The Railway Exchange building was constructed in the Commercial Style in 1899–1900 and was Milwaukee’s first high-rise steel-frame tower.
The Railway Exchange Building, located near where East Town meets the Historic Third Ward, was built in 1899-1900. It has been named the cornerstone of Milwaukee’s East Side Commercial Historic District. Originally named for its builder, Henry Herman, who came to Milwaukee from Maine in 1865 to take advantage of the booming railroad business, it was renamed in 1906. The Railway Exchange Building served as the headquarters of the Chicago and Northwestern Railway from 1901–1945.
The Railway Exchange Building is a significant example of the work of the internationally renowned architect and engineer William LeBaron Jenney, known worldwide as the “father of the skyscraper.” It is his only Milwaukee building. As commercial style architecture, it employs a steel skeleton frame, allowing for massive windows. He led the Chicago school architects in perfecting this building technique. His first building of this type was the Home Insurance Building in Chicago, completed in 1885. Jenney influenced the theory of Louis Sullivan, (Frank Lloyd Wright’s mentor) who likened his Commercial Style buildings to a classical column.
The Railway Exchange Building rests on a massive concrete and cast-iron foundation with a three-story base faced with terra-cotta in banded rustication tapering to a six-story shaft of adorned brick, rhythmically broken by double hung windows. Take a look up to the top three floors to see the original, elaborately decorated terra-cotta Ionic columns and neoclassical ornament. The entire lobby is adorned in polished, white marble imported from Italy, as are the floors and walls of the wide corridors. Still ornamented with its original porcelain tile mosaic lobby floor and ornate, open cast-iron with marble treads stairway between each floor, this 12-story structure has always been a magnificent and beloved addition to Milwaukee’s skyline. Its value in historical terms is clear. Originally it had a two-dynamo electricity generating plant in the basement and three 15-foot long hydraulic cylinders with pulleys to operate the elevators.
Patti Keating Kahn purchased the building in 2005 and began the arduous task of bringing it back to its original stature. Her company’s mission of preserving our City’s history through its architecture as well as a long-standing reputation for excellence in service to tenants was implemented. Major investments have been made including new electrical, plumbing and air conditioning systems, new restrooms, elevator remodeling, roofing systems, marble restoration, etc.