By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jun 25, 2024 at 9:03 AM

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It’s often said that the greenest building is one that already exists. That is, the adaptive reuse of an existing structure is typically more eco-friendly than tearing it down and building anew.


While the sad news is that nothing of the original Zahn’s Department Store appears to survive inside the 1924-5 building on Racine’s charming Monument Square, the considerably better news is that not only does the structure itself survive, it is home to the beautiful green-focused Hotel Verdant, 500 Main St.

The 80-room property opened last August and it is unlike anything else in town.

In addition to 20 on-site geothermal wells that provide heat to the hotel’s lower level, lobby and rooftop, there are also wind turbines and a rooftop solar array to generate electricity. A living green roof not only serves as insulation, but also diminishes urban heat island effects and offers stormwater management.

In the rooms there are sustainable bath and bedding products, glassware instead of single-use cups, energy-efficient fixtures and temperature controls, and chemically neutral interior materials.

Zahn's, circa 1961.

There are electric vehicle chargers and loaner bikes, too.

All of this has earned the hotel a rare LEED Gold Certification. So rare, in fact, that the Hotel Verdant is only the second hotel in Wisconsin to earn it. (The first was Milwaukee’s Potawatomi Hotel & Casino.)

“It means so much to the Hotel Verdant team to be honored with this certification and to be furthering the advancement of green hospitality,” said hotel GM Travis Gitter.

“As we approach our one-year-anniversary in August, we look forward to identifying new ways to continue our sustainability efforts.”

One program that’s currently being explored is a composting program with Compost Crusader for the hotel, which has two ballrooms and two food and beverage operations, including the Italian-inspired Marguerite in the lobby and the Eave cocktail lounge on the rooftop, with views over the city and out toward Lake Michigan.

“Community is at the core of this hotel and ensuring that our environmental footprint is minimal is essential,” said Mike O’Connor, Chairman and Principal of Dominion Properties, which owns the hotel.

“From renewable energy use to eco-minded transportation and food and beverage operations, our operations and design embrace renewal and appreciation for Racine’s natural beauty.”

At a recent event at the hotel to highlight green initiatives in the city, Mayor Cory Mason said, “The city of Racine’s growth is improving both its economy and environment. The Hotel Verdant is a great example. It is creating jobs and bringing more visitors to the city, while attracting national recognition for its sustainable technology.”

lunch counter
The lunch counter at Zahn's.

While the interior has been completely renovated, the exterior of the Hotel Verdant building remains intact and it’s an understated, but beautiful one, located in the heart of a downtown that has no shortage of gorgeous architecture, including works by Frank Lloyd Wright and Chicago’s Holabird and Root.

“The building in the district which most clearly shows the influence of the Prairie School is Zahn's Department Store, designed in 1924 by Edmund B. Funston,” notes the nomination form for the Old Main Street Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.

“(Funston) was a Racine architect who had been trained at the University of Illinois and had worked in Chicago for a time before coming to Racine in 1903. He was in partnership with A. Arthur Guilbert between 1905 and 1915,when they split up and each architect opened an office of his own. In 1915 Funston had designed the Badger Building at 610 Main Street, which is clearly a building in the Prairie Style. The Zahn's Building displays the rectilinear mass, the prominent piers, and the geometric ornament which are indicative of the Prairie Style.

“Geometric designs in glazed terra cotta adorn the tops of the piers, decorate the parapet and are used as its coping on the Zahn's Building.”

The building also has the “Chicago-style” windows that became so characteristic of department stores in the early part of the 20th century.

It must have been a building that made the Zahns very proud.

Edward Zahn, was born in 1864 in Vienna, Wisconsin (now named Honey Lake, in Walworth County), the son of a German immigrant miller that arrived in Cincinnati in 1841 and in Racine three years later before moving to Vienna in 1845 to set up a flour mill.

When he was 15, Edward Zahn moved to Racine and began working as a clerk in Joseph Schroeder’s store. Over time, Zahn progressed up the ranks, working as a buyer and then ultimately running each of the store’s departments over the following years.

After marrying Hattie Easson, daughter of Racine pioneer, Capt. James Easson, in 1895 and having a son, Edward James, in 1896, Zahn set out on his own and opened the 1,600-square-foot Zahn’s Dry Goods Co. in 1898 at 428 Main St., with just $8,000 and a trio of clerks.

Soon after, the Zahns added another son – Russell, in 1901 – at home, and a second floor to the store.

The burgeoning business moved to a larger double building a few doors south at 436-38 Main St. in 1916, and expanded to include a second building in 1922.

Then Funston was tapped to design a modern new store, just across 5th Street, right on Monument Square, and on Oct. 6, 1925, Zahn’s moved into its new four-story home.

Interior 1925
The shop floor in 1925. (PHOTO: Pinterest)

"In its height it featured various departments with their own cashiers who could send money to a central location within the store via pneumatic tubes," recalled the Racine Heritage Museum in a social media post.

"There was an elevator with an operator who announced each floor; beauty parlor, millinery, furs, drapes, rugs, clothing and more. The ladies’ lounge had a maid service and a 'retiring room' adjacent where women could lie down if they became too tired from shopping. Those were the days you could truly shop ‘til you drop."

