Historic Milwaukee / East Wisconsin Avenue

Photographed October 19, 2014
Milwaukee, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin
43° 2.339′ N, 87° 54.263′ W
Historic Milwaukee
East Wisconsin Avenue
Between 1870 and 1900, Milwaukee’s economy expanded beyond processing the region’s agricultural products to include large-scale heavy industry. This led to an expansion of established businesses including banking, insurance, commission trading and wholesaling, as well as government offices.

Northwestern National Life Insurance Company was incorporated in 1869 to protect property owners and lake shippers against financial losses due to fire and marine disasters. The initial incorporators included some of the city’s leading businessmen, including Alexander Mitchell and John Plankinton.

In 1906, the company moved into 526 East Wisconsin Avenue, a graceful, beautifully detailed neo-Renaissance edifice, designed by Milwaukee master architects Ferry and Clas and ornamented with ironwork by Cyril Colnik. A four-story addition was constructed at the rear of the building in 1927, and, in 1963, the addition was completely remodeled and six floors were added. The company occupied the expanded complex until 1987.

At the other end of the block is the Milwaukee Club, Milwaukee’s oldest men’s club. Leading businessmen discussed the club in the winter of 1881. According to Club records, the Chicago firm of Burnham and Root was chosen to design the building, and Edward Townsend Mix served as supervising architect. Other sources conclude that Mix designed the building. The distinctive red brick and terra cotta structure at 706 North Jefferson Street, on the northeast corner of Jefferson and Wisconsin, was completed by mid-1884. Alexander Mitchell was elected as the first president. An addition was completed in 1893.

For most of the 19th century, the federal government housed only a few small agencies in Milwaukee. Rented quarters at various locations sufficed until the 1870s, when Milwaukee’s tremendous population explosion necessitated larger facilities.

A federal committee selected the site for the Federal Building after an acrimonious debate over whether to locate the facility east or west of the river. In 1891, Willoughby J. Edbrooke, Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department, arrived in Milwaukee with the plans for the new structure. The design was based on famous 19th century architect Henry Hobson Richardson’s scheme for the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh, which had been built in 1883 and was widely emulated. Similar federal buildings were erected in St. Paul, Omaha, Washington, D.C. and other cities.

By the late 1920s, the increased number of federal agencies with offices in Milwaukee required that the Federal Building be enlarged to provide additional office space. A large five-story addition was added to the rear of the main block between 1929 and 1932. Two more stories were added to the south wing in 1940. The additions were sensitively designed to blend with the original structure in materials and scale. The building continues to serve as a federal courthouse, though many federal offices have relocated to other buildings.
The marker is located on westbound East Wisconsin Avenue, at its intersection with North Jackson Street, on front of the Northwestern National Insurance Company building, at 526 East Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202.

The Northwestern National Insurance Company building is one of the city’s finest examples of Beaux Arts style commercial architecture. At each corner is a stone urn surrounded by a flame-shaped carving that symbolizes the ancient warning signal for mariners. The building has been locally designated as an historic building since 1987. Photo courtesy of Simon Clay, PCR Publishing.
See also, Northwestern National Insurance Company, a related marker also at this location.
A circa 1885 view of the building which still houses the Milwaukee Club, founded in 1882. The photo shows the building before its 1883 addition. No major interior or exterior alterations have been made since 1893. University of Wisconsin –Milwaukee Archives Department.
Alexander Mitchell, railroad magnate, banker, sovereign power in post-Civil War Wisconsin, and an emperor of capital whose authority was beyond question. Mitchell served as president of the Marine Bank, long Wisconsin’s largest bank; and the Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad, Wisconsin’s largest when he assumed its presidency in 1865. His family residence at 9th and Wisconsin is now the Wisconsin Club. Historic Photo Collection / Milwaukee Public Library.
The Federal Building, known to Milwaukeeans for many years as the city’s main post office, now serves as the federal courthouse. It was designated as a Milwaukee City landmark in 1972, and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society.
See also, Federal Building -- U.S. Court House, a related marker at a nearby location.
A close-up of the stunning Roman arches on the Wisconsin Avenue fa├žade of the federal building – highlighting the exquisitely carved moldings and decorative stonework surrounding the main entrance. University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, www.uwm.edu/Dept/Geosciences/Urban_Geology/frontpage.shtml.
The entrance to The Northwestern National Insurance Company.

The Northwestern National Insurance Company today.

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