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Omaha Magazine

Art, Architecture, and A Historic Treasure

Sep 26, 2019 12:50PM ● By Kara Schweiss

The historic building known as the Omaha Building and home of Kutak Rock is dwarfed by surrounding structures, including the Woodmen Tower, Central Park Tower and the First National Bank building. But when it rose as a 10-story structure in 1889 on Farnam Street between 16th and 17th streets, it was Omaha’s first skyscraper and the city’s tallest building.

Designed by architecture firm McKim, Mead & White for New York Life Insurance Co. (it has a twin still standing in Kansas City), the building was sold in 1909 to Omaha National Bank. Over time, the building lost decorative terra cotta cornices when it gained an 11th floor; the rear court of the H-shaped building was filled in to the third floor; and many of the building’s original features—such as interior skylights, first-floor windows, majestic columns, fireplaces, and flooring—were covered or removed to make way for offices and other areas.

Kutak Rock's office ceiling

In 1965, three young lawyers leased space in the building and began the firm that thrives as Kutak Rock. The young company soon moved out to bigger quarters. In 1972, the building was entered in the National Register of Historic Places. Two years later, it was slated to be sacrificed to development.

“In opposition to the development project, local architect George Haecker created a Save the Omaha Building committee. The development deal fell through in November 1974, and the building was empty for a few years,” Kutak Rock Proposal Manager Patrick Brennan said. “[Founding partner] Robert Kutak had a great appreciation for architecture and recognized that the destruction of a McKim, Mead & White building would represent a great loss to the city’s architectural heritage.”

Kutak persuaded his law partners to purchase and renovate the building for their growing firm. They moved into the renovated building in 1978.

“Saving and renovating the building was important for various reasons, including that the building is one of the few tall structures designed by McKim, Mead & White and is one of the few remaining examples of a tall building with a foundation of masonry-bearing walls. In addition, as situated in the heart of downtown, the building represents a large part of Omaha’s history. Finally, although its Florentine Palazzo style evokes a bygone era, the classic proportions of the design and the several ornamental motifs of the facade are worth saving and appreciating for their own sake,” Brennan said.

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He adds “From Kutak Rock’s standpoint, one of the disappointing changes made to the building was the removal of the “Nesting Eagle” sculpture by Louis St. Gaudens in 1969, when the Omaha National Bank moved its operations to the main floor of the recently built Woodmen Tower.” The eagle was returned to the building in 1997 and continues to occupy its original perch today.

In 2006 and 2007, the firm—which now wholly occupies the building—embarked on an even more extensive renovation with Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture that restored much of the building’s original grandeur and updated its infrastructure.

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“This time around, the HVAC system, parts of the elevator system, lighting, plumbing, everything—we really went down to the bare bones of the building without actually changing the footprint of it,” Director of Professional Development Jeanne Salerno said.

The H-shaped building features two wings joined by a 13-story elevator tower. The 1977 renovation enclosed the north court from the fourth through the eighth floors to create an atrium.

“For the 2006-07 renovation, the atrium was raised to the 10th floor and the ceiling was squared off. Also for the second renovation, we added bridges on the north wall to connect the two wings as well as an interior staircase in the north wall that doubles as a fire escape,” Brennan said.

He notes that the Stanford White Room (named for the original architect) is a “spectacular” second-floor conference room with an imposing metal grille window looking out on Farnam Street and a large circular window with a marble frame called an oculus on the interior wall. “Other features that firm members and visitors comment on the most include the lobby, with its marble walls and floor, and four granite pillars; a small ‘museum’ with historical photos and other memorabilia about the building and the firm in the main-floor vault; the Kutak Room, a comfortable place on the first floor for attorneys to relax in after work; the atrium; and an exercise facility on the lower level.”

The renovation included a daunting project to itemize hundreds of pieces of contemporary art from the late Robert Kutak’s massive collection and take it from random display to a carefully designed presentation in the common spaces on every floor and many of the offices.

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“The artwork, much of it with bold, abstract designs and bright colors, definitely contrasts with the Italian Renaissance design of the building’s facade, but we think the building and the art unquestionably complement each other,” Brennan said.

“The beautiful, contemporary art collection definitely enhances the beauty and the appeal of the interior design of the building,” Salerno said. “And the art collection itself has a great effect on how people feel about their surroundings. The building has a spaciousness to its design that’s perfect for displaying art.”

It is a perfect place to spend the workweek, she adds.

“The remodeling restored a lot of the original features of the building. What makes us happiest with the results is that while it is more like the original—the interior features in particular—it has a modern, warm decor and ambience to it. It doesn’t feel like an old building,” Salerno said. “It’s been designed to meet modern-day functions, yet at the same time it has this very classical, historical beauty.”

“You feel a link to the past when you work in the building,” Brennan said. “Also, just from an aesthetic standpoint, walking through the lobby to start and end your workday reminds you that you’re privileged to be able to make your living in such a beautiful environment.”

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This article was printed in the October 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Kutak Rock's building entry from above

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