Woodmen of the World could have moved west like so many others.
Instead, a consulting firm suggested the life insurance company keep its building where it was, at 17th and Farnam Streets.
Architect Leo A Daly told the company Omaha needed a symbol in its skyline. One with recognizable height, a forward-thinking interior.
Today that 30-story, 478-foot symbol celebrates its 45th year since its dedication as the Woodmen Tower. In honor of the event, and the Woodmen of the World’s 124th anniversary, the tower will feature its new LED lighting in a show starting at 10 p.m. today.
“The construction of the Woodmen Tower was the key to the rebirth of downtown Omaha,” said Al Thomsen, who worked as a Woodmen of the World employee on the tower’s building committee and later as the tower’s manager under his own company until 1999.
“I think it put a flag in the ground,” said Jack Savage, who worked on the building as head of design for Leo A Daly.
To understand how bold the company’s decision to build the tower was, consider downtown at the time.
A block away, 16th Street had been the window shopping mecca — Goldstein-Chapman, Zales Jewelry, Brandeis Department Store. Then suburbs sprang up in west Omaha, largely in the 1950s, drawing homeowners and businesses from the city’s core.
Crossroads Mall, constructed in 1960 at 72nd and Dodge Streets, sucked up many of the remaining businesses.
Deteriorating, vacant buildings and crime reduced foot traffic downtown.
“That was kind of the death blow for downtown Omaha,” Thomsen said. “Especially from a retailing standpoint.”
After a land acquisition — half of the block, including the old City Hall and adjacent Insurance Building — and signing a major tenant, Omaha National Bank (now a branch of U.S. Bank), Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Co. and Peter Kiewit Sons’ Inc. broke ground on May 23, 1966.
The building was to be 20 to 22 stories, cost about $20 million, grab the title of Omaha’s tallest building and be the “most magnificent building between Chicago and Denver,” according to A.V. Sorensen, who served as Omaha’s mayor from 1965 to 1969.
As the building was topped out in November 1967, Sorensen declared, “If ever there was a symbol of faith in Omaha’s future, this is it,” according to a World-Herald article. Sorensen and spectators gathered on the courthouse’s sidewalk and steps for the occasion.
“The building reflects the economic strength of this great area,” Sorensen said. “It is a dream come true.”
After three years of construction, 16,000 cubic yards of concrete and 8,000 tons of steel, the Woodmen Tower opened on April 4, 1969.
A color rendering of the building in a Sunday newspaper, along with building progress reports, helped garner the needed tenants to occupy the building, Thomsen said. About 1,500 employees worked in the building during the several years the building maintained nearly 100 percent occupancy, he said.
The tower height grew from 22 stories to 28 and then 30 throughout construction, Thomsen said. A water issue forced crews to scrap two levels of the underground parking garage. The 29th floor, which was designated for storage, maintenance and elevator control operations, was split into two floors, bumping the count to 30.
A “Top of the World” restaurant on the 28th floor became a tradition for prom and anniversary dinners. Eventually, the restaurant was no longer economically feasible, Thomsen said. Once people left downtown from their offices, they often didn’t come back for dinner, he said.
In its early years, the Woodmen Tower brought several jobs to a struggling downtown, said Max Sparber, the research specialist at the Douglas County Historical Society, but it would take the latter half of the 20th century to fully revitalize the area.
Renovations to the Orpheum Theater and the growing popularity of the Old Market were examples of other developments that aided downtown’s rejuvenation, Sparber said.
But as soon as Omaha National Bank signed a lease to move across the street to the tallest building in the city, it prompted other banks to draw up plans for new buildings, Thomsen said.
“The Woodmen really set off a chain reaction in downtown Omaha,” Thomsen said. “It just doesn’t happen overnight. If the Woodmen had not committed and proceeded to build the Woodmen Tower, I doubt that the other things that happened afterwards would have happened.”
Since its dedication, the Woodmen Tower has been home to 70 peregrine falcon chicks with help from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and Fontenelle Forest’s Raptor Recovery, and it has hosted “Over the Edge” rappelling events to raise money for the Boy Scouts of America.
The building has undergone several changes, including a floor-by-floor renovation, new sprinkler system, floodlights to illuminate the building at night, additional parking structures and a carwash in its lower level.
Scenes from the 2002 film “About Schmidt,” starring Jack Nicholson and directed by Omaha native Alexander Payne, were filmed at the Woodmen Tower.
That same year, the tower lost its place as tallest building in Omaha to the 634-foot First National Tower.
Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Society occupies a majority of the 533,281 square feet of the building, which is 94 percent full. Other tenants occupy about 28 percent of the space; they include two law firms, U.S. Bank and a federal credit union, and the offices of a locomotive manufacturer, a capital group and a nonprofit.
The Woodmen Tower was valued at $40 million this year, according to the Douglas County assessor’s website, though there is an ongoing dispute about how much of the building should be subject to property taxes.
At the tower’s dedication on June 6, 1969, and the Woodmen of the World’s 100th anniversary in 1990, time capsules were lowered below the lobby floor. They will be opened in 2040.
The cost- and energy-efficient LED lighting recently installed on the tower will be featured in a display starting at 10 p.m. today. The lighting is easily changed and can illuminate the building for different events and observations, Woodmen of the World says.
Thomsen said: “I don’t know what type of downtown we’d have if it weren’t for the Woodmen Tower.”