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A bit of Milwaukee banking history is current up for sale and while it’s likely out of reach of most everyday Milwaukeeans, developers, investors and others could surely be interested in the Beaux Arts former Marshall & Ilsley South Side Branch at 414 W. National Ave.
The property, which includes a large adjacent parking lot, is listed for sale through Founders 3 with an asking price of $1.75 million. You can see the full listing here.
The branch, opened in 1906, was the first for M&I Bank, which had been founded in 1847 by Pennsylvania transplant Samuel Marshall as an exchange brokerage located in a cobbler’s shop.
Because banks were banned in the state, these “Exchange Brokerages” opened to allow to the customers to deposit money for safety, using standard rates that were set by banks in New York City.
Two years later, Marshall brought in Charles Ilsley, who had arrived from Maine, and the business was renamed Marshall & Ilsley in 1850.
In 1852 when the state lifted its ban on banks M&I nabbed the first charter, albeit for a bank in Madison.
Later, it sold its Madison bank and focused on the Milwaukee market. Business was so good here that then-president Gustav Reuss – a German immigrant whose grandson Henry would later serve nearly 30 years in the U.S. House of Representatives – decided to open a branch in the heavily German shopping district in Walker’s Point.
From that humble launchpad, M&I would grow into a massive institution via expansion, acquisitions and mergers. By the time it was acquired by BMO in 2011, M&I had 194 locations in Wisconsin, plus more than 150 more in Arizona, Minnesota, Florida, Indiana, Nevada and Missouri. Plus it spun off the successful Metavante financial technologies business.
But that initial expansion almost never happened – or, at least it seemed tenuous for a day or so.
After M&I – with headquarters Downtown on Water Street – announced its intention to open the branch in 1905, the Journal reported on Nov. 27 that, “A question has been raised whether the Marshall & Ilsley Bank may establish branch upon the South Side, as is proposed. J.K. Ilsley, vice president of the bank, says he is quite certain there is nothing in the law to prevent the establishment of a branch bank in the same city in which the parent bank is located, and that for this reason the plans remain as announced.”
But, meanwhile, the state’s Deputy Bank Examiner – someone you’d think ought to be familiar with such regulations, disagreed.
“Capt. Thaddeus Wild ... says he is certain that Mr. Ilsley is in error, as he recalls that when the law was framed the fact was taken into consideration that the West Side Bank and the German-American Bank both had branches. It was decided then that branches already in existence at the time of the framing of the law should not be affected by the provisions prohibiting branches.”
The paper added that M&I would not likely walk away from Walker’s Point, Instead, it predicted, “that if the deputy bank examiner is right in his contention, it will probably result in the formation of an entirely new bank, make up of stockholders of the present Marshall & Ilsley Bank in charge of G.A. Reuss, who has been with the Marshall & Ilsley Bank for 20 years, and who is son of Gustav Reuss, its president.”
A resolution was not long in coming.
The following day’s paper reported from Madison that the Bank Examiners’ Department said that the law does not prevent M&I from opening a branch bank anywhere in Milwaukee.
“The idea that the law has been changed so as to prohibit banks from establishing branches is pronounced incorrect,” the paper wrote. “Such a prohibition was suggested when the law was amended, but owing to the opposition of a number of banks, the law was permitted to remain as it was in this particular respect.”
And, thus, by Dec. 8, it could report that architect Henry J. Rotier had been hired by Reuss to design the new branch for National Avenue, between 4th and 5th (then Greenbush and Grove) Streets.
The Neoclassical/Beaux Arts gem would be a one-story building with a basement, 30 feet along the sidewalk and 75 feet deep on its lot, made of brick, cement and steel.
Soon after, a building permit added that the mason doing the work would be J.W. Foster & Sons and that the structure was likely to cost about $15,000.
It had a flat roof with four pilasters framing the openings of three bays. In the left two were tall windows, and in the third was the entrance, with an awning above and a window above that.
Three basement windows sat beneath the large windows in the two left bays and they each had decorative iron bars with the bank’s initials in the center.
A nameplate bearing the name “Marshall & Ilsley Bank” ran the width of the building above the windows and entrance and the pilaster continued above the cornice atop this nameplate.
The bank – managed by Gustav Reuss, Jr., son of the president and a longtime employee who had reportedly worked every job in the business from messenger on up – opened for business on June 11, 1906.
“The bank enjoys the distinction of being the oldest in the country northwest of the Ohio River, having for over 60 years had a high standing in the community,” the Journal wrote two days earlier.
