Renowned Chicago architect Daniel Burnham didn't do much work in Milwaukee, but his company's First National Bank building, was an immediate sensation. On the day it opened in April 1914, 10,000 Milwaukeeans came inside to check it out.
Today, that building – home to OnMilwaukee.com's offices – at 735 N. Water St., is called City Center 735, and it again glistens like new. The 16-story tower was a skyscraper in its heyday, and an ornate one at that. There are cornices and spandrels, fluted pilasters, decorative moldings, stone urns and ribboned laurel and bay leaf wreaths adorning the facades facing Water and Mason Streets.
The cornerstone for the building was laid in 1912 and the steel structure – the largest in Milwaukee at the time – was erected on caissons on concrete shafts that reached 60 feet below the surface to rest on bedrock.
For decades, the building was one of Milwaukee's most respected addresses.
But, says, Sheldon Oppermann of Compass Properties, which owns the building, it wasn't always that way. By the end of the 20th century, 735 N. Water St. had grown tired. It was no longer among the tallest or glitziest addresses in Downtown.
In 1959, a seven-story annex was constructed to the south to house updated mechanicals that couldn't be retrofitted into the building. Around the same time, the two-story lobby lost its skylight when the building's second, third and fourth floors had their once-open-air centers filled in to create more interior space.
When Compass bought the building in 2002, the planters in the main lobby were full of real dirt, recalls Oppermann, but fake plants.
"(A guy) used to fry eggs up here in the lobby. He had a little stand and he served breakfast. (Former Mayor John O.) Norquist loved his egg sandwich and so everybody left him alone. Nobody ever asked him for his permit, never had anything. As a matter of fact he didn't even have plumbing," says Oppermann of those days.
"The curb appeal looked lousy," admits Oppermann, who says Compass started thinking early on about the principle of the stewardship of old buildings.
"I think it was unclear what to do," he says. "The idea is when you buy a building you think you've got a plan and if I'm correct, a few tenants moved out and I'm not entirely sure if we knew or anticipated that they were moving out. Then people go, 'well this is a beautiful building, (other tenants) will just move in.'"
That didn't quite happen. Compass thought about the idea of demolition by neglect. Let the building deteriorate until the city will let you tear it down and build a new one in its place. But with all the money it had sunk into the place already, that didn't seem like a feasible approach, and it wasn't their style.
Then, in 2004, The Private Bank signed on to lease a large chunk of the first floor. That led to renovations in advance of the bank's move-in the following year, and Compass returned to the idea of stewardship of a solid granite chunk of Milwaukee's Downtown history.
"We started a campaign called History in the Remaking and started to pick off other parts of the building; what would it make the most sense to do next. When the Private Bank came it was the first step."
The Private Bank project helped Compass realize that an old building didn't have to be tired. A beautiful Burnham design could reawaken and transform itself from a quaint remnant from the past to a thriving modern place in a gorgeous historic building.
"We set out to prove that you can not only be relevant as a 100-year-old office building, but you can also be the market leader," says Oppermann, whose building is both Energy Star rated and LEED certified.
"We've said, not only are we 100 years old, but we're also operating as best in class. We're saying to the community, 'no, don't tell me the reason you can't do it is because you have an old building. I'll show you that's not true.' You have to work really hard at it. You're going to have to really dig in but if you do that, it works."
What helped Compass itself come to this realization was an emergency – a deteriorating cornice that runs along the top of the building.
While working on a plan to turn the 1959 annex – which had been vacant for more than two decades – into condos and parking, a facade inspection noted the potential for disaster. The cornice was in danger of dropping to the sidewalk 16 stories below.
"The decision was made, if we're going to be a steward of an old building, we're going to have to save that. The question is, 'what if we don't?' If I replace it, everything at least stays the same. If I don't, for all I know, everybody goes, 'now why would I go there at all?' It changes status quo. I could say it's not going to affect us and I might be wrong. If I fix it, I can't be wrong."
All of a sudden, Compass faced an expensive test of its commitment to the stewardship idea. While some restoration work had already taken place as part of the bank renovation, that was an easy call.
"After all, who wouldn't want a new tenant," says Oppermann.
No, this time, it was a bona fide test. To fix the cornice cost $3 million. To pull it down and replace it with a cinder block wall would have cost less than $1 million. As Oppermann says, "spending $3 million on a cornice won't make anyone another nickel of revenue. So, it's lost money."
Or is it?
"As luck had it, we were able to get a lot of good press over the work, we were able to take a position of doing the right things and making the hard decisions," says Opperman, and in that one project, Compass' commitment was made clear.
Now, the annex has been turned into a valet parking service, a Tazino's restaurant overlooking the Riverwalk and a sprawling Gold's Gym with a pool. The top two floors remain vacant but are full of promise, with a fireplace, a spiral staircase connecting the two floors and a gorgeous patio overlooking the Milwaukee River.
"Everything in that building (the annex) makes this building more attractive," says Opperman, "which is really what you'd use an annex for."
A cafe was added to the lobby, there are conference rooms for tenant use on the mezzanine and a training room on the second floor. A concierge organizes events in the building and tenants can avail themselves of dry cleaning and car wash and oil change services, too.
Oppermann says these details are what helped rebuild City Center 735. Pointing to a monitor inside the main entrance that serves as a tenant directory, he says, "this used to be all those old directory strips, with a back light. Best money I ever spent, pulling this TV in here and changing the feeling of things. Huge, but not complicated, and proof that you don't have to let your building just rot. You just have to be thinking all the time."
A dose of confidence in your product clearly goes a long way, too.
"I believe that unless you've got to be on the 20th floor, I've got the best property in town," he says. "If you need to see the lake from every window, I can't help you. I have to be OK with that. If you have to have a big sea of parking, I can't help you with that.
"But if you want to be Downtown, this is where you want to be. Well, why? 'They're doing everything right, plus I know the people and they say good morning and ask me if I'm doing OK and if I need something they get it for me and they anticipate my need.'"
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 can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.