Tag Archives: Blackstone Hotel

Bringing Back the Glory Days

August 23, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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.

Blackstone Hotel

Crystal and Corned Beef

May 28, 2014 by
Photography by KMTV 3 / Bostwick-Frohardt Collection at the Durham Museum

High-stakes meetings and stylish parties were held on the hotel’s top floor ballroom.  Lush rooftop gardens looked out over bustling Midtown Omaha. The elegant Blackstone Hotel towered over Midtown, even casting its name onto the surrounding neighborhood.

It was a short stroll from where I worked at WOWT to the hotel’s front door. The Blackstone was a second home to those of us who wanted to grab an after-work drink at the Cottonwood Room—a fun hangout with a whimsical décor and air. How could it not be an enjoyable place? In the center of the bar stood an elaborate replica of a cottonwood tree densely festooned in leaves.

Upstairs, the hotel’s Orleans Room was reserved for special-occasion dining. Presiding as maître d’hôtel was a tall, distinguished-looking black man who was always seen wearing a tuxedo. Called by diners the “Governor,” he looked like an ambassador and was just as charming.

If you had dined at the Orleans Room before, the Governor remembered your name, your preferred drink and where you wanted to be seated. Meals were always prepared tableside. It was the type of personal service rarely seen anymore.

The room attracted visiting celebrities over the years. A hallway was lined with photos of stars who had dined at the Orleans Room. Mark Schimmel remembers spending time in the coffee shop with comedian Jack Benny. The self-described “miser” would allow Mark to pay for his coffee.

Mark’s father, Edward Schimmel, was the hotel’s general manager for many years. Now living in Wentzville, Mo., Mark was the manager when the family-owned hotel was sold to Radisson in 1968. He stayed on.

A busy Golden Spur coffee shop in the hotel was good for a quick lunch. Each of the seven walls displayed a different decor, according to Mark, with whom I recently traded fond memories of the Blackstone days. “It was like going into a museum.” he said, Spurs hanging from one wall explained the room’s name. In earlier days, the room was called the Plush Horse.

The Golden Spur is where I tasted my first Reuben sandwich. For countless Omahans and Blackstone guests, this was also the first place they tasted the famed Reuben.

But, was it the first place? The big question for posterity: Was I eating a Reuben from the actual birthplace of the now-iconic sandwich? While the Blackstone is most often mentioned as the home of the Reuben, others outside Omaha have tried to stake claim.

Debate no more. The case is closed. The Reuben was invented at the Blackstone.
Mary Bernstein—the granddaughter of Blackstone owner Charles Schimmel—got the story firsthand.

“Here’s the scoop,” she says. “My father, Bernard Schimmel, had just returned from school in Switzerland where he trained to be a chef.  His father, Charles, held a weekly poker game at the Blackstone Sunday nights.  He said to my dad, ‘Reuben wants you to make some sandwiches with corned beef and sauerkraut.’

“And my dad put together this concoction of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing and dark rye bread and grilled them, then took them to the poker players. After it later received such wide acclaim, they decided to put it on the menu at the Schimmel hotels and call it the Reuben sandwich, because Reuben Kulakofsky had requested it.”

The exact date is lost in family history. But it would have to be after Bernard returned in 1928 from Switzerland. The first menu the family has uncovered that lists the Reuben sandwich was from the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln in 1934, according to Judy Weil of San Francisco, the family historian.
Because the Reuben sandwich apparently first appeared on a menu at the Cornhusker, it is sometime mistakenly assumed that the sandwich was created there.

Charles Schimmel added the Blackstone to his stable of hotels in 1920. The building became an Omaha Landmark in 1983 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
He trained his four sons in the hotel business. They along with other family members each ran one of the seven Schimmel hotels. In Omaha, the hotels were the Blackstone and Indian Hills Inn. In Lincoln, Schimmel owned the Cornhusker.

The Schimmel family’s sandwich story has been repeated throughout the nation.  Bernard’s granddaughter Elizabeth Weil wrote about her family’s appetizing creation in the New York Times.
Bernstein still advocates for the Reuben sandwich, but admits she no longer eats the corned beef and sauerkraut concoction.  She’s now a vegetarian.

