Urban spelunking: Schroeder Hotel/Hilton City Center
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Milwaukee hotel magnate and philanthropist Walter Schroeder has left traces of himself across this city and the state.
His donations to places like Marquette University, Milwaukee School of Engineering and the YMCA have guaranteed his name lingers at those institutions.
He built seven hotels in Wisconsin and Minnesota – all of which still stand and some of which continue to operate as hotels today – and purchased two others (including one in Michigan).
In some places he's rumored to have left his spirit to roam, too. But that's not the case at the Milwaukee Hilton City Center, 509 W. Wisconsin Ave., the more than 25-story, 275-foot landmark – designed by Holabird and Roche – that still makes its case on the Downtown skyline, even if you ignore the soaring broadcast antenna that rises off its roof.
One source puts the antenna's height at more than 350 feet, making it – if that's true – considerably taller than the building itself.
"He built this one as his pride and joy," says the Hilton's Jacob Ruck, as we stand in the gorgeous, ornate upper lobby of the hotel built in 1927 as the Schroeder Hotel.
"It was THE grand hotel in town when it opened. He had other properties in Milwaukee. He had Hotel Wisconsin, which is now the condo buildings right there. He had the Astor Hotel. Those were his three properties here."
Since Schroeder, who died in 1967, sold the hotel in 1964, it has been a Sheraton, was briefly owned by Towne Realty and has been in the Marcus Hotels portfolio since the early '70s. It was initially called the Marc Plaza, but became a Hilton franchisee – still owned by Marcus – in 1995.
The 729-room hotel also includes a 12-story addition designed by Kahler-Slater and opened in 2000.
One of the features I love best about the Hilton is its two-story lobby. Guests can enter from Wisconsin Avenue or 5th Street into the lower lobby, which is home to the Milwaukee Chop House (older readers might remember it as The Patio), the Cafe, a barber shop/hair salon, a Starbucks and the Miller Time Pub.
Down here, be sure to note the shiny brass work that instantly marks the building as a Milwaukee art deco gem.
Head up the two flights of stairs that lead to opposite sides of the upper lobby and you encounter an explosion of jazz age decor. Schroeder spared little expense in creating his enduring masterpiece and, fortunately for us, much of it has survived and been cared for.
There are gargantuan pillars – marble at the bottom, gilt above – brass rails and grates galore, a range of elaborate chandeliers and moldings.
"People come in all the time and they compare us to The Palmer House (in Chicago's Loop) – same architects, same time frame, so it does have a lot of the same feel with the large grand lobby, and the elevated lobby, too," says Ruck.
"This is how the lobby looked and felt when the hotel opened, there's a little bit more plant life, some smaller chairs and everything is a little bit more opened up."
For years, the eastern part of the lobby was walled off to create a ballroom – its tall windows overlooking 5th Street boarded up – but that wall has come down and the space is now once again a lobby bar – now called The Monarch Lounge – restoring the lobby's open feel, though not its 80-plus-foot serpentine bar, which was the longest in Milwaukee in its day.
In fact, says Ruck, the lobby is more open now than it was in the past. In the beginning, the open staircase up from the lower lobby was covered. However, up a few steps to the north, there is a partition and doors that were not there in 1927.
"Up to the Empire Ballroom there, the partition with the glass and the curtains wasn't there," says Ruck. "It just opened up into what was the main dining room for the hotel, before the days of specialty restaurants."
We take a peek in the Empire Room, which is the site weddings and formal functions these days. The chandeliers are original, though some of the colors on the walls have changed.
Ruck – who is the hotel's housekeeping manager, but also its unofficial historian – knows more about the changes than many have known in the past, thanks in part to a meeting a couple years ago.
"Two summers ago, we met with Walter Schroeder's great-great niece, and she gave us a lot of artifacts from his life," he says. "She had kept a lot of things, and she has a lot of fond memories of this room."
"Her Uncle Walter would call and say, 'Hey we're going to watch the Circus Parade,' and they would set up and watch out of the windows (that look down onto Wisconsin Avenue). It's cool to hear stories like that."
Across the lobby from the Empire Room, just past the elevators, is the Hilton Lounge, which some older readers may remember as the Bombay Bicycle Club. Nowaways, it's a perks place for top-tier Hilton Honors members.
There's breakfast in the morning, cocktails in the evening and computers, TVs, magazines, newspapers and snacks mostly all the time. Occasionally, the room is rented for wedding receptions and other events.
"When the hotel opened, it was a private breakfast room," says Ruck, as we look at a multi-tiered glass case that houses some historical hotel memorabilia. "If you didn't want to have breakfast in the main dining room, you could rent out your own private dining room. It was actually called the Loraine Room after Walter Schroeder's niece ... he named his hotel in Madison after her, too.
"It's been a separate space since the hotel opened."
Upstairs is the Crystal Ballroom, the hotel's biggest rental space. When it opened, it was called the Silver Ballroom and you only need to see it to understand why. While everything below is polished brass, silver accents are everywhere in this sprawling space.
There are bird-themed panels, mirrors, fancy chandeliers, heavy drapery and ornate grills that open to reveal radiators.
"With a hotel of this age, most of our heating is done via radiators – a two-pipe system," says Ruck. "Parts of the hotel have modern, individual HVAC units, but for the most part we're on a two-pipe system. When it's warm out, we have the air conditioning on, and when it's cold out, we have the heat on."
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