If you didn’t know, you’d never look twice at the place.
Just before you reach the east approach to the Wisconsin Avenue viaduct is 3816 W. Wisconsin Ave., a low-slung, single-story building with a brick and yellow render facade, and a narrow strip of windows that curves around to the west side of the structure. A broad-eaved flat roof tops the thing.
Off in the distance behind it is a four-story block – a long terrace running along each floor on the front – sits atop what appears to be covered parking.
These days, Team Management, a real estate company, occupies the one-story building. The block beyond is an apartment complex.
But for a time, the whole thing was home to the Pan American Club, an internationally themed cocktail lounge and restaurant and, later, a 70-plus-room motel ... oops, I mean “travelodge.”
Earlier photos show the entire facade in glass that give the now-rather nondescript building a sparkling Art Deco look. An image from the place’s later years shows the current facade already in place, but punctuated with brightly colored signs, including an illuminated one with a globe that must’ve looked like an alluring beacon in the night, especially for those headed east across the viaduct.
Inside there were green banquettes and white tablecloths in the dining room and Mid-Century furniture in the lounge (in matching green). The decor was a celebration of the “New World” countries of North, Central and South America, sometimes with imagery that would never be considered acceptable today.
One postcard boasted, “The 21 Pan American Countries are featured in our beautiful Cocktail Lounge and on the menu in the Dining Room where Food is served especially prepared to suit your individual taste in Luxurious Surroundings. Plenty of Free Parking with drive-away service.”
Adding, notably, as we’ll see later, that it was located “within ‘Home Run Distance’ of the stadium,” the place also had a “Caribbean Room” for parties and meetings, as well as “plenty of free parking with drive-a-way service.”
The Pan Am Club also offered, “complete travel guide facilities” and “a display of curios - jewelry and leather and Latin American novelties,” all, presumably, for sale.
So what’s the story of the Pan American Club?
The small building was constructed in 1947 by the W.A. Krueger Printing Co., which appears to have used it for paper storage, though the design and a passing mention in one source suggest that it may have served as the company cafeteria for a time, too.
Krueger – who continued to own the building – was a minority partner in the Pan American Club, initially owning 5 percent. The other 95 percent was owned by founder Evelyn J. May, who studied in Latin America and returned home with the idea for the business.
It’s unclear how Krueger and May knew one another.
By July 1949, a press preview event was held and one reporter quipped, “This is the first time I went to an opening of a saloon and got drunk in a printing plant.”
At this point, the club – which “combines travel service with dining rooms and a bar,” according to the Milwaukee Sentinel – didn’t have a liquor license. Refreshments for the preview were served in the Krueger lithograph facility next door.
The paperwork clearly sorted out, that November the Pan American Club hosted a meeting of the Greater West Wisconsin Avenue Opening Committee to organize plans for the official dedication of the newly widened and repaved Wisconsin Avenue (from 27th to 35th Streets).
The Milwaukee Sentinel offered a detailed look inside:
“A trip to Mexico in 1946 inspired the present owner, Miss Evelyn J. May, to bring the Pan-American atmosphere to Milwaukee. She spent a year in Washington studying the Latin American countries with the aid of the Pan-American Union, a group created in 1890 to help spur cooperation between the United States and Latin American countries.
“When she returned to Milwaukee, she supervised the transformation of this onetime paper storage building into an air-conditioned club. The dining room, which seats 114, is designed in tones of brown and set off by a Latin American wallpaper pattern. The curved glass wall in the center is adorned with green snake plants, and a red motif appears in the flamingo tablecloths and waitress’ uniforms. The booths are chartreuse.
“Maps of the 21 Pan-American countries are sandblasted into the wooden panels in the backbar of the cocktail lounge The adjacent travelounge has chartreuse and red furniture to set off the gray walls and leatherette window seats.
“Luncheon, dinner and supper are served in the dining room from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. and hors d’oeuvres are featured during the cocktail hour, starting at 4:30 p.m. Twenty-one dinners, one for each of the Pan-American republics are on the menu. The chef is Alvin Bleau, descended from a family of French chefs, who has been with the Pan-American two and a half years.
“The manager is Russ Hafemeister, who has been with the club since its establishment except for a tour of duty as manager of the Chi-Chi Club in Palm Springs, Calif. The clubs theme is on the menu, ‘To eat and drink and linger for a while ... this is ‘The Road to Life’ in the Pan-American Style’.”
In the early days Harry Treutellar was the general manager and held the liquor license, which caused trouble when he departed in May 1953, as the club continued slinging cocktails under that license.
