Herman’s Railway Exchange Building
This week I’m steering away from the little-known-near-ruins that have frequented my blog posts and turning to what may or may not be a lesser appreciated downtown skyscraper, the Railway Exchange Building at 229 East Wisconsin Avenue. The idea arose after a friend proclaimed his ardor for the building to which I posed the question: Do people know how great it is?
Aesthetically, the building has few Milwaukee contemporaries as a turn of the century skyscraper designed in what is often deemed the Commercial Style. The style developed from the Chicago School of architecture as architects experimented with surface treatment for buildings that were reaching new heights. Structural steel frames broke buildings from the mold of squat buildings relying on thick structural layers of masonry to support the weight of its walls. Steel frames not only alleviated the weight of walls to reach new heights, they opened up the building with larger windows slowly dominating the façade as fenestration began to replace surface treatment. Skyscraper’s such as these dot the loop area of Chicago, but are considerably less common in Milwaukee.
The Railway Exchange Building, Milwaukee’s first high rise steel frame office building was added to Milwaukee’s skyline according to the designs of Chicago architect William Le Baron Jenney. Originally referred to as the Herman Building, the twelve story skyscraper was commissioned in 1899 by Milwaukee businessman Henry Herman for whom the building was named. Herman hired Jenney who is often deemed the father of the modern skyscraper after he designed the Home Insurance Building (1883-85) constructed in Chicago with a cast iron frame. Designed in the brink of the Commercial Style, Herman’s building utilizes Neo-Classical embellishments to decorate the façade, a common formula for approaching the ever increasing height of turn of the century skyscrapers. The bottom three floors are comprised of banded terra cotta, the upper floors of dark red pressed brick. Originally an elaborate cornice crowned the top of the building, but has since been removed and replaced with a plain brick parapet stripping the building of its original grandeur (a common fate for Milwaukee’s historic buildings such as Sydney Hih, the Wells Building, and the now razed Pabst Building).
According to a Milwaukee Journal article published in April of 1901, the Herman Building was to be finished that year and its tenants to include the Pfister Estate, Herman himself, and local headquarters of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad for which the building was shortly renamed. The Railway Exchange Building remained the home of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad until 1945.