The Bank of Milwaukee Building, home of Milwaukee's Grand Avenue Club, incorporates the oldest commercial building in the city.
We occupy what were originally two of the oldest Commercial buildings in the heart of Milwaukee’s financial district. After clearing the site early in 1856 construction began that summer on a 75 by 40-foot building at the NE Corner of today’s Michigan and Water Streets. The building was constructed to be a new location for the State Bank of Wisconsin which had been established in 1853. Its architect is not actually known but it has been speculated that it may have been Mygatt or E T Mix. The bank was previously located at 161 East Water Street. After moving, a wine and tea store moved into the bank’s former location.
The Bank of Milwaukee building opened on the same day as the Newhall House hotel (located just east of the alley) because of a skywalk connection between the bank and the hotel. Our building was constructed with five hundred tons (2000 pounds in each ton) of Joliet limestone which was brought to Milwaukee from Chicago aboard vessels of the Lake Navigation Company. At that time, the limestone was also known as Athens marble. The stone on our building was intended to simulate white marble.
Friend Brothers Clothing Company
Also in 1856, directly to the north of our building on what was then East Water Street, a 20 foot wide building was constructed to house the Friend Brothers Clothing Company, one of the oldest Jewish businesses in Milwaukee established in 1847.
In 1964 the building was ordered razed because it was in danger of imminent collapse. The two small buildings to the north were also razed at that time. A modern structure was built in some of that space but the 20-foot plot immediately north of the bank building remained vacant. In 2004 an elevator wing was constructed to create an accessible entrance. It is known as 604 North Water Street as the Friends Brothers building had been.
In 1856 the Friend Brothers signed a covenant that any building constructed on the 40 by 45-foot vacant lot to the east of the State Bank would have to be constructed in a similar architectural style as the State Bank. The style was known as Italian Renaissance Revival, a pre-Civil War style. While the State Bank was more restrained, the Bank of Milwaukee’s design was more exuberant. A third building, the Iron Block, was constructed nearby in 1860-61. These are the only examples of the Italian Renaissance Revival style left in Milwaukee. J. B. Martin, who built the Iron Block, had a small bank that was in our present Boutique. It was burned out during a Bank Riot in 1861.
State Bank, the larger of the two bank buildings, was a four-story office building. The first floor housed the State Bank plus there was a small bank and other financial businesses on the garden level. Vaults were in the basement and on the first two floors. Rooms not needed for business by the State Bank were rented out as offices. In the 19th century offices on the upper floors were less desirable and were more difficult to rent out.
In 1865 the banks that had been operating under a state charter were offered the chance to become National banks. The State Bank of Wisconsin became the Milwaukee National Bank (of Wisconsin). It almost failed during very bad economic times in 1893 but held on until being Voluntarily Liquidated on August 29,1912 by its banker George W. Strohmeyer. Its assets were turned over to the First National Bank of Wisconsin.
Bank of Milwaukee
In 1856 the vacant lot (40 by 45 feet) to the east of the State Bank was purchased by Carlyle D. Cook, a well-known railroad contractor, for $9000. He built a building of that size in the style he was bound to by the covenant. This building has a known architect A. C. Nash who left Milwaukee for Cincinnati in the late 1860’s and died there in 1890. This is the last surviving building in Milwaukee designed by Cook.
This building opened for business in January 1859 as the Bank of Milwaukee. Its banker was Charles D. Nash. The bank of Milwaukee was established in 1855 and moved here from a previous location which was then immediately occupied by the Marine Bank. As was allowed at the time, the Bank of Milwaukee issued its own paper money. In 1865 it also received a national charter as the National Exchange Bank. Despite its size, this building had the same arrangement as the bigger bank on the corner; four floors for offices, vaults on the basement and first two floors and a big bank on the first floor. Each had a basement store. It was also true that the upper floors were less easy to rent out.
In August of 1865 C.D. Nash bought the Newhall House with two well-known early Milwaukeeans. He used to claim that he owned 30 per cent of the hotel. In 1866 a wooden covered passage was built between our building and the Newhall House. Some rooms on the upper floors of our building were turned into what was called the Newhall House Annex. It was used for hotel rooms if there were none available in the hotel. It is often written the rooms were above the State Bank but those rooms were not connected to Nash’s bank.
