Local developers restoring the midtown Omaha Blackstone Hotel managed to rescue historic vestiges, including a grand marble staircase, sunken bar and buried mosaic tiles.
But they were unable to save perhaps the most recognizable relic: its name.
GreenSlate and Clarity developers told The World-Herald they learned during the ongoing $75 million rehab process that a Chicago hotel has a legal claim to the Blackstone Hotel trademark. That forced them to regroup.
Now, come spring 2020, the revamped century-old midtown property at 36th and Farnam Streets will open as the Cottonwood — a name reminiscent of the hotel’s original Cottonwood Room lounge known for star power attraction and the eye-catching cottonwood tree rising out of the bar.
“It was one of the most iconic bars in the region,” said GreenSlate’s Jay Lund. “Celebrities gathered there. There are many stories behind it. It just felt right.”
Officially to be called the Kimpton Cottonwood Hotel, the eight-story property will add 205 guest rooms to a fast-growing Omaha hotel industry whose newcomers include a wave of other full-service properties that identify as boutiques and tout a local theme.
Over the past five years, the Omaha metro area has seen an 11% increase in hotel rooms — beating the nation’s 8.5 % growth rate during that same period, according to STR, which tracks national trends in the hospitality industry.
STR records show another nearly 1,500 hotel rooms in various stages of local planning that are projected to open during the next couple of years. That new growth would boost the existing number of 15,300 rooms by another 10%.
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Deborah Ward of Visit Omaha, the local hotel and conventions bureau, said that as long as demand climbs, she foresees lodging developers turning their sights toward Omaha.
And STR’s Jan Frietag says local demand, measured by the number of hotel rooms that are rented, has grown each year since 2013. Overall occupancy rates remained relatively steady as well.
Ward also pointed to a recent study that shows Omaha, for the ninth year in a row, increasing both its number of out-of-town visitors and the amount of money they spent (in general, not just lodging).
She said Visit Omaha is particularly excited about the influx of high-end, often smaller hotels identifying themselves as boutiques joining Omaha’s more traditional and limited-service hotels.
”It gives us a variety of different products to sell to groups,” she said.
Nirav Shah of Chattanooga, Tennessee-based ViaNova Development is among newcomers who saw an opening for a Hilton boutique brand. Shah is converting a historic downtown building into a 90-room Curio now expected to open next spring. Part of the lure, he said, will be upscale offerings like a rooftop restaurant and an overall local vibe.
The ViaNova property, for example, was named the Peregrine Hotel, after the falcons that nest atop its widely known neighbor, the Woodmen Tower. Lobby wallpaper will look like feathers of the once-endangered bird; small falcon statues are in each guest room.
Jason Fisher of the Lund Co. is part of the group converting several floors of the downtown Landmark center into a 120-suite boutique hotel. Guests, he said, will socialize in public spaces that feel less corporate and more like living rooms. They’ll have concierge service, signature food and beverage selections, views from one of the tallest buildings in the state and will be just steps from the reconstructed Gene Leahy park.
A local developer putting a 90-room Hotel Indigo into the seven-story historic Logan building at 18th and Dodge Streets also calls that property a boutique to be served by an onsite speakeasy bar, signature restaurant and ground floor retailers. Likewise, the six-story Marriott Moxy planned for the Old Market is billed as boutique, though with a “minimalist” affordable style. The Iowa developer said the Moxy remains a go but construction is delayed as foundational questions are resolved.
Meanwhile, at the Cottonwood, the four leaders of the development team are Nebraska raised and take pride in touches that will let international and national guests know they’re in a locally owned property.
A prominent mural in the lounge will feature an image of the Missouri River banks. Many bathroom walls are decorated with Nebraska’s official flower, the goldenrod. The cottonwood tree, they note, is the state tree.
Matt Dwyer of GreenSlate says his hope is that guests have lots of wow moments winding through the property dotted with a resort-style pool, restaurants, conference rooms and top-floor ballroom with terraces and a nearby presidential suite.
“The hotel is intended to be a series of reveals,” Dwyer said. “We hope that as you progress through the public spaces, you’re looking for what’s next around the next corner.”
Because the project uses $8 million in historic federal and state tax credits, developers are required to preserve historic elements. Lund said his team, which also has led revival of the broader Blackstone business district, went the distance by digging up old photos and also resurrecting certain elements, such as the solarium, that over the years had been removed.
The team hired an Atlanta company to recreate missing pieces of century-old floor tile they uncovered. It hired a San Diego group that worked on the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium’s Lied Jungle to recreate the cottonwood tree rising from the circular bar.
They tapped a Blackstone area photographer to shoot the Missouri River image that will be a mural behind the cottonwood tree.
Dwyer said the development team even dug up the original recipe for the Reuben sandwich that, as lore has it, was born in the fancy Fern Room of the Blackstone Hotel.
Despite all the thrills of the project, developers said they were bummed over losing the Blackstone Hotel name. They consulted lawyers, Dwyer said. “We looked at every angle.”
Lund said their claim weakened when the hotel was repurposed decades ago into offices, then the Chicago group that rehabilitated its Blackstone Hotel beat them to the trademark.
Mary Bernstein of Omaha, granddaughter of former Blackstone owner Charles Schimmel, called the Cottonwood name a “brilliant” alternative.
She said some might pass by the property if it didn’t include a word that reminded them of the original hotel and its grandeur.
“I feel like they’ve captured that idea in a very subtle, lovely, yet dramatic way,” she said. “The Cottonwood Room was very much a part of the hotel.”
Lund and Dwyer said the development team has started to market the new identity. The Kimpton Cottonwood, to be managed by Pivot Hotels & Resorts, has a sales office at 3904 Farnam St. They said room rates, after the first couple of years, should average about $190 for a night’s stay. People already are calling to book weddings and events.
“This is a rebirth,” Lund said.