CRE v Wisconsin

First Hospitality Group's successful niche: Turning historic buildings into modern, yet charming, hotels

Rosemont, Ill.-based First Hospitality Group is doing its part to rejuvenate the downtowns of cities across the Midwest, redeveloping historic buildings into busy hotels. It’s a niche business that has paid off for both the company and the cities in which it works.

[caption id="attachment_21567" align="alignleft" width="336" caption="The Federal Building in Omaha will soon open as a modern hotel."] Rosemont, Ill.-based First Hospitality Group is doing its part to rejuvenate the downtowns of cities across the Midwest, redeveloping historic buildings into busy hotels. It’s a niche business that has paid off for both the company and the cities in which it works.

First Hospitality Group is currently transforming Omaha’s historic Federal Building into a Residence Inn by Marriott. This project, scheduled to open this summer, will bring a 152-room hotel to downtown Omaha.

The challenge, of course, is maintaining the original character of the Federal Building — including its art-deco style — while offering the modern amenities that today’s travelers expect.

“This is the best of both worlds for me,” said Robert Habeeb, president and chief operating officer of First Hospitality Group. “I love old buildings. I love the architecture and ornamental details. It’s hard not to think about how much labor went into building a building in 1920. When we come in, we preserve that. But we also create guest rooms that are spacious, that have high-speed Internet access and are as modern as today’s travelers expect.”

Habeeb calls the buildings that his companies transform works of art. “Like the Mona Lisa,” he said.

“From the guests’ perspective, they see a beautiful core and shell,” Habeeb said. “They see the beautiful transitional area with the original marble and architecture. They then transition to a guest room that is state-of-the-art and technologically driven.”

First Hospitality’s work at the Federal Building is far from the first time the company has transformed an historic building into a hotel. The company already performed the same feat in Omaha, completing the historic redevelopment of the Fairfield Inn and Suites in that city.

First Hospitality also converted the historic Loyalty Building in Milwaukee to a 127-room Hilton Garden Inn. This hotel opened in November of 2012. The company converted the historic Liberty Building in downtown Des Moines into a Hyatt Place hotel.

The $23 million renovation of the Omaha Federal Building began in April of 2012 and is scheduled to wrap up in the summer of this year. In addition to its 152 rooms, the renovated building will feature a 1,000-square-foot penthouse on the 12th floor and nearly 2,000 square feet of meeting space.

Workers will preserve and use the building’s original marble, terazzo tile, wooden railings and brass fixtures. An original 1934 FBI Most-Wanted list poster that was found at the building will also be preserved and displayed at the new hotel.

Workers began building the original Omaha Federal Building in 1932 as part of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Thomas Rogers Kimball designed the project.

Habeeb said that these projects make financial sense. For one, they are often located in great locations in the very center of downtowns. Secondly, these properties can be purchased for lower costs. And cities are often glad to offer financial incentives to encourage companies to redevelop them into modern useful sites that retain their charm.

“The locations of these buildings are incredible,” Habeeb said. “With every one of these that we’ve done, we’ve opened the doors to a hugely positive response. People are glad to see these wonderful buildings put back to use.”