An undated exterior. (PHOTO: Racine Heritage Center Facebook)

Thanks to the UW Libraries in Madison, we have a pretty detailed history, from which much of this information is drawn.

“The store's proprietors took a sophisticated approach to marketing,” that history notes. “During the 1920s they published a monthly advertising brochure titled Zahnettes, and here they highlighted seasonal fashions, accessories, and other merchandise.  In the late 1920s and 1930s the store used scientific merchandising studies and market research combined with direct-mail promotions.

Shop floor
An undated view of the shop floor. (PHOTO: Racine Heritage Center Facebook)

“From 1929 through 1931 Zahn's contracted with the John Service, Inc. of New York. This marketing firm analyzed groups of the store's account customers and mailed to customers personalized letters. In the years 1934-36 Zahn's participated in retail marketing studies conducted by the University of Michigan's Bureau of Business Research. The Bureau had begun collecting data on department store merchandising in 1926.

“Researchers used these statistics to establish standards of departmental performance with respect to relative sales volume, mark-ups, and discounts. Zahn's, as one of a group of non-competing, independently owned stores, submitted to the Bureau monthly departmental statistics. In return the Bureau sent each participating store a monthly report of the group's merchandising figures. All of these sophisticated tactics helped to boost sales and to make Zahn's one of the leading merchandisers in Racine.”

shoe department
The Zahn's shoe department. (PHOTO: Racine Heritage Center Facebook)

By this time, Zahn was joined in the business by his sons, who continued to operate it after he died in 1930. Twenty years later, when it was said to be the largest retailer in the county with 160 employees, the store was sold.

But the retail landscape was changing and downtown department stores everywhere, Racine included, would begin to feel the pinch from suburban malls and big box stores.

That decline hit Zahn’s around 1960 and staffing began to ebb, with just 116 employees around that time. Zahn’s closed for good in 1982, perhaps not coincidentally, the year after Regency Mall opened.

The building then sat vacant for 38 years, despite a plan – which never came to fruition – to open the Imaginarium children's museum there.

Another plan that called for a coffee shop and makers' space also failed to materialize.

During the long, moribund era, the building was owned by Bank of Elmwood and later Tri-City National Bank, as well as Bachan Singh, owner of a number of gas stations.

In 2019, the plan for the hotel was announced.

The building before the addition. (PHOTO: WIsconsin Historical Society)

That year, Dominion bought the site, built a matching 26,660-square-foot addition to the south, and began collaborating with architects and consultants, including The Kubala Washatko Architects,The Gettys Group, Sustainable Building Solutions and Sustainablu, on its design.

It also partnered with Racine Art Museum across the street and ArtRoot to curate a couple hundred local artworks to adorn the interior.

Last summer, Hotel Verdant opened and it’s a beauty.

The lobby is modern and green with plants. It has a bright, modern feel with light-colored wood accents that give it an almost Scandinavian feel.


Off to the right is the lounge, with a striking, copper-covered circular fireplace as the space’s centerpiece, a variety of seating types arrayed in areas around it. At the far end is a reading nook with a variety of books for adults and children.

Marble accents add a touch of class.


A similar feel lines the corridor toward the elevator and the ballrooms, with more wood shelving with decorative art and a couple seating nooks with framed local art.

Off to the left is Marguerite restaurant and bar, which continues the verdant look through a garden wall and a central shelving unit that divides the space but allows light to pass through.


Here, there are fine cocktails – I heartily recommend the Martini Novara with Ketel Citron and Campari – and the pizzas are already beloved.

There are also salads, apps (the seafood fritto misto is a must) and a range of entrees, like braised pork and polenta, a New York Strip and Taylor Bay scallops.


Up on the roof, Eave is a real gem.

There’s plenty of indoor seating in booths (perfect for remote work as the table tops all have outlets and USB charging ports) and around the bar and the fireplace.


But you want to sit outside where there are two-tops, a long seating bar, a group table and a couple more intimate areas huddled around fire pits.

Up here you can see the solar array and the green roof plantings, but also Lake Michigan and an aerial view of downtown Racine.

Poutine (above) and a whiskey and chocolate nitecap on the roof (below).

More great cocktails, as well as different appetizers and desserts than down at Marguerite – I'm going to suggest the poutine and the chocolate cake, both of which come in shareable portions – plus a happy hour from 4 to 6 p.m. weekdays with discounted drinks and shareables.

fitness centerX

On the third floor, there’s a nicely-appointed fitness center with cardio machines, free weights, some strength training machines and a sauna.

The dog-friendly rooms are spacious and full of light, thanks to those Chicago-style department store windows.


The bed is comfortable and there’s also a seating area with a sofa and chairs, as well as amenities like a safe, pour-over coffee and a fridge (plus a small but mighty package of malted milk balls, because ... Horlick's!).

The best amenity of all is a luxe walk-in shower that has three different shower heads that you can mix and match. It’s incredible, and you’ll want to stay under the running water forever.

But, remember you’re in the LEED Gold Certified Hotel Verdant and fresh water is a precious resource.

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 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 has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.