When the city found out, it alerted May that the club would be closed unless it secured a new license. For some reason that was not made clear in the article I found, the city said that neither Krueger nor May would be granted such a license.
However, they managed to secure a license in the name of Russell E. Hafemeister, a manager at the club since its debut.
That same year – 1953 – the Pan American Club, while maintaining its “cultural” focus, also took on a new identity.
“The Braves brought decor to the Pan American Club,” wrote the Milwaukee Sentinel that September.
“The club is only half a mile from the stadium. Fans dine there before the game and talk it over there afterward,” wrote the paper. “Many are hauled to the stadium by the club’s two station wagons. What was once the Caribbean Room is now the Braves Dugout.”
From then forward, the Pan American Club was well-known as a stadium-related destination.
By 1955, the chef was Victor Marot, who was beloved enough that the club advertised that he had decided to stay on.
“Good News! ‘Prime Ribs of Beef Man’ to stay at Pan American indefinitely! Enthusiastic Wisconsinites won’t let him go!”
When new manager Frank J. Mack arrived from the Ambassador Hotel, Marot continued on in the kitchen.
“The Ambassador Hotel without a doubt lost a good man when Mack left them to manage the dining room at the Pan American Club,” wrote the Sentinel in September 1955. “Mr. Mack knows more than just a little about preparation and aptly said to me, ‘Give the people what they want the way they like it ... they’ll come back.’ A basic thought sometimes forgotten.”
Among the 45 entrees on the menu at that time: barbecued ribs, choice steaks, prime rib, lobster tail, family-style chicken dinners and whole squab and desserts like pecan pie and baked alaska.
“This popular rendezvous for sports fans from all over the state is well known for the hearty meals that are served,” wrote the Sentinel. “The interior is comfortably furnished in a Pan American motif with the backbar done in oak bas reliefs.”
Pan American Club was something of a pioneer in stadium shuttles, bringing fans to and from Packers and Braves games, but also to events like 1955’s music festival, at no cost.
In 1958, for reasons unknown, May sold the business to Attorney Michael D. Preston and his wife Dorothy, who added a pair of dining rooms and “a double-deck parking pavilion” with space for around 300 cars.
They bought the Pan American Club and a gas station next door for $350,000 and planned construction of the 75-room motor lodge, which opened in 1960 atop the parking deck.
Mack – along with Alois Steger and A.A. Ufeil – were partners in the venture, which didn’t last long.
By March 1961, the Prestons sold out to Henry R. Marohl, a general contracting business, which announced a complete remodel of the bar and restaurant. They also hired Robert Wiehl away from the Milwaukee Inn and made him GM.
A company spokesman said the businesses would continue to operate as they had, but, again, this arrangement didn’t endure.
In January 1962, due to financial woes at the club and motel, future printing maven Harry Quadracci was appointed receiver of the business by Judge Harvey Neelen. It bears noting that Quadracci was an attorney for printer W.A. Krueger.
That August, Krueger Enterprises bought the business, which was still running during the seven months of receivership.
In August 1965, the Pan American Club hosted a book launch for William Krueger’s wife, who had penned the surely compelling “Traveling With the Kruegers,” of which the family company printed 1,000 copies.
About 200 people attended the coming out party for the 320-page book – at which daughter Betty gave her mother a bouquet of red roses – detailing the couple’s three-week jaunt through Europe. The Kruegers were hoping a publisher would acquire the book for wider distribution, though I could find no evidence of a reprint.
By the dawn of 1966, Leo Teschner – who had run Teschner’s Club Cafe and the Blue Dahlia on Bluemound and Hawley Roads in the 1940s – was manning the Pan American Club, but, yet again, his days were numbered.
This time, however, so were the Pan American Club’s.
On Jan. 4, 1968, the Milwaukee Sentinel wrote, “The Pan American Club, which has had its share of ups and downs, was slated to close for good Friday. But a hurried meeting of the minds decided the club will remain open – until ...”
“Until” arrived a few days later and on Jan. 20, the paper reported, “The Pan American Club finally shuttered, joining its adjoining motel. But a spokesman for Towne Realty Inc. said a new life for the complex will soon be announced.”
And so ended the fairly long run – for a bar and restaurant – of the interesting and rather unique Pan American Club.
In the 1970s and early '80s, the former motel was a residential health center, and then was converted into apartments.
According to Team Management's Darnell Williams, nothing from the Pan American Club days remains visible inside the building, which was converted to offices.
Now, if you should drive past the brick and yellow Team Management building, you can picture what once was.
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.