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The Pfister Hotel Mixing Business with Leather

Milwaukee Color

Aug. 19, 2009
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Fibers of Milwaukee’s manufacturing legacy are laced throughout our city like an electric grid. It is so fundamental and ingrained that we don’t see it separately from our civic identity. Without it, though, we would be left with gaping holes in our culture. West Allis wouldn’t be called West Allis and Cudahy wouldn’t be called Cudahy. Our baseball stadium wouldn’t be called Miller Park; we wouldn’t play soccer at the Uihlein fields; we wouldn’t be going to concerts at the Pabst or viewing art at the Quadracci Pavilion.And politicians, professional athletes and rock stars visiting Milwaukee would have to find posh accommodations somewhere other than the Pfister Hotel.

At the turn of the 20th century, no city on the planet produced more leather than Milwaukee. According to John Gurda’s Cream City Chronicles, there were nearly 30 tanneries in our city by 1870, most owned and operated by Germans. King among them was the Pfister and Vogel Leather Co. Two years after immigrating to the United States from Hechingen, Germany, Guido Pfister settled in Milwaukee in 1847 and established a leather store near today’s City Hall. A year later, he teamed up with Frederick Vogel to build a tannery on the southern edge of the Menomonee Valley. By 1860 P&V was the most important tannery in Milwaukee, and by 1900 the company operated four facilities in the area.

Armed with wealth and power, Pfister joined a trend among some of Milwaukee’s enterprise-building pioneers to contribute to the city on a grand scale and to hopefully leave a lasting impression. Just as the real estate climate on Wisconsin Avenue was capable of supporting Pfister’s dream of a luxurious hotel on the East Side, the leather baron died. His son, Charles Pfister, aided by his sister, Louise Vogel, devoted himself to carrying out his wishes. He engaged architects Henry Koch and Hermann Esser and tripled the project’s budget to $1.5 million. Predating the “Buy Local” movement, Pfister saw to it that Milwaukee built the Pfister Hotel and, where possible, furnished and equipped it. Thus, the builder and superintendent hailed from here, and local companies laid the tile and mosaic floors and furnished the hardware, machinery and pipe coverings.

When the Pfister Hotel opened on May 1, 1893, it was the most lavish hotel of its time, with groundbreaking features including fireproofing, electricity throughout the hotel and thermostat controls in every room. In late-Victorian splendor, walls, stairs, columns and floors were of marble from Algiers and France. From its birth, the Pfister has been renowned for its large collection of artwork that elevates the entire hotel to a virtual art gallery. While traveling in Italy, T.A. Chapman, the hometown merchant who supplied the linens, sent back to Milwaukee two monumental bronze lions to stand at the entrance of the new hotel. “Dick” and “Harry,” as they were nicknamed, stood sentinel outside the Richardsonian Romanesque building of limestone and brick for 33 years before they were brought into the lobby.

A Milwaukee business group captained by Ben Marcus purchased the Pfister in 1962, determined to restore the hotel to its original beauty. Significant renovations to the hotel were completed and a new 23-story tower on the north side was added to the original eight stories of the building. Today, the Pfister Hotel continues to celebrate its tradition of gracious service and regal accommodations. There are tales that the ghost of Charles Pfister has been spotted in the original building, making certain the impeccable standards he established for the Pfister Hotel continue to be met.

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