Urban spelunking: The Milwaukee Club
The secret's been out a long time, so I don't make any claims to it, of course, but you'd be forgiven for believing that the 1883 home of the Milwaukee Club, 706 N. Jefferson St., on the northeast corner of Jefferson and Wisconsin was the work of Milwaukee architect Edward Townsend Mix.
The three-story clubhouse, erected with three red materials – red sandstone, red brick and red terra cotta – has the Queen Anne charm of Mix's State Normal School and the crimson aspect of his St. Paul's Episcopal Church.
Anyway, dig around online about the place and most references turn up claims that the building belongs to Mix.
Not so, found historian Russell Zimmermann – whose own "Heritage Guidebook" names Mix – who discovered, when writing a centennial history for the club in 1982, that the stunning clubhouse was, in fact, drawn by Chicago's Daniel Burnham.
The club was formed in 1882 at the Newhall House Hotel and its first president was Alexander Mitchell, whose wife had started the Women's Club of Wisconsin. Renting the old Miner House, where The Pfister now stands, the club members set about discussing a more permanent home.
Club member Daniel Wells offered to sell the club a lot he owned across the street and the deal was done for $16,000. Although some members were apparently wary of building an expensive, permanent club house so soon after the formation of the group, the Milwaukee Club. At more than 132, the Milwaukee Club is the oldest continuously active club west of the Allegheny Mountains, says General Manager Richard Roehrborn.
The search for an architect began.
"Their first, and most obvious, move was to ask their famous architect-member, Edward Townsend Mix, to draw up a proposal," writes Zimmerman in the centennial book. But club decided to invite other respected architects to submit proposals, too, including Henry C. Koch, Burnham and Root and Howland Russell, and later, Silsbee & Kent and Cobb & Frost.
In April 1883, only the proposals from Mix and Burnham & Root were still being discussed and it is at this point that the confusion began, writes Zimmermann.
"At that special meeting of the board of directors, an historic decision was made, which has long been forgotten and which was, upon many occasions, erroneously reported in the local press," Zimmerman writes. "More than once the newspapers claimed that Mix was the architect, but it was Burnham who actually made the drawings for this building. Mix was hired to be the local supervisor of construction."
It was Burnham, then, who laced the scarlet club house with terra cotta ornament. It was Burnham, then, who dolled it up with wrought iron and topped its tower with that six-sided cap.
But the building, as it stands now, is larger. In 1893, the club hired former Mix partner Walter Holbrook to extend it 18 feet to the north. For this, he demolished the north wall and reconfigured the roof line and facade. Inside the building, the former exterior wall is marked, upstairs, by an interior wall, and on the first floor by a pair of iron columns supporting a structural cross beam.
Up the main entry staircase, below a dormer with a scalloped bottom, I'm in the tiled lobby, where Roehrborn meets me and we begin a tour in the library, which looks out on to Wisconsin Avenue and has an imposing portrait of Mitchell perched above the fireplace.
Light floods into the windows and some of the walls are lined with mahogany bookcases with glass doors.
"The library was donated to us by Mrs. Payne. Henry Payne, who was postmaster general for Teddy Roosevelt, after he passed," says Roehrborn. "The Federal Building (across the street) was originally the Post Office. Teddy spent a lot of time here; actually, there are some interesting volumes here."
Roehrborn, who is warm and welcoming, pulls a volume off the shelf and shows me an inscription to Payne from Roosevelt: "To that staunch and loyal friend, and able and upright public servant Henry C. Payne with the affectionate regard of Theodore Roosevelt Jan 1st, 1903."
The room serves as a reception area and is outfitted with chairs and couches. Just outside the room, is a smaller room that was formerly an entrance for the guests of members.
I'm struck by the beautiful floor that makes use of a variety of woods to create a striped pattern.
"We did a remodel and when we did this, we had wall-to-wall carpeting here before," says Roehborn.
He walks me over to a dining room to the north of the lobby to show me where the club replicated that flooring while restoring that space about a decade ago.
The other first-floor room, the tavern, is one of the most unaltered rooms in the building, says Roehrborn as we enter the intimate space with a bar on the far end and a giant fireplace with elaborate plasterwork above it, leaded glass windows and a stunning ceiling with plaster tracery designs.
"They actually had a dropped ceiling in here when I got here and we have a bar upstairs, so it leaked. It soiled the little panel, and I had my guy bring a ladder," recalls Roehnrborn. "I said, 'Let's see where that leak is coming from!' and he said opened it up and said, 'The Sistine Chapel!'"
The fireplace is one of many in the building and unlike a lot of fireplaces I see in historic structures in Milwaukee, most – though not all – of these get use. A fire is flickering in the tavern while we talk.
"We use them a lot," says Roehrborn. "The problem is that you have to maintain them. We put some stainless steel flue liners in there. You do maintenance on them every year, clean them on a regular basis. It is a liability sometimes. Outside, the tuck-pointing has to be kept up with, otherwise you have issues."
Upstairs are dining and meeting rooms of all shapes and sizes. On the second floor, there's a room that's been re-kitted in Georgian style but with Jacobean-style furniture. In another room, a portrait of an archbishop stares down at the meeting table.
"We used to have our board meetings in this room," says Roehrborn. "What I like about the painting is that, no matter where you're standing in the room, he's looking at you. If you come all the way to the corner here, his eyes and head almost seems to turn."
The third floor almost resembles a hotel, with lots of doors. Behind them are rooms that are now rented as offices or meeting rooms for members.
"Actually, some members lived here. They were able to lease the rooms, as long as they were a member in good standing and paid their rent," says Roehrborn.
"They were small, European-style with shared bathrooms. They kind of went out of vogue in the '40s."
The club currently has fewer than 300 members, but Roehrborn says that's just fine.
"We're fortunate in that because of our size, we don't have to have a thousand members to be viable," Roehrborn says. "We're in a really good position with that, and there's great diversity among our membership that we are proud of. Naturally occurring, too. We're the smallest club in the city, membership-wise, and the smallest building."
"It's a social club, primarily, used a lot for business. There are private dining areas, so that things can be discussed in private. But, it's primarily a social club. We've got a lot of different opportunities and venues for dining."
An eclectic collection of artwork, mostly donated or bequeathed by members adorn the walls of the rooms and corridors. Roehrborn said the attic has turned up numerous treasures, including some of the artwork and some original materials that have come in handy over the years as things have fallen victim to wear and tear.
In the English basement, there is a more casual dining area that like the library just above it it flooded with light, making it feel like anything but a basement.
The building is heated by the city steam system and also uses the steam to heat its water on an on-demand basis, making it very efficient.
"It saves us a lot of money," says Roehrborn. "It probably costs as much as natural gas would cost, but you save because you don't have the boiler expense, the repair, the upkeep and everything else."
Roehrborn is soft-spoken but his passion for the building is palpable.
"Well, it is pretty exciting to have a Burnham building," he says.
As I sit here in my office, in another of the very few Burnham buildings in the city, I think, "it sure is."
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