Fathers and Sons: The Pfisters

Posted by on Jun 15, 2018

Guido Pfister

The third Sunday in June is set aside to celebrate and remember fathers. For many, our father is our first hero and a man who can always be counted on to guide and protect us, regardless of our age.

The story of the first 125 years of The Pfister Hotel cannot be told without acknowledging the importance of one of the most essential of human bonds, that between a father and child. Fathers and sons have played an essential role in the hotel’s history, ever since Guido Pfister began his efforts to create a hotel of unsurpassed luxury in 1883. His only son, Charles Pfister, remained at the helm of the hotel from its 1893 opening until the younger Pfister’s death in 1927. From there, the hotel was managed by longtime hotel employee, Ray Smith, who was soon joined by his sons Ray Jr. and Lawrence. In the 1960’s, the grand hotel was resurrected by Ben Marcus, who tapped into the talents of his son, Stephen to lead the landmark.  These partnership, which intertwine familial bonds with business acumen, have been essential at the outset.

In celebration of Father’s Day, we recognize the original father and son team whose joint efforts built and sustained the hotel in its early chapters.

The Pfisters: Guido (1818-1889) & Charles (1859-1927)

Not much is known about the adoption of Charles Pfister in 1870 at the age of 11. There are many conflicting reports about the location of his birth, his parentage- even his birth name is in dispute, but we do know that Charles became the trusted assistant to his adopted father, Guido, from the moment he became a Pfister. Clever and hard-working, Charles learned every aspect of his father’s business and eventually became an essential partner to the elder Pfister as he entered adulthood.

It had long been Guido Pfister’s dream to create a luxurious hotel in Milwaukee that would rival the finest East Coast hotels. He envisioned not merely a hotel, but a true destination modeled after the gracious elegance of Europe’s best offerings.  He saw Milwaukee not as an alternative to Chicago, but rather the preferred city ready to receive the world’s most celebrated travelers. In 1883, he began efforts to turn his ambition into reality, but struggled to get the project off the ground. His son soon joined his efforts and was able to help secure financing for the project, the key roadblock to beginning the building process.

The senior Pfister died in 1889, well before the doors opened for The Hotel Pfister’s 1893 premiere. After his father’s death, rather than abandoning the expensive project, Charles threw himself into fulfilling his father’s dream. While the younger Pfister had led a number of the ventures in his father’s empire for years, the hotel would be the first of the family’s business that that he developed and shaped on his own. He worked tirelessly to ensure his father’s vision came to fruition. No expense was spared in the creation of the showplace. Modern marvels, like the then unheard of luxury of temperature controls in each guest room were paired with the old world elegance of Italian marble, Irish linens and French table settings.

Charles Pfister

May 1, 1893 must have been a bittersweet day for Charles; it was the day his magnificent hotel finally opened to the public, but he welcomed his guests without the man whose dream was the catalyst for its creation. Pfister remained the perennial host, operating the hotel from its opening until his death in 1927. During that time he did everything from greeting his guests to hiring the employees who extended hospitality to each visitor who crossed the threshold. Unbeknownst to him at the time, his most notable hire came in 1896 when he employed a 13 year old bell boy, instructing him to go home and tell his mother to dress in him long pants going forward, as he was now a man.

The eager young boy in short pants Pfister brought onboard that day would go on to have a tremendous impact on the hotel for more than 50 years. Charles Pfister had just hired future Hotel Pfister owner, Ray Smith.  The men would work together for the next 31 years, with Pfister teaching him both the hotel business and the importance of fathers and sons working together towards greater success than either would likely achieve on his own.

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