Just across the river from the 3rd Ward is this monster of a building complex. The original two portions, with their endless marching windows and bays, were begun in 1875 as the Pritzlaff Building.
The building originally held a hardware company that, in time, became Milwaukee's largest. The enterprise was begun by John Pritzlaff, a Prussian immigrant who arrived in Milwaukee in 1841. In 1850 he started his hardware company, which would eventually become one of the largest in the Midwest, employing some 400 persons at its peak.
Leaving its original home on 3rd Street (still extant today), the company moved south to a site with railroad and river access. The new building was designed by John Rugee. The center portion of the east facade, dated 1875, came first; the corner portion to the north was likely the next addition. Overall the building was expanded at least three times, in 1916 among others, into a 300,000 square foot complex.
Pritzlaff's son Fredrick would continue as president of the company until 1951; Frederick's son and grandson also entered the business. However, by then the company was in decline; it closed its doors in 1958.
The buildings then became home to Hack's Furniture, who applied their own painted signs to its vast walls of Cream City brick. Hack's closed in 1984, but a family-owned storage business moved into the building.
The buildings were most recently occupied as a furniture store (The Mattress Store) and for storage, but have been largely vacant and underutilized for years. By 2000, the building was under consideration for conversion into a residential space, but no developers were willing to step forward, daunted perhaps by its considerable size.
Six years later, however, Sunset Investors got the ball got rolling on a massive renovation, cleanup, and remodeling. The building is now being converted to a mixed-use project, including 86 condominiums, retail, office space, and a new parking garage that has yet to be built. The project is being overseen by Brookfield design firm Cityscape Archtecture.
The renovation has cleaned the public faces of the building, washing away heavy layers of grime and soot accumulated in its 130-year history. The change is remarkable, letting the building's architectural beauty shine through unblemished.
East elevation in March 2000
East elevation in June 2008
While the renovated facades look unquestionably great, it is still a bit sad to see the building's physical history scrubbed away, losing the appearance of a building unaltered for a hundred years. The building has also lost the 1950s painted signs from the Hack's Furniture days.
North/west elevations, July 2005
North/west elevations, July 2008
Various painted signs for Pritzlaff Hardware remain on the back of the building at present, though the renovation may claim them as well. Some are over a hundred years old; it would be an unfortunate loss.
Above: a painted Pritzlaff Hardware sign on one of the original buildings was partially covered over by a western building addition.
The building's street facades are nothing short of remarkable. The various additions over the years are unified by their Cream City brick construction, and range in style from ornate Italianate to the largely unadorned 7-story addition to the south. An amazingly long line of windows marches down the Plankington Avenue side, beautifully rhythmic, their sheer number hinting at the heights of prosperity and money that drove the building's owners.
The building is remarkably well preserved, its cornice and Italianate brackets unaltered since their original 1875 construction. It street level storefronts are likewise virtually unaltered; the renovation has removed the various ad hoc alterations that did accumulate over the years, leaving a clean and lovely street facade.
Seeing this building renovated and on its way back to life is nothing short of uplifting. In its sheer size and power, it is one of the city's most remarkable structures.