Lavish book catalogs The Pfister's hallowed history
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"This is a place," says Peter Mortensen of The Pfister, the AAA Four Diamond Award hotel where he has served as concierge for more than two decades.
"We live increasingly in a world that doesn't have places. There are many locations but very few places."
Short of visiting the landmark hotel itself, nothing conveys The Pfister's unique sense of place like "The History, Art & Imagery of The Pfister Hotel," a lavish hardcover volume illustrated with photographs by Jay Filter and written by local author and ad man Thomas Jordan.
One of my favorite photographs in the book is an historical one, sepia toned, that looks south on Jefferson Street. On the left is the Milwaukee Club alongside a disappeared home and storefront. On the right are The Pfister and the demolished TA Chapman's department store. The photographs reminds us that the hotel has been woven into the fabric of the city for well over a century.
But also, it illustrates how, as the fabric has changed, The Pfister has not only endured, but has grown in stature, both locally and abroad.
"Our premise," says Jordan, that The Pfister is, "every inch a treasure. Every moment a memory, is true. The artwork, the furniture, the staircases, the stained glass, the elevator doors, the ballroom – all of it provides the backdrop for unique stories and experiences. The most unbelievable thing, each year, it gets better. Because each year it's that much more historic, that much more special."
Opened in 1893, The Pfister – which was designed by architect Henry C. Koch, who also designed Milwaukee's iconic City Hall – was a long-standing dream of local tannery magnate Guido Pfister, who envisioned a grand new Downtown hotel ever since the Newhall House was destroyed by fire in 1883.
Pfister, who died before the hotel was complete, famously vowed that no expense would be spared in the construction and furnishing of the hotel that would ultimately bear his family name and would be run by his son, Charles.
In addition to the glamorous decor and Koch's gorgeous Richardsonian Romanesque building, The Pfister included extremely up-to-date features like electricity. In an era still ruled by gas light – though electricity was making inroads – The Pfister opened fully wired.
And, equally impressively for its time, every guest room in The Pfister boasted its own temperature controls.
Over time, The Pfister acquired an impressive, unmatched art collection – which Mortensen knows intimately – and its reputation grew as quickly and impressively. Anyone who is anyone has stayed at The Pfister over the past 120 years.
"What make The Pfister special are the people that work there," says Jordan. "They each truly feel that they are preserving a treasure. There is a 'family' attitude that is unique."
The hotel was purchased by Ben Marcus and has been owned by the Marcus Corporation ever since. A 23-story circular tower was added soon after.
"(The Pfister) has maintained its (prominent) place because the Marcus family has done everything in their power to maintain and protect the mystique and magic of The Pfister," says Jordan.
Jordan, who spent many years at the Hoffman York advertising agency is also the author of "Re-Render the Gender" and co-author of "PurseStrings," says he and Filter were tapped by the Marcus Corporation to create the book.
"It took about seven months to write," he recalls. "I interviewed nearly everyone that would give me the time of day: front desk, head chefs, concierge, retired employees, the artist in residence, (pianist) Dr. (Jeffery) Hollander, spa staff ... you name it."
"I would hang out at the hotel nearly every day. Jay spent night after night there photographing every room and artifact."
After all that time spent in one of the most alluring and lively environments in the city, where does Jordan feel most drawn when he arrives in that stunning lobby?
"My favorite spot? The piano bench in the lobby," he says. "I sat there interviewing Dr. Jeffrey Hollander. He didn't stop playing the piano while he answered every question. It was as if I was having my own personal performance."
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