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One constant on the Marquette University campus in recent decades has been change.
As the university has grown, it has acquired buildings and converted them for use, or torn them down to make space for new campus buildings. Even structures built by the university itself in the past have been expanded, renovated or replaced.
But standing on a very short stretch of North 11th Street is a trio of buildings that have stood for nearly a century, offering a look at somewhat rare enduring streetscape.
But these three buildings – which are now also owned and utilized by Marquette and are called the 707 Building, Cobeen Hall and Carpenter Tower – in their day also were a radical change for the neighborhood, reminding us that changing landscapes in cities are nothing new.
These buildings went up in a flurry of construction in the late 1920s that came to an end in the wake of the stock market crash in October 1929, but they did not rise on vacant land. (I used 1930 in the headline as a general date)
In fact, what was then Grand Avenue was lined with beautiful homes built in the 1870s, ‘80s and ‘90s. One well-known survivor of the era is the 1892 Pabst Mansion and one longtime survivor that met its demise in 1980 was the 1886 Elizabeth Plankinton Mansion.
Take a look at the corner of 11th and Wisconsin on the 1894 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map and you’ll see pretty much the entire area dotted with residences. A glance at the 1910 map is more or less the same, though change is already apparent, with some residences now replaced by a church and what is now Marquette’s Johnston Hall.
Fast-forward another 20 years and many older Milwaukeeans would have been hard pressed to recognize the north side of Grand Avenue at 11th Street.
By then, Grand Avenue was aiming for the sky. In the 1910s and ‘20s, apartment buildings and apartment hotels like the Stratford Arms, Biltmore, Sovereign, Marquette, Ardmore and others altered the single-family home look of the street.
Part of that boom was the construction of the LaSalle Hotel at 721 N. 11th St., beginning in 1927; the Franklin State Bank building at 707 N. 11th St. in 1929; and the Marquette Tower apartment building at 716 N. 11th St. in 1930.
Despite the many changes to the neighborhood over the past 10 decades – not least of which was the driving through of the I-43 freeway cut that erased many buildings and the original Red Arrow Park – all three still stand today. And despite many changes to the buildings themselves, you can still see remnants of the earlier uses.
The Art Deco LaSalle building was designed by Rosman & Wiedsma Architects as a building type common during those days: the luxury apartment hotel. That meant that in addition to accommodating visitors to Milwaukee, the LaSalle rented rooms as long-term apartments for locals.
As a hotel, it had everything you’d expect: a dining room with an orchestra and a cocktail lounge. In September 1946, a performance by Nat “King” Cole and his trio was recorded at The Circle Lounge and broadcast on the radio.
A 1934 ad boasted of the LaSalle’s “Ultra-modern furnished apartments. First class hotel accommodations combined with exceptional living conditions. Walking distance to downtown and theaters.”
The ad also described the various apartment configurations.
“Single rooms with roll-a-way bed, dressing room, Pullman kitchen. Three-room apts living room with rollaway bed, dressing room, dinette and kitchen. Four-room apartments nicely furnished living room with rollaway bed, bedroom, spacious dinette and kitchen. Each room has refrigeration, tub and shower bath. Complete hotel service. Rates $57.50 and up.”
The street frontage of the Hotel LaSalle (sometimes the two words in the name were flipped) also had a coffee shop/restaurant and other retail spaces. Early on, one of those spaces was home to a photographer’s studio.
The burgeoning Marquette University purchased the building in 1964 and hired architects Grassold & Johnson to renovate it into a women’s dormitory and to modernize the street-level facade, lobby and other public spaces.
Gone were the retail shops, replaced with a brick wall into which tall, slender vertically oriented windows were cut. A giant ghost sign on the side of the building advertising the LaSalle was also removed. However, above the second floor, the exterior of the facade remains mostly intact.
Inside, the layout of the lobby appears more or less as it would have been during the hotel days, though the finishes have been altered and a mail room constructed next to the elevator bank.
Off in one corner there’s a phone booth that may date to the LaSalle days, although the wooden door appears to have been added later with other lobby woodwork added in the renovation.
On the second floor, what remains of the Circle Room – some of the space has been walled off for other uses – there’s a grand piano (not likely from the LaSalle era) and some vintage standing lamps. No one when I visited knew if their presence here pre-dated the Cobeen era, but maybe?
While the corridors are mostly unchanged, some changes were made to the rooms, which for the most part no longer have their own bathrooms.
The last reference I found to the hotel was in April 1964, at which point the race to renovate was on as Marquette hoped to have Cobeen – named for 1920 Marquette graduate, Charles T. Cobeen – ready quickly.
Indeed with the roughly 400 students began to move in – making MU’s Lisette Lodge, Xavier Hall and Alumnae House residences redundant – the work was not yet complete.
Some furniture had not yet arrived, elevators didn’t access all floors yet, partitions for rooms were still being installed, as were gold tweed and green carpets, bulletin boards, sliding closet doors, bookshelves and other items.
Students were often awakened at 8 a.m. when workmen knocked on their doors.
When I visited I was lucky to find one single room was vacant and available for me to see. Especially fortunate was the fact that this room appeared to be one of the LaSalle single-room options.
Although the small kitchen is no longer there, this room still has an en suite bathroom with what appear to be original 1920s fixtures and the radiator and cover in the single room also appear original, giving a pretty good impression of a LaSalle room.
Across 11th Street, which is now closed to traffic, stands the 15-story Art Deco (‘twas the era!) Carpenter Tower, designed by A. Keymar & G.W. Mack, with its striking limestone trim at the top.
Because the freeway construction pulled down everything to the east of the building, including the lovely Grand Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church that stood right next door, the tower seems even taller than it is.
