Urban spelunking: Northern Trust Building
You can tell when folks really love their home.
Northern Trust Second Vice President Office Administrator Gary Reimers doesn't live at the bank's Milwaukee home, 526 E. Wisconsin Ave., (HQ is in Chicago) but he spends a lot of time there and his enthusiasm for the building is palpable.
On a recent visit with Historic Milwaukee's Amy Grau, Reimers showed us around and pointed out each detail inside the solid, Bedford (Indiana) limestone building, which is no small task.
The building, erected between 1904 and 1906 on the corner of Jackson and Wisconsin, and designed by no less than George Bowman Ferry and Alfred C. Clas (Milwaukee Public Library's Central Library, Cudahy Tower, The Milwaukee Auditorium/Theatre, etc.), is richly ornamented, both inside and out.
Even the fluting in the columns boasts intricately carved motifs.
"This highly decorated building illustrates the Beaux Arts style (taught at the legendary École des Beaux-Arts in Paris), which flourished in the United States between 1885 and 1920. This style is a late form of Neoclassicism, but more eclectic, combining Greek and Roman models with Renaissance characteristics," wrote Bluffton University (Ohio) professor Mary Ann Sullivan on her architecture web site.
"Although this is a small building, it is highly ornamented with two-story fluted Ionic columns, decorated at the base, with carved stone grotesques, with curvilinear bronze grill work, with ornate trim around and between the windows, and with sculpted shields, garlands and other motifs."
In "The Heritage Guidebook," Russell Zimmermann noted that "the design refinements and detailing ... were executed in only the finest and most durable of materials."
It bears mentioning that the bronze grill work Sullivan references was created by Cyril Colnik.
Propped up by the soaring columns -- which themselves alternate with gorgeous windows, most of which still have their original tiny glass panes -- is a third floor tucked beneath a mansard roof encircled by a balustrade. One can walk out on the balustrade, but, alas, this one could not.
"These are all the original windows," says Reimers, when I mention the windows. "It gets very cold in here in the winter."
In the old president's office, he eagerly points out restored woodwork and the ornate plaster and wood ceiling. Grau shows us the tiny executive washroom, which she remembers from a visit years ago.
What's most notable about this building that has also been home to Northwestern National Insurance Company and the American National Bank is how well its been tended to. The clock just above the entrance to the bank itself, the leaded glass lunette above the president's office entrance, the polished smooth -- and extremely weighty and impressive -- marble throughout the soaring lobby, the dark woodwork ... it glistens as if brand new.
If the financial institutions that have inhabited the building were hoping to transmit a message of strength and security -- and surely they were -- they could have chosen no better home.
One of my favorite features is the carved marble portal in the lobby with roses and apples and, unusually, ears of corn ... shucked.
Down in the basement, Reimers shows us the exterior of a giant vault, which now houses safe deposit boxes. He tells us that Northern Trust, which has been in the building for a decade, isn't a typical consumer bank.
"We really don't get a lot of walk-ins," he says. "We don't really think that we're a bank per-se. We just had our designation changed to wholesale so we're a private bank. For high net worth individuals, families, etc. To open an account here, you have to have $25,000 to open an account and five million in investable assets.
"We're a trust company and we have our own investment team with us."
Northern Trust is about to celebrate its 125th anniversary and was long a family-run business.
Up in what looks from the outside like a tiny third floor there is a law firm -- Fitzgerald Law -- and its principal, once he hears we're there to look at the building itself, eagerly shows us around and points out historic photographs he's gotten from the Milwaukee County Historical Society, framed and hung on the office walls.
The interior space up here, though, was never really ornate -- having been an attic -- and was renovated into modern offices years ago. The ocular windows are its most compelling feature.
The Northern Trust Building is that kind of place. Its beauty is recognized and appreciated every day by the folks lucky enough to spend their time in a Milwaukee landmark.
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