Stunning Ambassador Hotel deserves a fresh perspective
Ambassador Hotel, 2308 W. Wisconsin Ave., was designed in 1927 by architects Urban Peacock and Armin Frank to reflect the Art Deco style which was very popular at the time – and continues to be so today.
Prior to the construction of the hotel, the mansion of Amos Appleton Lawrence Smith– Captain Frederick Pabst's attorney – stood on the site.
Originally, the Ambassador featured marble floors, stylized nickel sconces, bronze elevator doors and ornate plasterwork. Many of the exquisite features were later covered up by dropped ceilings and carpeting, but luckily, none of it was removed or demolished.
Mid-century, the Ambassador was one of the most cherished venues for high society weddings, gatherings and travelers. But during the '70s and '80s, the hotel deteriorated, room prices fell and the combination allegedly attracted prostitutes, drug users and transient individuals.
Public perception of the once affluent hotel only got worse. In 1991, news broke that on Sept, 15, 1987, Milwaukee serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer murdered his first victim in a room he rented at the Ambassador.
For a few years, the future of the hotel was uncertain. Could it be restored to the jewel that it was despite a tarnished reputation?
Richard Wiegand, an alumnus of Marquette University, believed that it could and he purchased the historic hotel in 1995. For the next decade, the Ambassador underwent a $14 million restoration that resulted in reconfigured, updated rooms, entirely new bathrooms and the removal of dropped ceilings to reveal intricate details and archways. Plus, the main level of the hotel was restored to its original glory.
"A slow, painstaking restoration over the next decade totally revamped the hotel's image and vastly improved the entire neighborhood," says Amy Schneider, the Ambassador's administrative manager.
Today, the hotel has 131 guest rooms, including nine whirlpool suites and one "presidential" two-room suite with a whirlpool bath.
Every guestroom has 40-inch flat panel televisions, an in-room wet bar, refreshment center and complimentary Internet access. The bathrooms feature Kohler fixtures and are stocked with Aveda products.
During a recent visit, we were impressed by the extremely comfortable mattress, and the bedding appeared brand new, with not so much as a fleck on the high-thread-count white sheets. It felt both vintage and upscale at the same time.
The exterior of the hotel was refurbished, too, and the ornate terracotta was removed piece by piece, restored and re-installed to the facade. There were three houses located behind the hotel that were moved to vacant lots in the neighborhood to make room for hotel parking, and today, the hotel offers on-site parking on its surface lot or in a parking garage.
Parking at the Ambassador is complimentary, and a free shuttle travels to and from the hotel to Downtown locations. The shuttle service serves guests of the hotel as well as guests of Envoy Restaurant & Lounge in the lobby.
"This amenity provides the opportunity for guests to park their vehicle at no cost, enjoy cocktails and / or dinner in Envoy and then take advantage of the shuttle to anywhere in the downtown area. Guests often use the service to attend concerts, shows or sporting events," says Schneider.
When the hotel was renovated, Envoy Restaurant & Bar was added to the main floor. Envoy is open to hotel guests as well as to the public.
"Our restaurant and lounge offers breakfast, lunch, brunch and dinner daily with an emphasis on fresh, regional products," says Schneider.
The bar serves a variety of '20s cocktails such as the side car, mint julep, Cuba libre, stinger, pink lady, Tom Collins and whiskey sour. During happy hour, which is Monday-Friday from 4 to 7 p.m., the first cocktail is regular price and the second one costs the 1928 price (about a quarter).
The menu features a range of items from casual bar fare to foodie gourmet. The bar menu offers a massive, loaded plate of nachos that doesn't skimp on the guacamole, along with shrimp cocktail, a grilled cheese sandwich, flatbread pizzas and more. Entrees include filet mignon, Scottish salmon or a four-course prix fixe as well as a fish fry on Fridays.
Caffé Deco was also added during the renovation process and serves Starbucks coffee, made-to-order breakfast and lunch sandwiches, salads and assorted grab-and-go bakery goods in a casual setting. We would have liked to have seen locally-roasted coffee but appreciated the abundance of windows and natural lighting.
Ambassador Hotel provides visitors a stunning snapshot of what Milwaukee was – and still is today. It offers a relaxing get-away for visiting or local couples looking for an affordable staycation.
Most of all, the opulent hotel makes a significant contribution to the revitalization of the western end of Downtown, and all of its history – both the good and the bad – contribute to the charm and mystique of this curious city.
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