By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Dec 05, 2019 at 10:59 AM

American Family Insurance has announced that it, in a joint venture with MB Acquisition LLC, will renovate and add to the 110-year-old, Henry Messmer-designed building at 1311 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Dr. to provide office space in Downtown Milwaukee for 400 employees.

The site is on the edge of the simmering Haymarket district, and a block from the Deer District.

"We’re excited about Milwaukee’s revitalization and want to be part of it," said Jack Salzwedel, American Family Insurance chair and CEO in a statement released Thursday. "With our new Downtown location and increased involvement in the community, we plan to join others in the economic rebirth of Milwaukee and help the city become more equitable, healthy and sustainable.

"Milwaukee is home to diverse groups, large business networks and great universities and community organizations," he added. "We believe the city will be a future technology hub where American Family can help build and draw from a pipeline of potential employees."

Known as the Mandel building thanks to the giant sign painted on the sign advertising a former print shop that occupied the site, the five-story building was erected in 1909 and was occupied by the Abresch-Cramer Auto Truck Company, which had a large complex in the area. That complex also included the former National Ace Hardware building a block to the west, which is being redeveloped into a Harley-Davidson dealership.

The Wisconsin Historical Society suggests that the building may have been put up by the Wisconsin Lakes Ice & Cartage Company as an investment property.

American Family notes that the structure also housed Phoenix Hosiery for a time.

According to today's statement, American Family will fund the building's renovation and vertical expansion and will lease the building, with an option to purchase it or extend the lease after 10 years.

The addition of floors will mark the second occasion this has occurred. According to WHS, the building was initially planned to have four floors but during construction a permit was pulled to add a fifth.

"After completing an extensive search of possible sites in Downtown Milwaukee, the Mandel location rose to the top as the best location to attract talent and collaborate with the community," said Kari Grasee, American Family vice president of business and workplace services, which oversees company facilities."

The company is currently working to select an architectural firm for the project, according to spokesperson Janet Masters. Construction is expected to begin in the next 6-12 months and the renovations are expected to take 2-3 years.

Upon completion, about 200-250 claims department employees who currently work in Pewaukee will move in, as will about 150 employees working in other departments, including technology and data science, community investments and partnerships, and an American Family sales and agent recruitment center.

The building will also house a community events and resources space called DreamBank, which aims "to help people pursue their personal aspirations."

"Our goal is to have the work and activities in the building be as innovative and inspirational as the building itself," said Justin Cruz, American Family vice president of inclusive excellence.

The statement added that American Family is, "committed to new and creative ways to attract and retain diverse and tech-savvy talent, including millennials who want to live in an urban area."

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.