Jazz Age to Tech Age

January 13, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The grande dame of Omaha book clubs began as a sewing club 90 years ago. Women in white gloves and cloche hats met in homes for elegant Monday lunches.

They read such books as E.M. Forster’s Passage to India and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tales of the Jazz Age. Founding members were indeed living in the Jazz Age—also called the Roaring Twenties. Women who began the club in 1924 most likely bought their books from Matthews Book Store at 1620 Harney St. In those days, a new book cost about 50 cents.

High school-age “book boys” were paid to pick up books from members’ homes and take them to other members’ homes so they could be shared. Interesting side note: There are only two “book girls” on record.

Member Lois Reynolds inherited a piece of the club’s history when she received 24 luncheon trays and other items from when her mother-in-law, Laura Reynolds, hosted the Monday Book Club.

Reynolds remembers in the 1960s when her future husband’s mother would talk about the elegant luncheons.

“It was a big deal to get ready for the ladies coming for lunch,” says Reynolds. “They got out their silver and good serving pieces.” Hostesses brought out their best china and linens.

But times changed and so did the club. Members started meeting at city clubs, restaurants, and even a bowling alley.

They met at the Hilltop House. It closed. They met at the legendary Blackstone Hotel. It closed. They met at the Omaha Club, Younkers, the Ranch Bowl, the Fireside Restaurant, and the Sky Room at the Center. All were Omaha landmarks that have 
since closed.

“When I joined we were at the Plaza Club Cloud Room, which has since closed,” says Karen Kennedy, president of the Monday Book Club, which she says is Omaha’s oldest active book club.

“We now meet at the Omaha Country Club, but on Fridays, since we learned that country clubs are closed on Mondays.”

Yes, that’s right. The Monday Book Club meets on Fridays.

“We used to have hostesses for centerpieces and menus. But when we went to the Omaha Country Club, it became easier if we paid an annual membership fee,” says Kennedy, a member for 14 years.

“Dues are now $135, which includes lunch, operating expenses, an annual donation to a charity, and occasional speakers.”

Members now bring their books for sharing with others to the monthly luncheon meetings (the “book boys” lost their jobs), which are held October through May.

Speakers are sometimes invited to talk about such topics as making a will, writing a book, poetry, and safe driving. A slide show about the coronation of Queen Elizabeth was a 1955 luncheon program. In 1957, the speaker was an anthropologist.

Most of the club’s 40 members buy books at the locally owned The Bookworm, where they receive a discount.

“We then take the book to the first meeting, check it out for a month, and bring it back to the next luncheon meeting,” says Kennedy. “This way we get a variety of books. We hope they read something they otherwise may not. We share the love of good books and good company.”

When Beth Black moved The Bookworm to Countryside Plaza in 1999, she inherited many book clubs from the Village Bookstore that had been located there, including the Monday Book Club.

“We have more than 60 active registered book clubs,” says Black, co-owner of the bookstore. “Only about a dozen are like the Monday Book Club, old-fashioned book clubs that pass books on to members but don’t discuss them.”

“It is old-fashioned,” agrees Kennedy. “That’s a fine word. It’s about fun 
and friendship.”

Members ask Black and her staff at The Bookworm for recommendations. The store keeps a list of the books that members buy, so they do not duplicate each other’s purchases.

The book club’s members decided to stop exchanging holiday gifts at the Christmas luncheons and instead give money each year “to an organization that we believe in,” 
says Kennedy.

Donations have been made to such nonprofits as Child Saving Institute, CASA, The Salvation Army, and the Stephen Center. Most significant for a book club are donations to literacy and the library foundations and the Omaha Public Library.

Few of the book club’s records go back before the 1950s, says Kennedy, but the group’s history is perhaps best told 
in bloodlines.

The Reynolds are a prime example of how families have passed participation in the Monday Book Club down through generations. Lois has been a member for six years; her mother-in-law was a member for 40 years; her husband’s aunt, Louise Reynolds, also was a long-time member.

Members’ names over the years have included those of well-known individuals in the community. Presently all members of the venerable club are women.

What if a man wanted to join the all-female group? “I don’t think we would turn them away,” says Kennedy.