At the time of the destruction of the Newhall House by fire in January 1883 lives were saved by the existence of the walkway. Also, when a fireman desperately dropped a ladder and it caught on our building ten Irish Domestics were carried to safety to our roof. Many lives were saved in the 1883 fire by people accessing the walkway.
When the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company moved its headquarters to the site of the Newhall House in about 1886 Charles D. Nash moved his bank to a portion of the building on Broadway where it remained until 1927.
The Boston Syndicate
A group of Boston Capitalists known as the Boston Syndicate bought up some local business property for investment purposes. In October 1891, among other properties purchased, Mr. F. W. Montgomery (as their representative) purchased the building on Michigan Street that had been occupied by the National Exchange Bank. It was reported as having a frontage of 45 feet on Michigan Street. It was known as 86 and 88 Michigan Street (now 210 and 214 East Michigan Street). It adjoined the alley in back of the New Insurance Building (now Hilton Garden Inn). That alley was one of the few named alleys in Milwaukee and was known as Northwestern Lane for many years.
The idea was that the building would be raised two stories and remodeled into a first class office building. It was reported the building had been built by the Cook Eldred Company. Its cut stone front had cost over $9000. The stone was cut and carved by a man known as John Andres (who was named in the newspapers about when the building was constructed as John Andrews). Edward Barber sold the building for what was reported to be much more than $1000 per foot.
The following summer it was reported that an additional story would be added. Because of the additional weight it was planned to use steel framework. It was to cost about $40,000.
On January 25, 1894 bids were taken for this building which was designed by Ferry and Clas. The bids were telegraphed to The Boston Syndicate to await their word on the bids.
After considering their options the Boston Land and Ground Trust Company (its official name) decided to simply “rebuild the interior. The pillars and divisions on the first floor are all to be removed as to make a large office intended for the use of one of the large insurances agencies.” The building was intended to be fitted throughout for the use of insurance agents and companies.
On November 30,1903, the Milwaukee National Bank took out a permit for “alteration and addition on the corner of Michigan and East Water Street” for $6000. The architect was Ferry and Clas (who would have built the 7-story building had it proceeded) and the builder was James Quinn and Company. In modern dollars the value of the permit would be well over $100,000.
On the exterior the main changes to unify the two buildings was to remove the rounded pediment from the smaller building and replace it with a pointed one to try to match the one to the west. Also the door to the Milwaukee National Bank was replaced by a window and everyone used the door from the former National Exchange Bank as the entrance.
Changes to the interior of the building were made to further unify them as one.
Marble was used in the new entrance area, the western portion of the former National Exchange Bank and the eastern portion of the Milwaukee national Bank. Significant architectural features are the ceiling in the lobby and foyer areas, staircase and elevator area, art glass, the bankers office in the Milwaukee National Bank as rebuilt in 1903 (we call it the Lincoln room), and plaster detail over vaults in the former National Exchange Bank. When they were unified the floors did not line up and ramped flooring was added to bring them together.
Our buildings have vaults on the basement and first two floors left over from the buildings banking days.
Fireplaces that once burned anthracite (hard coal) are remnants of the original Bank of Milwaukee office spaces on the 2nd and 3rd floors.
In 2003 we installed an accessible elevator on the site of the former 604 North Water Street Friend Brothers shop. To enter that area passages had to be made. The only way was through two vaults. It cost $800 each to remove the two vault doors and three days each with a circular diamond tipped drill to make the cuts necessary for passage.
The combined building housed the Milwaukee National Bank to 1912. In 1913 the building was sold to the Christian Schroeder and Son Insurance Company which was once the largest in the state. It also was involved in real estate.
Walter Schroeder (Christian’s son) also ran a group of hotels from his office in our building. He died in 1967 without retiring. Our building was known for many years as the Insurance Exchange Building. Later uses were as the Marine Bank Credit Card Department and an architectural firm. Since 2002 it has been occupied by Grand Avenue Club, a nonprofit organization that provides opportunities for people who have experienced Mental Illness.