Iron Horse rides the line between bike culture and boutique hotels
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Perhaps the most prominent and memorable aspect of the Iron Horse Hotel, 500 W. Florida St., is the massive, artistic take on the American flag that hangs in the lobby.
The eye-catching piece, created by local artist Charles Dwyer, was hand sewn from American-made jeans. According to General Manager Michael Falkenstein, the flag represents what the hotel stands for in general.
"We strive to keep it real, keep it American and keep it Milwaukee," says Falkenstein, who has served as the manager for 14 months.
The Iron Horse turned five this year and it's the first hotel in the industry geared toward motorcycle enthusiasts, business travelers, wedding parties and vacationers.
"We have a unique niche," says Falkenstein.
Although the hotel wholeheartedly celebrates Harley culture, according to Falkenstein, most of the guests at the Iron Horse are not bikers.
However, those who do ride in on two wheels appreciate the hotel's year-round bike-washing station, free motorcycle parking and the iron hooks throughout the hotel that hold up to 80 pounds – enough to support leathers, bags and helmets.
Motorcycle shipping and receiving is also available through the hotel as is motorcycle rental. (The Iron Horse does not actually rent bikes, but they can arrange rentals with local dealers.)
The Iron Horse is also incredibly dog friendly. There are large stainless steel bowls of water and treats as well as a chalkboard near the front desk with the names of the dogs who checked in. During our visit, we saw both the largest and one of the smallest dogs we've ever seen.
"We love them all and we treat them like any other guest," says Falkenstein.
Recently, we had the opportunity to stay at the Iron Horse. It was a rare experience from the very beginning. Because the hotel is only a few blocks from our Walker's Point home, we found ourselves walking to an overnight at a hotel – quite possibly the epitome of a staycation.
By the time we arrived it was mid-afternoon, but already the weekend buzz was in full effect. Groups of guests were chatting in the lobby, savory dinner scents infused the air and the woman behind the desk handed us an on-the-house hurricane with our room key.
The Iron Horse is located inside a 1907 building – originally home to the Berger Bedding Co. – constructed with thick 300-year-old timbers reaching from the ground to the roof. The building was divided into two parts: the factory – which today is the hotel – and the warehouse, which now serves as Smyth restaurant.
The two spaces were partitioned by a brick firewall, which still exists. Because fire extinguishing was more of a challenge 100 years ago, the wall was constructed to contain a fire and prevent it from destroying both sides of the building.
The Iron Horse has six floors and exactly 100 rooms. Our room was a corner room, with fascinating views of the 6th Street Viaduct (and beyond) as well as the Menomonee Valley and Downtown skyline.
All of the rooms include a mix of modern and original architecture, king-sized pillow-top beds, fully stocked "mini" bars with many local products and a huge bathroom featuring a sexy walk-in shower complete with a frosted glass wall facing the bedroom.
Like the rest of the hotel, each room has bursts of local culture, including large murals of Wisconsin women by Dwyer. Dwyer's intention was to present non-stereotypical images of local ladies that reveal their sometimes overlooked beauty and elegance.
Room prices range depending on the style of room and night of stay. To get an idea, our room – called a corner alcove – was $179 for a Friday night. There are also custom deluxe rooms, premium lofts and cream city studios.
The Iron Horse's name is steeped in history and has multiple meanings. In part, it references motorcycles, which are sometimes called "iron horses" but also, Native Americans once used that term for trains.
Trains are as much a part of the Iron Horse experience as the complimentary green apples in the lobby or the prominence of black leather.
In fact, there was a track directly below our window and a train chugged by five or six times during our overnight. The Iron Horse provides complimentary ear plugs – several unopened packages were on the night stand – for those who might want to mute the train sounds. It's a nice touch, but we found the low whistles and rumbles very comforting.
The location is another unique aspect of the hotel. It's not located in a hotel district, however, it's in close proximity to many theaters, bars, restaurants and the Harley-Davidson Museum.
But even though there was so much to do and see just beyond the hotel, we were perfectly satisfied to spend the entire evening, and part of the next day, inside the Iron Horse.
We lounged on the soft, vintage-looking couches in our room and ate and drank in the on-site restaurant and bar. There's also a spa and a work-out facility for those with more health-driven motivation than we had.
For food and drink, the hotel offers Smyth, an upscale restaurant that serves lunch and dinner, and Branded, a full bar with lighter fare available. During the warmer months, The Yard, an outdoor patio located alongside the Sixth Street Viaduct, has food and drink as well.
Milwaukee products are peppered throughout the menus, including deep fried cheese curds made with cheese from the neighborhood's Clock Shadow Creamery and the house whiskey, called 1907, that's bottled by Great Lakes Distillery, located across the roundabout.
Recently, Suzy Crofton took over the Iron Horse's food and beverage offerings. Crofton owned a Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago called Crofton on Wells, but closed the restaurant in 2012 when she became the culinary director for Aparium Hotel Group.
Aparium is a Chicago-based hotel development and management company that manages the Iron Horse. The hotel is owned by Milwaukee's Tim Dixon.
We decided to splurge on our dinner at Smyth and had absolutely no complaints. The environment is cozy and elegant, featuring hundreds of illuminated Mason jars and photographs of a real blacksmith at work in Cedarburg. (The name "Smyth" comes from the antiquated spelling of "blacksmith" which was "blacksmyth.")
We started our meal with calamari, which was perfectly seasoned and not too rubbery. We moved on to a black kale salad and a pleasingly non-cream-based clam chowder.
Our entrees were scallops and Wisconsin rainbow trout – both of which came in an attractive row of three food mounds connected by greens and drizzles on white rectangular plates. We also got a side of Brussels sprouts with bacon and forced ourselves to indulge in a scrumptious square of carrot cake for dessert.
After our meal, we were so sated we had to stop off on a leather couch in the lobby on our way to the bar.
The amount of thought that went into the hotel is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the building. It has an extremely laid back feel to it and yet, it's apparent that nothing happened by accident and the details are the keys to the hotel's success.
The pool table, Falkenstein tells us, is strategically placed in the center of the ground floor activity to promote interaction between guests. The massive chandeliers, if you look closely, are made, in part, of motorcycle gears. And even the doorknob hanger tabs have personality with the words "horsing around…do not disturb."
No doubt about it, the Iron Horse Hotel is a well-crafted machine. A well-crafted machine that was made in Milwaukee.
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