Formerly known as the Blackstone Hotel, the iconic century-old classic building rests in the heart of Omaha’s Blackstone District, at 36th and Farnam streets.
After an extensive renovation and expansion with a modern twist on the classic design, this building emerged as the Kimpton Cottonwood Hotel.
“This is the only historic Omaha hotel returned to its original grandeur as a symbol of elegance and hub for the community,” says James Schelnick, Cottonwood’s director of sales and marketing.
The Blackstone earned an Omaha Landmark designation in 1983, and two years later, landed on the National Register of Historic Places. The beautiful Second Renaissance Revival architecture represents the age of the hotel and the history behind it. Omaha’s central location between San Francisco and Chicago, made the Blackstone Hotel the premier stop-off during the Roaring 20s. Fifty years later, the Blackstone remained one of the country’s most successful boutique hotels.
The Blackstone holds an interesting place in history. For example, President John F. Kennedy, a U.S. senator at the time, and his wife Jacqueline Kennedy spent their fifth wedding anniversary at the Blackstone. In addition, President Richard Nixon announced his presidential candidacy in 1967 from the rooftop ballroom.
“People sometimes forget what a significant role Omaha has historically played in the scope of business and politics in the United States, and still does,” Schelnick says. “So, it’s wonderful to remind people the hotel, which also played such an important part of national history, has returned in a vibrant, active, and engaging neighborhood. But history tells us that this place has always played an important role, not just locally but nationally.”
The Blackstone can also claim it served the first Reuben sandwich.
The story goes that Reuben Kulakofsky, a local grocer, came to the hotel to feed a group of late-night poker players. He created the sandwich with corned beef, sauerkraut on rye bread and served it to the poker players, known as the “Committee.” The poker games, organized by hotel owner Charles Schimmel, began in 1920 and continued through 1935. Today, you’ll find Reuben sandwiches not only all over Omaha but throughout the U.S.
Legend has it that butter brickle ice cream was also invented at the Blackstone Hotel. Guests can walk just a few blocks away from the hotel to enjoy the ice cream at a local “farm to cone” parlor, Coneflower Creamery.
Cottonwood Hotel guests can savor fine dining from The Committee Chophouse, a modern steakhouse whose name comes from the Blackstone’s poker parlor days that began a century ago. Guests who crave a drink can grab a seat in “The Cottonwood Room” at the circular bar with a faux golden-lit cottonwood tree sprouting in the center.
“There’s no other hotel or private club that offers the quality and style of food and beverage service that we do,” Schelnick says. “Everything from a flawless espresso with coffee from our partners at Rally Coffee to a Tomahawk steak for two at our fine dining Committee Chophouse and everything in between. The hotel has a strong food beverage tradition that we take very seriously.”
The hotel’s $75 million restoration began more than four years ago. Renovations proved challenging after the COVID-19, outbreak but that didn’t discourage the staff, Schelnick says.
“You could feel the positive energy—the work reflected the expectations of our owners,” he says, “and that was to be respectful to the history of the building, and to create something that is unique and will form a legacy for this community.”
The hotel reopened in November of 2020 with 205 guestrooms and has played host to honeymoon stays, black-tie parties, late-night cocktails, wedding ceremonies and other special occasions.
Schelnick recalls opening day and says it remains his favorite day working at the hotel.
“As we were ramping up to open, the ability to see our team members come together and create this incredible space in such a challenging time was really kind of overwhelming,” Schelnick says. “I’ll always remember this being one of the highlights of my career.”
The goal of the restoration was to maintain as much of the original architecture as possible but add a modern touch to the design.
Schelnick says one of his favorite parts of the hotel is its lobby, which showcases the original tile floor from 1916 but then transforms to the new tile as part of the expansion.
“I love the dichotomy of it,” he says. “How it very carefully and strategically showcases the progression of time and effort from this beautifully renovated new building to this incredibly newly created expansion.”
When walking through the renovated space, guests familiar with the original Blackstone will notice many preserved designs from the hotel. The hotel features original mosaic tile alongside historically inspired pillars, dark wood ceiling beams and velvet-upholstered window benches in the Orleans Room, otherwise known as “Omaha’s most comfortable living room.”
For guests who only has 24 hours in the hotel, Schelnick recommends a list of activities to do during their stay.
“First, you have to stop by for the complimentary wine hour if you’re a guest. It’s a wonderful social opportunity and we do it every night from 5 to 6 p.m.,” Schelnick says.
The hotel is also pet friendly and doesn’t charge a deposit. Schelnick says. “We love our four-legged friends, so always bring your pet.”
He also raves about the food and artwork.
“You must try dinner in the Committee Chophouse; there’s simply nothing like it in the city,” Schelnick says. “Also, do the self-guided art tour of our public art collection, 70 pieces of locally curated and created art that is a special part of the hotel.”
Since its opening, the Cottonwood hotel has no plans to slow down. Schelnick says he looks forward to future projects and events as the travel and leisure business continues to grow. The hotel has launched a one-of-a-kind membership club.
“This gives an option for people who want a social club experience that maybe might not use all the services of a country club,” he says. “It provides an opportunity for them to have this space year-round to complement their lifestyle.”
The hotel provides multiple social experiences to attract the Omaha metro community, including a resort-style outdoor pool with a convenient bar to attract all ages.
“My job is to make sure this hotel stays busy,” Schelnick says. “We owe it not just to our owners; we owe it to our team members, guests and community. But it’s also our responsibility to be respectful of the history of the building, and to what our predecessors created and accomplished here. The spirit that they created; it still flows through the building.” ◆