The Railway Exchange Building before the roofline parapet was covered with bricks. Photo courtesy of Historic Photo Collection/Milwaukee Public Library.
Around the corner from the Iron Block Building is another landmark some five stories taller and nearly as old. The Railway Exchange Building, disheveled in recent years and easily overlooked, rises from the southwestern corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Broadway like a transplant from a denser city. Completed on a narrow lot in 1901, a mere 40 feet by 100 feet, the Railway Exchange’s 12 stories rest on immense concrete-and-steel pads, meaning that unlike Milwaukee’s City Hall, built on wood pilings in 1895, it’s not slowly sinking. William LeBaron Jenney, the architect who devised the first steel-framed skyscraper in 1884, Chicago’s Home Insurance Building, followed it up with the similar, and slimmer, Railway Exchange.
But memory of the connection has faded. In 1971, the Wisconsin Historical Society conducted an investigation of the building, then 70 years old, and discovered that it appeared “to be the only Milwaukee building planned by the famed Chicago School architect and engineer, ‘Father of the Skyscraper’ William LeBaron Jenney.” Recognition widened further in 1977, when a real estate firm successfully nominated the tower for landmark status with the Milwaukee Landmarks Commission, calling it “an excellent example of early skyscraper design.” This was, perhaps, the peak of its renown.
Sad times followed in the 21st century. A Quiznos location came and went on the first floor, leaving behind a crumbling wraparound façade, and the storefront sat gutted as Patti Keating-Kahn, owner of the building since 2004, awaited a new tenant worthy of the space. “We’ve had a lot of inquiries,” she says – places like fast food franchises and corner stores – “but I rejected all of them until Pita Pit came along.” The health-conscious build-your-own pita chain opened its first Milwaukee restaurant beside the Oriental Theatre in 2013, and plans this summer called for opening another at the Railway Exchange by October.
Local historian and consultant H. Russell Zimmerman keeps an office in the building and was prowling around its scaffolding on Aug. 1, soon after contractors had begun work on an arduous façade restoration. A Polish masonry firm trained in a unique tradition – one deepened during the post-World War II reconstruction of Warsaw – will make invisible seams in the building’s terracotta panels, and a local hardware dealer has promised to find a period-appropriate wooden door for Pita Pit’s entryway.
“It’s crunch time,” Keating-Kahn said. “Not one day can be wasted.”
Working from old photographs and structural plans, Keating-Kahn hopes to some day restore the building to its appearance circa 1901. Inside, tenants such as Milwaukee Film, GT Creative and a psychiatry practice are already using preserved office doors, hardware and original glass. Marble and cast-iron stairs lead up from a mosaic-inlaid lobby, another project awaiting its day.
“This was once the most prominent corner in Milwaukee,” she says. “Nobody wanted to be by the wharf at that time. It was stinky!” Positioned up a hill from the river, the former Herman Building (its first name, after developer Henry Herman) first served as an outpost for the Chicago and North Western Railway, hence the current name.
And while not the first skyscraper in Milwaukee (City Hall and the former Pabst Building came before), Zimmerman says the high-rise, begun in 1899, still stands as the city’s oldest surviving office tower.
“I feel like its steward,” says Keating-Kahn, who was vice president at a construction firm in Racine before leaving to manage the Railway Exchange and the also-historic Colby Abbot Building (759 N. Milwaukee St.), which she also owns. “It’s my turn, and it’s going to get done right.” ■