The tower was constructed by Robert L. Reisinger & Co. for developer Oscar Brachman, whose projects left their mark across Milwaukee. He was also the real estate man behind the Astor Hotel and of the Garfield, Uptown and Downer Theaters, among other buildings.
With construction already underway, Brachman pulled a building permit in October 1930 for the tower, which with five stores, 12 office suites and 182 apartments, was expected to cost $547,544 to build.
By the following March, Brachman scored a huge tenant when the MacDonald Drug Shop, located at 27th and Wells Streets, leased the entire ground floor retail space for 10 years and planned to open a second location there.
The roughly 6,000-square-foot shop would also include a restaurant and, according to the Milwaukee Sentinel, it cost a whopping, “$50,000 to equip the store and restaurant for one of the largest and most elaborate drug stores (in the state).”
The Marquette Tower Hotel opened on Aug. 1 and according to manager Milton E. Magel, five of the nine second-floor offices had already been rented and the MacDonald Drug Shop had already opened.
What was advertised as “Milwaukee’s newest apartment and transient hotel,” offered one-room efficiency starting at $55 a month. “Beautifully furnished or unfurnished efficiency units with complete hotel service.”
By 1953, Catholic Knights operated the hotel, though its offices moved a few years later with the completion of a new building just up the street on Wells.
Beginning in 1951 – when the building was renovated – Consolidated Savings & Loan Association replaced the Tower Restaurant in the old drug store spot.
The building was overhauled again nine years later when it was purchased by Marquette University, which had been leasing space there for the previous four years.
In 1965, the savings and loan decamped for the Commerce Building on 4th and Wells, and Marquette created office space in the old first floor retail space. The university also uses the second floor office space for some departments, and the old hotel rooms are dormitories.
While I didn’t get to see the rooms, which were all occupied, I did get to the see the vault in the second floor office area and the real stunner here is the lobby, with its fine Art Deco details.
There is marble wainscoting, a beautiful radiator grille in the foyer, crown moldings and stepped arches in the doorways, recesses behind the front desk and above the elevators.
These arches remind me a bit of decoration that can be seen on the exterior of the Rosebud Cinema in Wauwatosa.
The staircase connecting the lobby – which like Cobeen has an old telephone booth – to the second floor is also quite nice.
Arguably, the 1929-30 Neogothic Revival Franklin Bank Building with its white terra cotta exterior is the most striking of the three buildings, which is not surprising to me as it is attributed to one of my favorite architects, Eugene Liebert.
Inside, it’s got some of the best finds of the three buildings, too.
Initially, attorney William A. Schroeder – who bought the site from architect Richard E. Oberst for about $100,000 – had planned to spend a half-million dollars building an eight-story apartment hotel with retail and office space on the site, but perhaps the LaSalle and Marquette Tower projects dissuaded him of that idea because by late 1929, Schroeder opted instead to construct a $300,000, five-story office and retail building.
The main retail tenant would be the Franklin State Bank, of which Schroeder was a principal. In fact, the real estate company developing the building was Schroeder’s Franklin Building Company and one of the two mortgage holders on the project was Franklin State Bank.
The plan was for the building to contain nine stores and 100 offices and Schroeder had his eye on leasing at least two of the floors to doctors and dentists. To that end, the fourth and fifth floors were to have special gas, water and electric fixtures installed.
“When offices not so prepared are rented by dentists it is necessary to tear up the floors to install the connections, usually at the expense of the tenants,” noted the Sentinel. “Before the floors on the fourth and fifth stories of the bank building were laid, piping for gas and water and conduits for electric wires were run to the center of the offices, where they will connect with the piping and conduits on the dentists’ chairs.”
In fact, during construction there were a number of newspaper briefs about special electrical and other technology being installed in the building.
By July 1930, the building was ready for occupancy and the bank planned to move from its Caswell Building location on July 12.
The new space had its main entrance on Wisconsin Avenue and a side entrance on 11th Street, where there was also the elevator bank and stairs up to the offices on the upper floors.
The latter entry was wainscoted in pink Georgia marble, which is still there, as are brass elevator door fixtures. The staircase has some great green and tan terrazzo flooring.
In the 2,400-square-foot bank space there were eight tellers’ cages along the west wall. The “bond department” and clerical stuff occupied a large open area on the north end of the space, which had brown Caen stone.
In the basement there was – and still is! – a 16-ton door on the 40x12-foot vault, which originally housed 4,500 safety deposit boxes, but is now empty.
What the descriptions did not mention at the time were the ornate moldings and panels on the ceilings, which survive, though with some damage. Much of it is covered by a dropped ceiling.
But the real stunner in here is what remains of the beautiful, brightly colored terrazzo flooring with its floral and geometric designs. It appears that the floor once filled the entire open area of the bank space, though not all of it remains.
But what is still there is some of the most beautiful terrazzo I’ve seen in Milwaukee.
Other retail tenants over the years included the Liggett Drug Store, Herman's Manufacturing Furriers (a second location for the business, which started at 25th and Forest Home) and La Carl's restaurant.
In 1930, Advance Savings Building and Loan moved from Metropolitan Block to Franklin building, and later the building became home to Old Line Life Insurance Company of America.
The upper floors have seen quite a few changes, but there are still some great vintage details, including original bathroom tiles and fixtures, marble wainscoting and decorated terra cotta tiles on the window sills.
At the top floor is an iron staircase leading up to the tower, which has been shortened from its original height.
These days, the building is occupied by Marquette offices, including for the Air Force ROTC and Service Learning Program.
That incredible terrazzo floor is enjoyed on a daily basis by students using the 707 Hub Innovation Space.
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 has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.