Pfister Hotel - The Renovation

By Jean Towell
Published in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Sunday May 2, 1993

Entering the lobby of The Pfister Hotel is like stepping into another era - one that's more gracious and civilized than the one you left. Courteous service prevails and you feel a sense of gentility that's some how lost in the chaos of everyday life outside.

The impressive columns, dark wood, ornamental plaster with decorative gold leaf, etched glass, richly patterned carpet and treasured oil paintings create an atmosphere of Victorian luxury. This is a place where splendor and comfort is made available to everyone, at least that was the intention of Guido and Charles Pfister 100 years ago.

"This lobby was Milwaukee's living room, a town square of sorts where people gathered, and that's happening again since it has been renovated to its original state," explains Concierge Peter Mortensen, the hotel's historian, suitably attired in a gray morning coat and striped ascot.

Knowledgeable about the most any detail in the hotel, Mortensen explains that the hotel's architecture is really fashioned after some of the very grand homes or mansions from the Victorian era. "This lobby is actually like a solon or large reception room," he says, walking through the area as he would on one of his guided tours.

Looking up to the ceiling, Mortensen points out the dramatic new mural and the large medallions at the north and south ends with the word Salve. This Latin word is one of greeting and farewell, and at The Pfizer it also stands for the philosophy of service and hospitality.

Walking toward the stairway, Mortensen stops to explain that the pair of bronze lions were a gift from T. A. Chapman and had originally flanked the hotel entrance on Wisconsin Avenue. The towering pikemen that border the entrance to the lobby lounge area had originally flanked the fireplace in Chapman's store downtown, noted Mortensen.

Mortensen is a wealth of information. He can tell you that there were once Turkish baths where the English Room is; the Café Rouge is where the men's billiard hall once was; that a large cigar shop occupied an entire wall where the reception desk now stands; and that the hotel once had a haberdasher, and a 24-hour pharmacist.

This hotel is really like a museum, and it's perhaps for this reason that the total renovation was so important. "This building needs to be taken care of, and we're preparing it for the next 100 years," says President Steve Marcus.

Vice President and General Manager Rosemary Steinfest says the whole project took about five years and started in the main building, gutting and redesigning the guest rooms. Then The English Room was redecorated and its original fireplace was uncovered from inside the wall.

The next phase was to open the lobby to its original floor plan. Then came the tower rooms, presidential suites, and the 7th floor banquet and conference center. The new Café at The Pfister off the lobby is the final project. Milwaukee architect Don Holt was an integral part of the whole process.

"Our firm (Schroeder and Holt Architects Ltd.) worked on the Pfister tower in the 1960s so we've come to know the building well over the years," says Holt. He explained that the intent of the recent project was to restore the hotel to its original state as much as possible.

Within this Victorian design, new heating, air-conditioning, sprinkler systems and smoke detectors had to be incorporated. There are also updated facilities to accommodate handicapped guests. Holt said one of the best aspects of this project was learning there are craftsmen today that can handle decorative details from the past.

Decorative specialists at Conrad Schmitt Studios in Milwaukee are a good example. With expertise in stained glass, mural painting, plaster restoration, mosaics, and gold gilding, this studio designed and painted the lobby ceiling mural and surrounding decorations, as well as the ornate ceiling of the Imperial ballroom.

"Founded in 1889, it is very likely that Conrad Schmitt Studios worked on the original Pfister construction," says Gianfranco Tassara, project manager for the studio. "Our goal for the recent work was to fit the design with the architecture and also balance it with today's needs," he explains.

"The lobby is a very ornate place, so the ceiling was designed to give it breathing room," says Tassara. It is painted to mimic the sky and the celestial cherubs are styled to depict various ethnic groups.

The borders of the ceiling are done in ornamental plaster that's glazed and covered with Dutch metal leaf which mimics gold leaf. This metal was also used on the Imperial Ballroom ceiling.

Tassara says this Dutch metal leaf comes in very thin 4-inch-sqaure sheets, packed 500 to a box. He estimates that more than 50,000 sheets were used for the lobby and ballroom.

Now that the renovation plan is complete, The Pfister is a showpiece for the community and its visitors to enjoy. "It's a real treat for me to introduce people to the kind of experience The Pfister can provide, and to carry on a century-old tradition," says Mortensen.


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