Luxurious and opulent inside, The Pfister Hotel looks as if it was plucked out of Europe during the Victorian era and dropped on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Jefferson Street in downtown Milwaukee.
Two bronze lions named Dick and Harry flank the base of a marble staircase as you enter. To the left, the lounge beckons with plush chairs surrounding low tables. Neither prepared me for what I saw as I approached the front desk, though.
In the main lobby, the ceiling vaults to four stories. There, above crystal chandeliers and framed on both sides by gold leaf panels, multi-ethnic cherubs play among painted clouds. It was the first of many surprises during my stay at The Pfister.
Historic Accommodations at The Pfister Hotel
One of only 12 hotels in North America to have maintained AAA Four Diamond status since the ratings were first introduced in 1976, The Pfister has hosted visiting Major League Baseball teams, numerous celebrities (including Elvis Presley), and every president from William McKinley through George W. Bush. I felt I had joined their ranks as I headed to my room.
Completed in 1893 for an astronomical sum (at the time) of $1 million dollars, the hotel was billed as the “Grand Hotel of the West” and featured cutting edge technologies such as fireproofing, electricity throughout, and individual thermostat controls in every room. It debuted with an extensive art collection as well.
Unfortunately, The Pfister began to decline in the 1950s and was purchased at auction in 1962 by local movie theater operator Ben Marcus. Marcus renovated the original hotel and added a 23-story guest room tower increasing its capacity to 307 rooms and suites.
I stayed in one of the hotel’s original rooms. Well-maintained with Victorian-influenced furnishings, the room was modern and showed no signs of its age. The king-sized bed was comfortable, and the Wi-Fi worked perfectly for me. I loved being able to sit on the window sill and look out at the Milwaukee skyline.
The Pfister Hotel—Dedicated to the Arts
Whether you stay at The Pfister or just drop by for a glass of wine, make sure you tour the hotel’s 84-piece Victorian art collection, the largest such hotel collection in the world. Maps can direct you on a self-guided tour, and you can download the Pfister Augmented Realty (PAR) app to see videos and play games as you visit each piece.
However, I recommend scheduling a tour of the art collection with The Pfister’s current artist in residence. Not only does the artist have a background in art that can help shed light on the pieces in the collection, but each artist will naturally focus on different aspects of the art. An artist who designs clothing may discuss the fashions depicted while another may point out colors or brushstrokes used. Each time you tour with a new artist in residence, the tour will be different.
If you don’t plan far enough ahead to schedule a tour with the artist in residence (you can schedule it at the front desk), you can always drop by the hotel studio, located just off the lobby near the elevator, to see the artist at work. Each Pfister artist in residence commits to be in the hotel for a minimum of 30 hours per week. During the tenure—from April 1 to March 31—the artist creates unique works reflecting life at the hotel.
The hotel also has a narrator in residence, who maintains the hotel’s blog, interacts with guests, and hosts programs such as poetry readings and book discussions during the annual appointment.
More “Wow” Experiences at The Pfister Hotel
From the awe-inspiring lobby to the art collection and artist-in-residence program, there’s no shortage of “wow” experiences at The Pfister. General Manager Tim Smith counts a spa treatment at the Well Spa + Salon as yet another one. Each treatment room has its own bathroom with a shower, he says, so spa goers prepare for their session privately, not in a communal locker room.
The swimming pool on the 23rd floor has a wall of windows with incredible views of the skyline and lake. There is a similar view on the other side of the 23rd floor in the hotel’s cocktail lounge, Blu. You can enjoy the view while sipping a brandy old fashioned—the unofficial cocktail of Milwaukee. Come on Friday and Saturday evenings to hear live music and watch the city lights twinkle below.
For daytime fun and views, make a reservation at Blu for the traditional afternoon tea, complete with fresh scones, finger sandwiches, and decadent pastries. The tea is scheduled to run though March 2018.
The People Make the Difference
There’s so much to love about The Pfister. In addition to the history, art and architecture, I loved that it was within walking distance to the Santiago Calatrava-designed Milwaukee Art Museum and the Historic Third Ward. By car (or Uber), it’s only a few minutes to the Harley-Davidson Museum, Pabst Mansion, brewery tours and the Bronze Fonz, a sculpture of the infamous Happy Days character. (Click here to read about Susan's experience in Milwaukee and some of her finds in Milwaukee.)
But, I also loved that the entire staff was so friendly. Smith says it’s not uncommon for guests to recognize staff members like Peter Mortenson, the chief concierge, and Harold Lewis, the bell captain, and for the staff to recognize returning guests as well.
“When you stay here, you are part of the history and part of our family,” Smith explains.
I can’t wait to go back.
The Pfister Hotel is located at 424 E. Wisconsin Ave. in Milwaukee and offers several packages and pet-friendly rooms. For more information or to make reservations, visit the hotel’s website or call (414) 273-8222.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations, meals and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.