Founded as Mutual of Wisconsin in Janesville in 1857 and relocated to Milwaukee in 1859, Northwestern Mutual’s first local office was a 380 square foot rented room in a building at the corner of Broadway and Wisconsin Avenue. By 1891, the life insurance provider had grown large enough to warrant a move to the Iron Block building, located just one black to the west.
By the 1880s, the company was now one of the largest life insurance providers in the nation and, in 1886, Northwestern Mutual commissioned the build of the five-story Romanesque marvel at Broadway and Michigan Street. The new building had been fit snugly into the footprint of the doomed Newhall House hotel, which stood on the site between 1857 and 1883 – when it burned in a spectacular fire that killed 75 people.
Northwestern Mutual initially only occupied one floor of the building, but eventually moved into all corners of the structure, expanding their spaces as other tenants were forced out. In 1910, having outgrown the space entirely, the company commissioned another landmark structure, which would become the imposing eight-story building on East Wisconsin Avenue that the company still uses today. The building, with its trademark massive granite columns greeting visitors, opened in 1914. In 2017, the company inaugurated yet another landmark Milwaukee building with a 550-foot-tall glass-faced tower that sits at the middle of the city skyline.
These doorknobs, with their unique double-key lock, were once used in the 1886 building to secure a document room. That building, later known as the Loyalty Building, still stands, now home to a Hilton Garden Inn hotel.
Antique Milwaukee is a new web Milwaukee Magazine web series that takes a closer look at objects and curiosities from around town that have a story to tell. We’ll reveal a piece of Milwaukee’s history through a new artifact in each installment.