Although virtually no one thinks of Lincoln in terms of block numbers, Block 153 is easily one of the most visible southeast of the capitol and contains three interesting and historic houses. The Ferguson house on the northwest corner of the block and its neighbor, the Kennard house to the east, are well-known landmarks, but the Hurlbut/Yates house to the south is, in many ways, the most ornate and has a history tying it to early Lincoln, the Burlington Railroad and First National Bank.
When the first plat of Lincoln was drawn in 1867 one of the objectives was to divide the new capital into blocks and lots so that it could be sold by the state at auction to provide funds to operate the state government and build buildings. During the first session of the auction each of the three Capital Commissioners purchased lots, but no one bid on any of Block 153. The story of Block 153 unfolded in a subsequent auction and was well reported in the 1871 impeachment of Gov. David Butler.
In June 1869, Butler, along with commissioners John Gillespie and Thomas Kennard, and auctioneer Col. Patrick, were moving between auction points in a wagon. When they passed Block 151, the site of today’s governor’s mansion, Butler asked about Block 153, where Kennard had purchased its north half and Gillespie the south half for a total of $2,000. Butler said he would give that amount for Block 151 on which he intended to build a home. Kennard “told the auctioneer to cry his bid,” and supposedly Butler bought the block in the wagon with no other bidders present. The question was later asked if Butler ever paid the $2,000 and if he later sold it to A.J. Cropsey.
In 1869 Gillespie and Kennard built their houses, both designed by architect John Keyes Winchell -- Kennard at 1627 H St. and Gillespie directly south at 1630 G St.
Charles Hurlbut, who was born in 1848, moved from New York to Lincoln in 1872 and began working for Horowitz & Davidson’s Clothing Co. on North 10th Street while living above the store. The store later moved to O Street, about where the Terminal Building now stands, and a few years later became Hurlbut Clothing, which relocated to P Street just east of today’s Journal Star building. In 1886 Hurlbut purchased the southwest portion of Block 153, removed the existing house and began planning a new structure.
The new house at 720 S. 16th St. was designed by Ferdinand Fiske and totaled 5,600 square feet. Completed in 1891, the 2½-story, frame house has been described variously as late Victorian, Queen Anne, East Lake-stick style and simply gingerbread. The second floor had six bedrooms with a ballroom in the attic/third floor and a large carriage house on the north end. The house was completed in 1893, just in time for the national depression of that year.
Charles E. Yates arrived in Lincoln from Plattsmouth two years after Hurlbut, in 1874, as the superintendent of telegraphy for the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad, living at 1541 M St. The 1893 depression had only a limited effect on Yates, though the Capital National Bank, on whose board he served, failed and the U.S. Supreme Court later ruled the directors were liable for $100,000. Still, the same year, Yates purchased the yet-to-be-lived-in home while the Hurlbuts moved into the Yates house on M Street. Charles Yates died in 1922, and after his wife Ruth’s death in 1925, the house was acquired by Henry Carpenter. One of their sons married into the Burnham family, whose son was Silas Burnham Yates, later head of the First National Bank, while a Nebraska town was named for their other son, Halsey.
The Carpenter family lived in the carriage house while renting out the main house to Phi Mu Sorority. The carriage house was then turned 180 degrees and moved to the south, facing G Street. After a series of sororities and fraternities occupied the house, renovation started about 1981.
Donna Brandt Culwell acquired the house about 1998, completed restoration and in 1999 the house was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Purchased in 2010 by William and Myrna Wood, the extant house has again been sympathetically remodeled as a sorority/fraternity house, making Block 153 a truly historic and beautiful neighbor to the state Capitol.