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Omaha Magazine

Bringing Back the Glory Days

Aug 23, 2019 11:13AM ● By Ryan Borchers

Omaha has a bit of Chicago flair and New York taste in one midtown location. That location is built of steel, covered in brick, and features terra cotta details.

The Blackstone Hotel was the design of Francis W. Fitzpatrick, assistant to Henry Ives Cobb when he designed Chicago Federal Building. Fitzpatrick came to Omaha in 1917 to work for the Bankers Realty Investment Co. as head of the architectural department. He designed the Blackstone Hotel, the Hotel Yancey in Grand Island, and several other projects before moving in 1919 to Evanston, Illinois.

The Hotel Yancey and the Blackstone Hotel were both created in the Renaissance Revival Style. Early 20th-century architecture often relied on “revival” styles, many of which can be seen in the Blackstone area, from the Jacobethan Revival at 3708 Farnam St. to the Georgian Revival home at 507 38th St. and more.

Renaissance Revival, however, tended to be a catchall phrase. Because there was a Renaissance in Italy, in France, and many other places in Europe, the Renaissance Revival takes elements from many styles. The Blackstone featured popular revival characteristics such as a grand staircase—marble in this case—crown moldings, and several archways, including heavy beamed archways prominent throughout the eighth-floor ballroom. E-shaped in structure, the hotel’s formal design invokes a sense of stability and security.

The investment company intended the hotel to be a family hotel, which was rented by the year rather than the day and included hotel services. Thus many of the rentable units contained multiple rooms for living as well as sleeping.

The early 20th century was a booming time in Omaha, and construction of the Blackstone Hotel coincided with construction taking place in still-popular areas such as Gold Coast, eventually expanding to Dundee and Benson. It has been speculated that the amount of apartment and housing construction happening during this time frame means that the hotel did not receive the business hoped for by the investment company. Bankers Realty sold the hotel to Charles Schimmel in 1920.

Schimmel converted it into a luxury hotel, featuring its own stable of Pierce Arrow limousines and an in-house publication called The Blackstonian. Celebrities and dignitaries visited, including Jack Benny, Ronald Reagan, and Eleanor Roosevelt. John F. and Jackie Kennedy celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary there in 1958, and nine years later Richard Nixon told reporters he planned to run for president in 1968 at the hotel. The Blackstone is credited with inventing the Rueben sandwich and Butter Brickle ice cream.

Although New Yorkers may dispute the origins of the Rueben sandwich, there is no denying the restaurants at the Blackstone were top-quality ones. With high ceilings, mirrored columns, plush dining chairs, and corned-beef sandwiches, the Orleans room made Holiday Magazine’s dining awards list for 16 years. Although that magazine sold in 1989 to Reader’s Digest, Holiday Magazine (later Travel Holiday) at its height boasted 1 million subscribers and the award is today known as the The Distinguished Restaurants of North America Award of Excellence.

The Blackstone was sold by the Schimmel family to Radisson in 1968. Radisson tried to renovate the building, but was unsuccessful, and the hotel closed in 1976. It became an Omaha Landmark in 1983, was turned into an office building in 1984, and officially became listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

Today the hotel is returning to its former glory. The building is being run by the Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants brand—the first of its brand in Omaha—and is being renovated by the combined forces of Clarity Development and GreenSlate Development. The plan is for the hotel to open by April 2020.

Tom McLeay, the president of Clarity Development, said the goal is to build nothing short of “Omaha’s hotel.”

Doing justice to the history of the building, McLeay says, is a major priority.

“If we don’t do this right…and respect the history of what it is, we’ve blown it. We have not done our job.”

The development team is recreating as accurately as possible the Cottonwood Room, down to a faux cottonwood tree similar to the one in the original room. The Grand Ballroom on the top floor is being restored, and the lobby will feature the original, mosaic-tile floor from the Orleans Room as well as the original marble staircase.

Some of the modern amenities will include a resort-style pool, about 11,000 square feet of meeting space, a restaurant with “a little bit more of a French flair”—in another homage to the Orleans Room—and a new steakhouse. The hotel will have 205 guest rooms.

“Our hope is that it’s going to feel like it is the hotel from the ’30s, but it’s met modern times,” McLeay says. “The bones of the history are still here, but we are going to bring it into today.”

Of course, a hotel depends on out-of-towners for its success. McLeay says the energy the Omaha community will bring to the hotel is one thing that will make it a destination for travelers. The restaurants and bars of the revived Blackstone District will attract guests, and the hotel will add to that bustle, offering a steakhouse and lobby bar, as well as people going to meetings and attending wedding rehearsal dinners and other events.

“There’s this excitement about the place,” McLeay says. “That’s what people respond to.” 

This article was printed in the September 2019 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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