December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Blueprints were in the planning stage in the mid-1960s when Hilton Hotel developers told city leaders they wanted to build a new hotel in Downtown Omaha. Their target site was between 15th and 17th streets near the Omaha Civic Auditorium.

They needed two blocks of downtown land owned by First National Bank to build what would be Nebraska’s largest hotel, Hilton developers said. What’s more, they wanted to build smack in the middle of 16th Street. This brought gasps of dismay.

“At the time, 16th Street was the main conduit to North Omaha,” says Mike Kosalka, director of operations for the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel that now occupies the space. “Many people were upset the street was closed and said that this would cut North Omaha off from the downtown area.”

In 1968, when workers showed up to begin work on the new Hilton Hotel, the downtown area had lost a number of its old buildings as city leaders prepared for urban development. The Omaha Auditorium, where 19th-century actress Sarah Bernhardt performed and Caruso sang, was torn down in 1963. The older auditorium had been replaced in 1954 by the Omaha Civic Auditorium, which now, itself, faces closing.

“We reintroduced the grande dame to the city. Every room, every public space was modernized.” – Stephan Meier, general manager

The Fontenelle Hotel, a social center for Omaha when built in 1914, was razed in 1983. It had closed in 1971. The elegant old Omaha post office at 16th and Dodge streets was razed in 1966. Preservationists protested but couldn’t rescue the red sandstone post office.

“The western half of the hotel development was built on the site of that old post office,” says Bill Gonzalez, photo archivist associate at The Durham Museum.

The 414-room Hilton Hotel opened in 1970. It became the Red Lion in 1980. Today, the hotel is the DoubleTree by Hilton.

The hotel’s exterior looks as it did the day of the 1970 ribbon-cutting. But an all-new hotel is inside thanks to a $20 million renovation, said General Manager Stephan Meier. In October, the renovated DoubleTree held a gala event with Omaha mayor, Jim Suttle, and other dignitaries on hand for a ribbon-cutting. “We reintroduced the grande dame to the city,” says Meier. “Every room, every public space was modernized.”

Stephan Meier

Stephan Meier

Then and Now Since 1970

Over the years, considerable changes have taken place inside what is now Nebraska’s second-largest hotel. In 1970, doors were opened with a key. A card with a magnetic stripe was introduced in 1980. An RFID, a scanner code, became the way to open doors in 2012. “We’re the first in Omaha to have this new technology,” says Meier.

Then there was hardwiring. “Hardwire is now less safe. Wireless is the way to go,” Meier says. “Guests have laptops, iPhones, iPads, and other electronic gear. We tripled outlets.” Previously, rooms had clunky televisions with few channels. Now, they have flat-screen TVs with 150 channels.

Then, there was a rooftop restaurant with a revolving barroom floor—the Beef Baron in the 1970s, replaced by Maxine’s in the 1980s. Today, the 19th floor is an executive meeting center.

“There’s more need now for company meetings,” says Meier. Dining is now on the first floor. “Once brunch was ‘owned’ by the hotels. Now, every little café has a brunch.”

Gluten-free? Low fat? Chefs in the 1970s rarely prepared special foods. Now, guests demand them. “People then didn’t worry about cholesterol,” says Meier. “Today, my son worries about his cholesterol. And he’s 7 years old.” The new emphasis on health is also served by the hotel’s high-tech fitness center and swimming pool.

Then, people didn’t know what “carbon footprint” meant. Today, going green is part of the hotel’s business plan. What happens to the shampoo and soap that are half-used when guests leave?

“We work with an organization called ‘Clean the World’ that collects all our discarded soap bars and shampoo bottles for a fee. They are recycled to create hygiene kits that are provided to third-world countries and organizations helping underprivileged children,” says Meier.

“Our green-team committee looks for ways to reduce our carbon footprint. We recycle all trash. We bought 100 percent-recyclable cups. And we just banned Styrofoam, which sits in the landfills for hundreds of years.”

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