I sat in a covered bus stop at 2nd and Wells, not waiting for a bus but hiding from a brisk wind. My attention drifted across the street to a row of empty buildings. In one vacant structure sat a room filled floor-to-ceiling with boxes. The next was full of boarded-up windows of plywood.
The Germania Building is a powerful-looking structure. The name is a nice fit. Designed by German architects Schnetzky and Liebert, it cost $300,000 to build it in 1896. (That’s about $8 million today.) It was home to the largest German-language publishing company in the country and was once the biggest office building in the city. Owner and publisher George Brumder immigrated from France to Wisconsin in 1857. He published the Germania-Abendpost, The Milwaukee Herold, the Sonntagpost, as well as several weekly and quarterly publications.
During World War I, the four eye-catching, copper-clad domes above the building were known as Kaiser’s Helmets because of their resemblance to the German’s war helmets, pickelhaube. The structural characteristics and name encompass Germany, a fact Brumder once swept under the rug in the middle of the anti-German sentiment in 1918.
The Milwaukee German community felt under fire. Families changed their last names; sauerkraut consumption fell 75 percent; and those speaking German were singled out and insulted. Soon, the building’s name changed to the Brumder Building and the three-ton statue of Germania, once sitting above the building’s entrance, seemingly disappeared overnight, symbolic of a heritage in hiding. In the middle of World War II, the statue was almost melted down for metal to support the war effort. Today, the statue’s whereabouts remains one of Milwaukee’s greatest mysteries.
As I walked into the lobby of the Germania building, questions rapidly fired within my mind. If only I could sit over a few beers with Brumder to get some answers.
I stepped into the elevator and chatted nonchalantly with a fellow about the weather. He pressed the button for one floor, and I pressed a random floor that wasn’t his, hoping to explore the building without being questioned.
I stepped out onto the concourse on the third floor. I looked straight above at the lights – they were fitted into a beautiful, flowered antique plaster. Each flower held a delicate light bulb. Peering up at this piece of art, I imagined it being in the foyer of a vaudeville theater. I continued exploring the building, traveling upstairs, downstairs and stumbling upon original, dusty stairwells.
A recent proposal would renovate the Germania into an apartment complex. These quiet halls could be home to 78 apartments, along with 14,000 square feet of street-level commercial space. I was at first sorry to hear it could be turned into apartments, but then I explored the building. The hallways reminded me of an outdated Belmont Inn motel, desperately needing better-matching carpets and fresh wall paper.
In the meantime, city committees are deciding whether the building will be granted Local Historic Designation, allowing no exterior work to be made without first going through the Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission. After nearly 120 years, this building still stately stands along the 2nd and Wells intersection. It’s endured times of promise, war and fear itself.