The Pfister Hotel and Johnson Controls grew up together

An example of the first thermostats Johnson Controls installed in the Pfister Hotel. Reflected is a painting on the opposite wall of Pfister piano player Dr. Jeffrey Hollander. His likeness was rendered by previous resident artist Katie Musolff.

Did you know the first building to (ever!) have temperature controls in each room was the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin? During the Industrial Revolution Johnson Controls and the Pfister Hotel grew up like two kids on the same block. Both also grew to garner international recognition in their chosen fields. I met with Johnson Controls Head Archivist Ken Wirth to hear their intertwined stories.

We couldn’t leave the guest of honor out of the conversation, so Ken and I talked over coffee in the hotel’s lobby lounge. This interview originally aired November 1st, 2011 on 89.7 WUWM during Lake Effect and is introduced by Lake Effect Executive Producer Mitch Teich. To listen simply click the player below.


Good thing we have Wisconsin weather! (to thank for the electric thermostat) by Ed Makowski

Fall Right Through

Gwen and Adam are seeing their daughter off to college at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. They’re in town to help their daughter settle in to her new life here, as well as renovate a cottage near Oconomowoc for future visits.  Originally from Waukesha, Gwen met Adam, an Ohio native, and they moved to West Palm Beach, Florida where they now make their home.  Gwen says she misses Wisconsin, with its mild summer and changing seasons.  While staying at Hotel Metro, they come to the Pfister for drinks nearly every day, on top of seeing other Milwaukee sights.  In fact, sporting Brewers wear, they talk about the game they just came from (vs. the Cubs), and plan to see more before they fly back south.

Somehow we get onto the topic of California, my home, and they tell me about their vacation to Santa Barbara where they fell in love with a restaurant in the mountains that was one of the first stagecoach stops upon entering the golden state: Cold Spring Tavern.

Adam says about Cold Spring Tavern as they try to describe its ramshackle, historic appearance to me, “It’s almost like you’re going to fall right through the floors–”  She interjects, “The floors are just wooden, and sloped, you couldn’t fall through them .”  He states “You could in some places! Wasn’t there a place roped off –?”  Gwen cuts him off, in that emphatic, final way only a wife can, “No. They were just crooked,” and she turns away to answer her phone.  As she’s turned away, Adam whispers, a wink in his voice, “You could fall right through them.”

History on display in Pfister

Established in 1886, a mere seven years before the Pfister, Cold Spring Tavern was a relay station where coaches could stop off, get water and rest before continuing westwards using an additional pair of horses to get the coaches up over the mountain via San Marcos Pass.  It still has the “gang house” where the toll road construction workers bunked, as well as a jail house for troublemakers and ne’er-do-wells.   The walls of the buildings are made of stone and wood, ivy covers everything, broken wagon wheels are propped up all around, and original signage marks its history, all flanked by ancient, large Sycamore trees.  It’s been owned by the same family for 70 years.

It’s interesting to consider the convergence of time with these two historic places.

Cold Spring Tavern started out being frequented by travelers and pioneers: common folk forging a new life in the “Wild West” as part of America’s “Manifest Destiny.”  Now, while still maintaining a presence for travelers and the everyman, it is regularly frequented by celebrities of all types and is so popular, reservations are encouraged.

The Pfister was built and presented as the “Grand Hotel of the West” with its glistening, colorful marble, wide halls and individual room thermostats.  A stop in Milwaukee, as part of “the West,” indeed, but one for the wealthy, the powerful, and the famous.  While still the first stop in town for stars, it has become much more accessible over the years, opening its doors and its bar to anyone who wants to stop in for a tasty morsel, refreshing drink, or a place to lay a head.

With all this in mind: the convergence of history and geography, the past falling right through into the present, I leave you with this quote from Lyndon B. Johnson.  “Is our old world gone? We bid it farewell. Is there a new world coming? We will bend it with our will to the hopes of man.”

Historic Happenings

The Pfister Hotel has been a historic destination in Milwaukee since its grand opening in 1893. This vision by Guido Pfister and his son Charles has been viewed as the “Grand Hotel of the West” and a welcoming and luxurious meeting place. At its opening, help the Pfister hotel boasted groundbreaking features such as fireproofing, electricity through the hotel and thermostat controls in every room. Continue reading “Historic Happenings”