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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."
"With the grandeur of the ‘20s," says Ruck. "No expense was spared when it was built. It was built at a cost of $7 million, in late ‘20s (dollars)."
We peek in to see Walter Schroeder’s office, with its wood paneling and gilt ceiling. It now serves as a small meeting room.
Ruck takes me on a pretty intensive tour. We see kitchens and even go out on the roof to stand at the base of the broadcast tower (there is no ladder on the tower, which makes me wonder how anyone gets up to the top when that’s required), see the view of Downtown (which is pretty awesome) and peer into the top-floor water tanks, now disused, that once guaranteed water pressure to all floors.
Just below is the 25th floor, which housed an old radio studio, the remnants of which were converted last year into offices and a meeting room. Twenty-five is now home to Hilton University, where new staffers are trained.
He shows me some rooms and explains how the hotel used to have many more guest rooms – about 850 total – than it does today. That’s because the rooms were built quite small and were later enlarged to meet modern tastes and standards.
"When you get up to the top of the hotel, there’s just one hallway of rooms, and that goes from the 20th through the 24th floor," says Ruck. "When it was the Marc Plaza, it operated as a hotel within a hotel, you know, the Marc Plaza Towers – the largest rooms, best views. (Floors) 20 through 24 are all king sized beds, no doubles or queens, and they all have the best views of the city."
From the 19th floor down, the hotel floors are H-shaped and there is a wider variety of rooms available.
One room that is anything but small is the Presidential Suite, right where you’d expect it to be, up at the top and with views to the east, north and west. The multi-room – and multi-bath – suite, with attached kitchen, was built as Schroeder’s personal apartment and later hosted President John F. Kennedy, among other noted guests.
"The largest suite in the city and the largest suite in the state," Ruck says. "The flat rate is $1,500 for an evening. This is the dining room, complete with a fireplace. The fireplace is non-functioning, though, now.
"When we have conventions in town, most of the time the head of the convention will stay in the presidential suite, and use this as a prep area. But when Walter Schroeder designed it, it was the kitchen for his apartment. And he had a view; he had the best view of Downtown in the city."
We find a couple wooden panels that open up to reveal "secret" bookcases that had been forgotten about until Secret Service found them.
"I believe the story goes that when presidents stay here, Secret Service is here checking for bugs and things like that and they found hollow spaces. These were discovered through a sweep before a presidential visit."
A former walk-in safe is now a bedroom closet. An old telephone room – with acoustic tiles – survives, too.
There are three other specialty suites in the hotel: The Governor’s Suite, The Plaza Suite and the Royal Suite. The latter is suited to honeymoons, with its hot tub, the Plaza is aimed at business travelers and has a room with a small conference table.
The Governor’s Suite is sort of a mini version of the Presidential Suite. The same attention to classic luxury detail, but on a smaller scale and a lower floor.
In the basement, we see where Ruck trains his housekeeping staff and we get to see housekeeping storage, too. Down here there are also three staircases that now go nowhere. They’re all boarded up at the top, but open at the bottom, which has an eerie feel.
One of them leads straight up to the corner of 5th and Wisconsin, to the main street entrance to the Miller Time Pub.
Finally, we head to the sub-basement. Ruck has read my spelunkings before so he knows I want to check it out. We can see the old coal storage bunkers and the remnants of the brick and iron trash incinerators and other infrastructure.
Here we’re two stories beneath Wisconsin Avenue and still, no hint of Schroeder’s ghost. But having just seen much of the two dozen and more stories above our heads, it’s clear that Schroeder has left a tangible legacy in Milwaukee.
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 an episode of TV's "Party of Five," 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.