastee Inn-Out drive-in, Murphy’s Q&P Hardware, all adorned with classic neon. Or London’s Luthiers, the top choice for stringed instrument repairs—all history now. Gaga’s Greenery, an old mainstay, holds on. Still, a string of boutiques, a dance studio, tattoo shops, assorted restaurants, seasonal vegetable stand and regular farmer’s market make 48th Street very much the heartbeat of University Place. Mo Java, a hip coffee house with food and bar, draws visitors as well as students, and has become a central meeting place. The neighborhood diner has transformed into Sabor Latino restaurant. A Central American bakery, Jerusalen, adds another unique note. Uni Place continues to thrive through many transformations, with a distinct reflection of Lincoln’s diverse population. Still, the local pool, post office, tire shops, mechanics, parks and churches stay put. Children walk to the same schools their parents attended. A younger generation may move in, but the chances are good that they too, will stay.
A notable liberal arts college since its inception in 1887 in the village of University Place, Nebraska Wesleyan still maintains a heavy presence in the neighborhood with its stately Old Main building, campus arboretum, O’Donnell auditorium, theatre and athletic fields. Wesleyan offers students an intimate and rigorous education with multiple undergraduate and graduate degree programs in arts and sciences delivered by top-tier instructors. First United Methodist, founded in 1888, built in 1909, dedicated itself to the education Nebraska Wesleyan could provide the families of University Place. Located on 50th and St. Paul, the architecture of First United Methodist Church, an initial cornerstone in Wesleyan’s founding, is stunning both inside and out, with a massive stained-glass dome depicting Abraham Lincoln, and amphitheater balcony. Large Greek columns grace both façade and sanctuary.
University Place, however, has always been a neighborhood of balance, where working people raise their families, interlaced by two university student populations. Despite the disappearance of old favorites, the unassuming character of the neighborhood remains unchanged, while still growing into a destination for visitors and local supporters attracted to the arts. Elder Gallery, Lux Art Center, Lincoln Artists Guild, Wesleyan’s theatre and O’Donnell auditorium, Vance D. Rogers concert space all provide ready access to music, performance and gallery shows. Joining the creative collective blossoming in Uni Place in fall 2022 is BLIXT Storefront Theatre and Performing Arts School, nurturing youth from the creation of original works using their own ideas, artwork, puppets, texts and performance, and taught by a variety of professionals. Developing playwrights’ and theatre students’ work is also premiered and developed within BLIXT. With support from Nebraska Wesleyan’s Theatre Department and Lincoln’s Community Learning Centers, this program seeks to identify students from all backgrounds and foster their confidence and creativity.
The LUX Art Center continues to lead people of all ages into art-making and appreciation with year-round classes in all media taught by artists-in-residence, a new pottery studio, student gallery. The LUX has, in partnership with Wesleyan and the United Methodist Church, asserted a request to the Nebraska Arts Council to have University Place officially declared Lincoln’s Art District, opening the possibilities for state arts funding and potential support from other agencies. LUX in recent years has mounted a series of spectacular murals on and around 48th Street, painted by diverse artists of varying backgrounds—some world-famous, some beginning their careers—with more murals to come. Tours are available on Saturdays; maps for self-guided tours are available at the main galleries at 48th and Madison. LUX Center has four galleries with rotating exhibitions, including a print gallery displaying curated shows from its founder Gladys Lux’s extensive print collection.
The Leighton District, a new housing development on 48th, brought with it built-in eateries offering anything from burgers to lobster rolls, and apartments to further expand options for Wesleyan and UNL students or young professionals. UNL’s adjacent East Campus, the home of agriculture, natural resources, food science and many research programs abuts the south (Leighton) and east (33rd) of University Place, and offers visitors lovely walks through a beautifully designed old-growth arboretum with many featured beds of Nebraska’s native plants. The Tractor Museum, home of the only tractor testing site in the world, is also on East Campus, and makes a fascinating and fun visit for all ages. A stop at the Dairy Store for ice cream produced on site can’t hurt! The Quilt Museum, at 33rd and Holdrege, has regular shows featuring Nebraska textile artists as well as featured quilts from its collection.
Throughout its continuing modulations, though, University Place remains one of Lincoln’s most cohesive neighborhoods, its unity unchanged despite the shuffle of college students and infusion of new nationalities. Families put down roots and stay, raising the next generation alongside the last. It has one of the longest running, most active neighborhood associations in the city. Colleen Seng, Lincoln’s 50th and first female mayor (2003), was born and raised in University Place and still lives in her cherished neighborhood—she never left. Now, residents are reminded of her service with University Place Park renamed in her honor.