The city’s most famous, oldest and, well, only cave could soon earn a federal badge of honor -- a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Lincoln historian Matt Hansen has spent the past 15 months preparing a detailed nomination for Robbers Cave, the 5,600-square-foot series of tunnels carved into the sandstone south of Van Dorn Park.
The cave has been a subterranean landmark for 150 years, with much of its history documented as an early brewery warehouse and then a longtime tourist attraction, its soft walls a canvas for more than a century of signatures. It’s also known for its undocumented legend and lore -- that is was a hideout for Jesse James, a stop on the Underground Railroad, a safe haven for pioneers.
“I’ve always had a personal interest in the cave, even though when I was growing up, it wasn’t open to the public,” Hansen said. “I always thought it was a very fascinating property.”
He got his first look at the cave in March 2018, a couple of years after Blue Blood Brewing had built its business above and reopened the cave below. The Preservation Association of Lincoln held its annual meeting there, and Hansen, a board member, learned of earlier interest in getting the cave listed.
He had a 2-0 record of writing successful nominations, first for the former First National Bank of Lincoln building at 10th and O streets in 1998, and then for the Frank M. Spalding House on Sheridan Boulevard a year later.
“I thought it was something I’d be able to tackle,” he said.
He had the blessing of the property’s owner.
“We were all for it,” Sam Manzitto Sr. said. “It needs to be part of the national registry.”
And Hansen had help from Joel Green, a tour guide who has taken more than 60,000 visitors through the tunnels since 2016, and who had already spent nearly a decade researching his book about Robbers Cave.
“The book was a great head start for me,” Hansen said. “But it’s still pretty time-consuming.”
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By day, Hansen is the state Capitol’s preservation architect, but he researched and wrote the Robbers Cave nomination on his own time. He didn’t total his hours, but they numbered in the hundreds, he said.
He spent time searching old newspaper stories, trying to find historical foundations for the cave’s more famous folklore.
He largely couldn’t. But a register nomination is an argument for the historical significance of a property, and there was a case he could make: The cave served as a popular tourist attraction for much of the 20th century.
“It was a destination for people, groups, tours and parties. It was a social-recreational venue in Lincoln from 1906, and it’s still in use today.”
His research did uncover a few new facts. He learned the arches above the cave’s basement entrance were originally part of the old Lincoln Brewery’s ice house. And a sphinxlike carving on one of its walls was the symbol of the Iron Sphinx, a semi-secret political club for University of Nebraska sophomores that held its initiations there in the early 1900s.
Hansen’s 70-page nomination has a few hurdles to clear.
First, the Lincoln-Lancaster County Historic Preservation Commission will consider his pitch Dec. 19. If that group endorses it, the Nebraska State Historic Preservation Board will review it in January. A green light there sends it to Washington, D.C., to be considered by the National Park Service’s Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places.
A nominated cave is a nice change, said Dave Calease, National Register coordinator for History Nebraska. And a good fit for the list.
“We do a lot of historic homes and large public buildings, and we do a lot of commercial buildings,” he said. “This is such a unique resource, so it’s a lot of fun for our office.”
If it’s ultimately listed, Robbers Cave will join nearly 1,200 other listings in the state and the 111 listings already in Lancaster County -- including Wyuka Cemetery, the Capitol, the Gold’s building and the hundreds of homes in the Eastridge Historic District.
There’s really no downside, Hansen said. The designation is largely a symbolic honor -- a recognition of a place’s historical significance -- and despite what some people believe, it places no restrictions or limitations on the property. If the owners wanted, they could demolish a listed property without consequence.
But Manzitto is looking forward to the designation. Blue Blood Brewing closed abruptly earlier this year, though he hopes to announce a new upstairs tenant soon. But Robbers Cave tours are going strong, with private groups booked months in advance.
A place on the national register could draw even more business, he said. “We feel this recognition will really help the out-of-state tours.”
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