The first thing I remember about it was the neon sign on the roof that spelled out "HOTEL FONTENELLE" in cheerful red letters. I was just learning how to read, and it was one of the first things I read out loud, which caused more than a little excitement in the family station wagon.
It was built in 1913 and designed by noted architect Thomas Rogers Kimball. It was named for Logan Fontenelle,a French-Indian who became a well-known Chief of the Omaha Tribe (All of that terra cotta molding around the top was supposed to resemble an Indian headdress) The "Frenchiness" of the name, along with the affectation of putting Hotel in the front rather than the back was appropriate for Omahaís swankiest hostel. (Some people will try to tell you that the Blackstone was the swankiness, but donít you believe them. They havenít been in town long enough to remember the Fontenelle. )
The hotel had several public floors:
The arcade level, with it's entrance from 18th Street,was the province of "the men", with a Billiards Room, Barber Shop, Grille Room and many other manly features. (even in the later years, when the Grille became the Bombay Bar, women weren't allowed in there until after 4pm)
The Lobby level had the main restaurant (Later known as The Black Mirror Room) and the Palm Room (later known as the Bombay Room, which was the bar before they moved the bar downstairs. There was also a ladies lounge, flower shop, and cigar stand. A formal promenade-style staircase between the arcade and lobby levels.
The Mezzanine Level looked down onto the lobby and had the main ballroom and three private dining rooms.
The top two floors - the ones tricked out in terra cotta - were given over to "Sample Rooms", which were rooms traveling salesmen could rent out to show off whatever it was they were selling.
There were also service areas in the basement and on the floors above all the terra cotta.
For many years The Fontenelle was the flagship of the somewhat legendary hotelier Gene Eppley, who ran several other hotels throughout the Midwest. As befitted his lot in life, He lived in a luxurious suite (517) that reportedly featured a bathroom with a floor-to-ceiling aquarium.
As you might expect, the Fontenelle played a major role in the social life of the city. The Bombay Room Restaurant and Black Mirror lounge (Later turned into a function room and renamed the Black Mirror Room) were quite innovative and popular nightspots. Harry Truman was a great friend of Gene Eppley's and made the Fontenelle his headquarters when campaigning in Nebraska (Eppley was a Democrat, so he must have been a good guy)
In 1954, Gene Eppley sold all of his hotels to Sheraton, and in 1956, he died in suite 517. The good news is that he endowed many charitable institutions, and they named the Omaha airport named after him. The bad news is that these same institutions haven't any information about Gene Eppley on their websites, That's ingrates for you. You think the least they could do would be to say somthing nice about him.
The Sheraton chain was built on the acquisition of many old independent luxury hotels, such as the Palace in San Francisco and the Cadillac in Detroit. It messed with a lot of these gracious old places - if you saw what they did to the lobby of the Cadillac youíd lose your lunch - but you really canít blame them. Everyone wanted everything modern.
As the Sheraton-Fontenelle, the hotel continued to see its share of celebrities and politicians through the years. In 1959, when presidential candidate Senator John Kennedy came through town, he set up shop at the Fontenelle. My dad, by this time a lawyer for Mutual of Omaha, came to see him on his lunch hour, and stayed a bit longer than anticipated. Running late, and unwilling to wait for the elevator, he was running down the back stairs and almost knocked over Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, who was staying at the hotel, but apparently obliged to use the back stairs (we are talking about Omaha in the 50's, after all) According to reports, the lady was not amused, and read him the riot act. I can't say I blame her.
I realize Iíve probably bored you with all these family stories and excessive reading so here are some pictures. There are not many pictures of the Fontenelle out there: For some reason, almost every single postcard on eBay is basically the same picture of the exterior, which for the record looked like this:
These other pictures come from a promotional brochure about the hotel that I happened to find. The quotes are the captions that went along with them.
"Exotic restaurant and cocktail lounge - and intimate atmosphere...quiet efficient unobtrusive service with an excellent bar"
"Cocktail lounge with luncheon service - favorite rendevous for people who like a convivial atmosphere"
For catered affairs, there were:
and, of course,
On a side note, having worked in the hotel business for several years, I have two observations:
1.) Thatís one huge honking ballroom for a hotel in a place like Omaha.
2.) Is it just me or did this hotel have rather phallic chandeliers?
Then there is this illustration (From that same Sheraton-Fontenelle Sales Brochure), which I just love:
They probably used it for every hotel in their system (standardized advertising and all that), but it makes Omaha look glamorous in a way that it probably never was and certainly isnít now. Nowadays their idea of class is a Marriott.
I wish I had some pictures of the guest rooms, but all I have is this one of what is obviously a suite. You really canít blame them - most hotel rooms in those days were about the size of a volkswagon.
I know what you're thinking: "Wow, what a nice hotel! When can I stay there?" Well, Times as we all know, have changed - especially in Omaha. Downtown Omaha became the victim of westward expansion and white flight. Everyone got scared of the black folks and decided to stick closer to the local mall, and the "City Fathers" responded in their typically inappropriate manner.
In what was basically an incredibly racist and stupid gesture, the city fathers tore down the cool old post office, who wasn't hurting anyone, and blocked off 16th street (The main retail drag and also the main thoroughfare into North -i.e. black- Omaha with an amazingly ugly new Hilton Hotel.
Here it is. I told you it was ugly. If you want to really be depressed, click on the picture to see what it replaced.
With this new atrocity in place (complete with revolving rooftop bar and swimming pool) the writing was on the wall. The Fontenelle lost all the convention business and airline contracts (stewardesses are always the first to latch onto a trend). It limped along for a little bit as an independent, and then they announced that Fontenelle would close. And it did.
It sat empty for a few years while they decided what to do with it, before finally liquidating the fixtures. My Mom and Sister and I went to the sale after I begged my Mom to take me (Thatís the kind of weird kid I was) My Mom was game for the adventure, but my sister stood outside and whined so we didnít get to stay very long.
The building had not been heated or cooled for several years, and it smelled weird. The horrible Victorian themed restaurant Sheraton put in after they closed the Bombay Room was full of TVís. The Black Mirror Room was full of furniture.
For almost twelve years, it sat empty and decaying. Plans for it would come and go, but no action. The fire department started to get antsy about vagrants setting it on fire. Itís big corner sign got loose in a windstorm and caused the closure of the streets around it for an entire afternoon, complete with live TV news coverage.
Sometime in the 80ís, after I had left for good, the end came. It was demolished, story-by-story and replaced with the epitome of progress, Omaha Style: A parking lot.
When Omaha lost the Fontenelle, it lost part of its history. Every real city has an old-line hotel that has been there for years. Itís the place where your parents had their first date, or your cousin had her wedding reception, or you went to your first prom. Itís the place where all the silver-plated charity functions happen, and the stars stay. The place where your company has its Christmas Party or your family always goes to for Easter Dinner.
Omaha had that, and lost it, and I think itís the worse for it. But what do I know?