Doors Open Milwaukee was last weekend, a chance to explore behind-the-scenes of more than 150 buildings throughout the city.
Peter Mortensen, Chief Concierge and Historian at the Pfister, gave the presentation at Doors Open. Peter has worked here for 31 years, and he’s a treasure. Something I particularly love about Peter is his extensive vocabulary—it’s not often that I hear a word I don’t know, but it’s delightful when it happens and it’s most likely a word Peter’s used in passing. Beyond his scopious vocabulary, Peter is a trove of knowledge and passion for the hotel and Milwaukee. He’s just the person to learn from at Doors Open, or anytime.
In case you didn’t make it to the Pfister during Doors Open, I’d love to share with you some of the intriguing bits of history I scribbled in my notebook.
• Guido Pfister and his partner Vogel began a tannery in Milwaukee that soon became the largest leather producer in the world.
• Mr. Pfister wanted to participate in his city and country holistically. He believed in an idea called “the common wheel”, meaning that it was to everyone’s benefit to care about his neighbors and try to make life better for all.
• To that end, after the cholera epidemics in the 1850’s, Pfister began the first orphan asylum in Milwaukee, taking in children of German immigrants, who Peter said, “were in danger of becoming a permanent underclass”.
• The Newhall House was Milwaukee’s first grand hotel.
• Peter was careful to explain that the idea of “grand hotel” has been a bit misunderstood. When we speak of “grand hotels” in Europe, they were often more like short-term dwellings and meeting places for the upper classes. The idea of the American “grand hotel” was a place that was more accessible to a variety of people, open to everyone.
• The Newhall House burned, and that fire remains the deadliest disaster in Milwaukee’s history, killing an estimated 75-100 people and decimating the only grand hotel the city had.
• When Guido Pfister died, his children Charles and Louise took over his idea to bring a new, even grander grand hotel to Milwaukee, one that had the city’s unique character indelibly printed on it.
• The architect of the Pfister Hotel, Henry Cook, also designed two other gorgeous Milwaukee landmarks: city hall and the Church of the Jesu.
• The Pfister was designed in the Romanesque Revival style.
• The Pfister opened on May 1, 1893, which was also the opening of the Chicago World’s Fair. (At this point in Peter’s presentation, Pfister Artist in Residence Margaret Muza and I turned to each other and cooed, “Oh, I would have loved to be at that World’s Fair!”)
• The Pfister Hotel cost over twice its original budget, over 1 million dollars.
• Technology in the Pfister at its opening was cutting edge—it was one of the first all-electric hotels anywhere in the world, and due to “The Mighty Corliss Engine”, a product of Milwaukee, it boasted individual temperature controls in each room, which in that day was an absolute marvel.
• The approximately 80 pieces of Victorian art housed in the Pfister were created by French, Italian, German and American artists, and after the Marcus family purchased the property, they learned that the extensive art collection was worth more than the building itself.
• The brass lion statues, Dick and Harry, were originally from Rome and used to guard the hotel’s front entrance.
• The Pfister held a barber shop, separate lounges for men and women, a florist, Turkish baths, and a drugstore with a soda fountain.
• And a happy observation: though it’s not always the official Doors Open, the Pfister’s doors always are.