Historic Milwaukee / East Wisconsin Avenue

Photographed October 19, 2014
Milwaukee, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin
43° 2.336′ N, 87° 54.335′ W

Historic Milwaukee
East Wisconsin Avenue
In this east-of-the-river locale then known as Juneautown, the first stage of development transformed a wilderness into a village—in less that a decade. The area was still swampy, rugged forest in the early 1830s. Solomon Juneau, Milwaukee’s first settler and one of Milwaukee’s first developers, surveyed and platted the land. In 1836, he hired New York native Nelson Olin to grade Wisconsin Avenue from the river to the lake for $3,000. After a trip back to New York for oxen, scrapers, shovels and pickaxes, Olin went to work. He recalled the project as a challenge: “A harder job never was done in Milwaukee for the same money. There was a hollow midway between East Water and Main (now Broadway) streets four feet deep that took nearly two weeks of hard work to fill up…”

By the late 1830s, the roadway was graded. Before the grading was complete, buildings were already springing up. Shops were built west of Broadway, primarily along Water Street with its river access, and homes began to dot the area east of Broadway. Among the earliest residential structures were log cabins and “claim shanties,” built by driving stakes into the ground and surrounding them with basswood lumber. Most were modest structures, little more than flimsy wood shells. Between 1834 and 1840, Milwaukee’s population expanded from 125 to 1,692.

Juneautown gave rise to an architecturally and historically significant collection of commercial and residential buildings between 1856 and 1939. After fires in the 1860s, East Wisconsin Avenue became a major commercial street. Substantial buildings for retail shops and professional offices were erected in the 1860s. Some, including the Curry Pierce building, are still extant today.

James Curry, a confectioner, and Amos Pierce, a grocer, built the two halves of the cream city brick Curry Pierce building at 400 East Wisconsin and 700 North Milwaukee Street in 1866. The flat-roofed Italianate style structure was built as two separate but identical three-bay-wide, three-story-tall buildings. By the time the fourth floor and mansard roof were added in 1879, both structures were owned by Amos Pierce. The west elevation facing Milwaukee Street was originally the building’s façade. It was renovated in 1993.

A landmark Milwaukee Department store, Chapman’s stood on the southeast corner of Wisconsin and Milwaukee for over a century. T.A. Chapman moved his department store from East Water to Milwaukee Street in 1877. After the store burned in 1884, a larger building constructed to take its place remained in operation until 1981. The department store was part of the land acquired for the 1985 construction of the post modern 411 Building designed by Harry Weese & Associates of Chicago.
In 1882, leather tanning magnate Guido Pfister announced his intention to build a grand hotel on the corner of Wisconsin and Jefferson, just south of his Jefferson Street home. Pfister had formed a consortium of businessmen to finance the hotel by 1888, but his 1889 death prevented the project from going forward. Pfister’s son, Charles, revived the project and ground was broken in November of 1890. One of the city’s finest examples of Romanesque Revival architecture, the Pfister Hotel was designed by master architect Henry C. Koch. The building opened its doors on May 1, 1893, and immediately became known as one of the city’s premier hotels, a reputation it maintains to this day. Its Hall of Presidents meeting rooms are named for Presidents Roosevelt, Taft, McKinley and Kennedy, in recognition of those honored guests.
The marker is located at the entrance to The Pfister Hotel on westbound East Wisconsin Avenue, at its intersection with North Jefferson Street, at 424 East Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202.
The Pfister Hotel

The Pfister Hotel: Our History

Looking west at East Wisconsin Avenue.

T.A. Chapman's

This 1900 photo shows construction of the Wells Building at 324 East Wisconsin in the foreground, with the Curry Pierce building’s Milwaukee Street façade in the background. A portion of the “Carpets” sign on the Chapman’s Department Store building can be seen on the right. Historic Photo Collection / Milwaukee Public Library.
Above, a home that was located at Jefferson and Wisconsin is shown in this 1889 photo; Historic Photo Collection / Milwaukee Public Library. The location is now the site of the Pfister Hotel (left); photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society. The Pfister has been in a National Register historic district since 1986.
At the front door of The Pfister.

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