“The opening of the branch was prompted by the growing business of the institution in that section of the city.”
“They built the branch to serve the local German community here,” adds realtor Cole Wirth of Founders 3. “They even offered banking services in German, which is pretty cool.”
Business must have continued to thrive in this then-bustling neighborhood, which had a Schlitz Palm Garden across the street, plus taverns, restaurants, grocery stores, school, department stores and more.
By 1920, M&I sought to expand the building, which was accomplished by adding two matching bays to the right of the entrance, creating the symmetrical structure we see today.
A pediment was added at the roof and in the now-wider nameplace the words “South Side Branch” were added.
Inside, the banking room continued the Beaux Arts look with its pilasters. There was marble wainscoting and dark woodwork and in the center of the ceiling, a beautiful opaque colored glass skylight.
In 1950, the bank employed respected architect Richard Philipp (who drew The American Club ib Kohler, Holy Hill Basilica and other gems) to create a subterranean vault behind the building.
As times changed, so did the neighborhood and the banking business and by 1966, the expanded complex served mostly as record storage for M&I. In 1980, Carlson/Fonske Architects oversaw a renovation of the bank, which reopened soon after as a public-facing branch.
It was converted to a BMO after that acquisition, and on Dec. 3, 2021, the bank was closed, seemingly for good. By that time, it was again bilingual branch, but this time English/Spanish instead of English/German.
The building had been sold a couple times in the past, however, and BMO was no longer the owner, according to Wirth, but, rather, a lessee. In fact, the bank continues to pay rent, utilities and upkeep, per its lease.
We went inside for a look and although the renovation added barriers around all the teller and other areas, and the floor has been covered, the pilasters are still visible, and so is the huge vault with its insanely heavy round door. Inside the vault are still the safety deposit boxes.
The lobby still has marble wainscoting and woodwork, and off toward the back there is another smaller vault that looks more like a super-secure closet.
In here I found what appears to be the last of the cash on site: two pennies lying on the red carpet.
Upstairs, we see yet another vault, much larger than the one at the bottom of the stairs, but with the same secure closet vibe. Down the hall is the bank manager’s office, which isn’t anything special, except for a decorative stained glass panel in the wall.
Perhaps about two feet wide and eight or so inches tall, there is one tiny pane of clear glass that offered the manager a view straight down over the row of tellers at work. Surely a means for keeping an eye on any hands that might be tempted to slip from till to pocket.
Back out in the corridor, there’s a hatch, which we pull down to reveal a fold-down ladder. Of course, I climb it, eager to see the top of the skylight, which I manage to do despite the addition over the years of much duct-work.
It’s glorious to behold up close, even if the clear glass above it has been covered, preventing natural light from streaming in.
The glass is simple, but lovely.
We then head to the basement, where there are numerous other walk-in secure closet-style vaults of varying sizes.
Down here we can clearly see where the 1906 building, with its brick foundation walls, ends, and where the 1920s addition, with its block foundation walls and poured concrete ceiling, begins.
In a couple different spaces down here we also find two of those basement window bar grates, which although they look light, weigh a ton. Outside, they’ve been replaced with simpler versions without the initials.
Also down here is the back of the night deposit safe. The other side is still out front, but it has been boxed off with a metal covering. Hiding just underneath that covering if you bend down for a peek is the plaque that says, “Est. 1847.”
In the boiler room there’s some graffiti dating back to the 1930s and ‘40s.
At the back, down a few steps, is the 1950 storage vault beneath the parking lot. It is basically a large concrete box, which makes one wonder why someone of Philipp’s reputation would’ve been hired to design it.
There are rows and rows of wooden shelving with handwritten signs on each end noting what type of records are stored there. Nearby is an old dumb waiter that was likely used to send boxes of documents up and down.
In the far corner is a second exit/entrance from the space.
Wirth says there are no offers yet on the property, but a number of folks from different business sectors have come through, including one “local restaurant group,” that was apparently intrigued and now running the numbers to see if it can make it work.
But, it’s easy to see a lot of potential here: from a big restaurant or bar or brewery (it has the high ceilings required for big tanks) to a store.
But you could also see a developer building apartments on the parking lot and tapping into that underground space for storage lockers, laundry rooms, bike storage, etc., and perhaps using the old bank as a lobby and amenities space or as an attached restaurant.
Oddly, one thing that seems unlikely in these days of online transactions, is a bank branch.
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 can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.