A familiar face to a historic midtown Omaha hotel will be the first to check in when it reopens this week after a $75 million restoration launched more than three years ago.
Carolyn Schimmel Magid, now 85, was a child when she first ran the halls of the old Blackstone Hotel, which was built in 1916 and purchased four years later by her grandfather, Charles Schimmel.
She recalls visiting her grandparents’ living quarters in the hotel and dining sometimes in the elegant Orleans Room. In 1960, she and hubby Bernard spent their wedding night at the hotel. Magid still remembers the stern front desk keeper scolding the newlyweds because they were late and their complimentary hors d’oeuvres had gone stale.
“It was the center of everything back then, to me it was anyway,” Magid said of the 36th and Farnam Streets icon that drew celebrities and dignitaries and notably was the birthplace of the Reuben sandwich. “A lot was going on there.”
This week Magid returns for a tour and is invited to stay overnight at the eight-story structure that most recently operated as an office building and is reopening as The Cottonwood Hotel, under the flag of Kimpton Hotels.
Tom McLeay of Clarity Development said he and partners at GreenSlate Development thought it only fitting that Magid and relatives help christen the property. He said they view the family’s presence as a symbolic changing of the guard.
The GreenSlate-Clarity ownership team aims to reclaim the hotel’s storied reputation as the epicenter of Omaha’s social life.
“We now have a showcase for Omaha,” McLeay said, noting that other growing metro areas have historic hotels as central gathering points. “I’m thrilled we’re able to do our part to bring this element of Omaha’s history back to the city.”
Adorned with a new overhead sign that shines pink at 302 S. 36th St., the expanded 205-room Cottonwood covers a city block.
It features multiple dining and bar areas, each with a different personality, and has a brand new wing that added suites and gathering spaces and a resort-style outdoor swimming pool and plaza. A carriage house-like party lodge includes a poolside bar.
Surrounding the Cottonwood is the Blackstone business district, which on a broader level continues its own ascent from a sketchy pass-through zone into a hip and trendy commercial corridor. Farnam Street is the district’s main drag today, as was the case in the early 1900s, when it was the spine of Omaha’s wealthy Gold Coast neighborhood.
Across Farnam to the north, Cottonwood guests will see the district’s new beer and food hall. In all directions are newly constructed and renovated apartments that have increased pedestrian flow. Storefronts along Farnam over the last several years have been spiffed up and filled with restaurants and businesses.
Though COVID-19 has slowed and changed commercial operations, Jay Lund of GreenSlate, the primary landlord in the area, anticipates that business will bounce back. He said the Cottonwood — a project in the making years before the pandemic hit — will have the “opportunity” to work out kinks as a vaccine is pursued.
Lund said that weddings and other events are scheduled this month and that the Cottonwood would have guests starting Thursday, when it opens to the public. He said the hotel will be respecting social distancing guidelines.
During a tour last week, he and McLeay pointed out original hotel features, including the grand marble staircase and mosaic tile floors, that have been preserved.
In some instances where restoration was not possible, the development team used old photos to re-create historic touches. Examples: terra cotta columns out front, the lobby check-in desk, a tree sprouting in the famed Cottonwood Bar from which the renovated property took its name.
To better grasp the prestigious past, one need only look at old publications, like a 1950 Hotel Management story that described the hotel as “one of the country’s best glamour houses with three restaurants, a cocktail lounge, two bars, a ballroom and several function rooms.”
At the time run by Charles’ son Edward, the hotel then was about 55% residential, meaning those tenants rented rooms longer term.
Among dining areas reincarnated at the Cottonwood is the Orleans Room, which includes a bar, couches and tables for socializing and dining. There also is the poker table used by Charles Schimmel and his friends. As the story goes, poker player Reuben Kulakofsky came up with a sandwich everyone loved so much that it ended up on the hotel menu. Today that same Reuben sandwich will be a spotlighted meal at the Orleans, which is to offer breakfast and lunch.
“We really are hoping this becomes the living room for the city,” Lund said.
On the lower level is an evening steakhouse whose name is a nod to the poker-playing group Schimmel and friends called “The Committee.” It has its own Farnam Street entrance with valet parking. Valet parking is to be available also to guests entering the main hotel lobby.
Striving to be a nationally renowned hotel with local flavor, Lund said the Cottonwood is to have more than 60 pieces of art from local artists. The project’s architectural firm, Leo A Daly, and interior design team from DLR Group also are based in Omaha.
On the eighth floor is the newly renamed Schimmel Ballroom with two outdoor terraces and a wing of suites popular with wedding parties.
Interviewed Friday, Magid said she was eager to see the dance hall honoring her family and thought the gesture was nice. “I approve,” she said.
Though still miffed the original hotel name couldn’t be saved — current owners said a Chicago hotel has a legal claim to Blackstone — Magid retains vivid memories of the hotel her grandmother Mary and uncle Edward ran after her grandfather died.
She was fascinated by the office that displayed pictures of celebrities and dignitaries who stayed at the hotel, including ice skater and actress Sonja Henie. “They say she demanded satin sheets.”
Of course Magid can’t forget her wedding night, arriving later than anticipated after she and Bernard wed in Lincoln. After noting the couple’s tardiness, the front desk attendant, who Magid said “ran a tight ship,” showed them to a suite where they were greeted with a bottle of champagne in a container of melted ice.
“We drank it anyway,” she said.
Photos: The transformation of Omaha’s Cottonwood Hotel
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