When the Milwaukee Athletic Club began courting developers in late 2017, the 140-year-old city club was in a pinch.
It’s now 105-year-old building, constructed at a time when the club was a men-only establishment, had fallen into disrepair and was no longer suited for the full spectrum of the association’s current membership, nor its reduced size.
Retrofitted over the years to accommodate both men and women, the structure at 758 N. Broadway had become highly inefficient, and all of the mechanical systems serving its 13 stories were outdated. The club also couldn’t possibly increase membership fees enough to raise the kind of money it would need to make even the most necessary changes to the building.
But Tony Janowiec of Interstate Development Partners and Josh Jeffers of J. Jeffers & Co. each had ideas they thought might help to turn the club around.
Submitting plans separately to the association, the pair were eventually chosen by its membership to collaborate on what would become a $62 million, three-year renovation of the building.
On April 9, surrounded by more than 500 of the club’s growing pool of members at a black-tie gala, the two men celebrated the culmination of those efforts – efforts that saw the pair, their investment partners, and hundreds of contractors and stakeholders survive supply chain disruptions, materials shortages, a drastically shortened construction timeline, and one pandemic-sized pivot.
The pandemic pivot
Sitting in the newly refurbished, but classically svelte lobby of the MAC on a recent Tuesday, Jeffers and Janowiec got the chance to look at the project from a far different perch than they had back in March 2020.
With $9.5 million in historic tax credits at their disposal, and an investor group that included themselves, as well as major financial institutions like U.S. Bank and Twain Financial Partners, the developers had been busy overseeing the gutting of the building’s middle five floors with plans to turn them into a 95-room, four-and-a-half star hotel that would be the catalyst for the project.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, and things changed. Or rather, they stopped.
“Our construction loan closing was supposed to be March 6 (2020) and our lender was primarily a hotel/hospitality construction lender,” Jeffers recalled. “We really had no idea what the depth of the pandemic was going to be, or how long it would last. But we knew we weren’t going to be able to close on a hotel at that time.”
Faced with five gutted floors, and a project plan that no longer worked, Jeffers, Janowiec and their fellow investors went back to the drawing board.
It took another eight months, but when the investor group finally emerged, they had a finished plan and financing in place for 54 market-rate apartments on floors eight to 12 of the building.
Shifting a component of the MAC project from a hotel to apartments “was an easy decision, but it was an extremely difficult execution,” Jeffers said. “One thing we have always been really proud of, however, is that when we closed in November 2020 it was with the same group of capital partners that we were going to close with in March 2020 … and that was before the vaccine was out. So, we closed on a social club in the era of social distancing.”
Making it work
What also took some doing, notes Janowiec, is finishing the project before the historic tax credits began to lose their value.
“Because we had effectively obtained or had entered into an agreement for the tax credits under the hotel plan, at that point we had plenty of runway to get this thing done,” Janowiec said. “But when we ate up the rest of that year (2020) to basically design a heavily modified project, we lost half of our construction timeline.”
To make the shortened timeline work, Janowiec and Jeffers worked with the primary contractor on the project, C.G. Schmidt, to come out the gate with a double-barreled, but finely tuned construction plan that included double and weekend shifts.
“On a typical project, we would have had two full-time construction managers. On this one, we had four,” Janowiec noted.
Luckily it was a schedule that suited Milwaukee-based C.G. Schmidt Inc.
“We do a lot of K-12 education buildings, which means you have about 10 weeks for construction (over summer break) so you have to do a lot of preplanning and (early ordering),” said Eric Schmidt, president of C.G. Schmidt.
Additionally, C.G. Schmidt helped make the project a success by working to get subcontractors – many who had given up on the MAC renovation – re-engaged.
“Subcontractors would say, ‘Why I am going to give you guys another number? I already gave you numbers twice before.’ And we would tell them that we wouldn’t be involved if we didn’t think this was a project that was moving forward,” Schmidt said.
He estimates upwards of 350 construction workers contributed in some way to the finished project – 70 of C.G. Schmidt’s own people and 200 to 300 tradesmen and women, from plumbers and electrician, ceiling experts and tile workers.
In the end, those efforts resulted in what Janowiec described as a 16-month construction project completed in 12 months – just in time to meet the historic tax credit deadline set back in March 2020 under the hotel plan.
The memory of standing in the licensing office at City Hall to get their occupancy permit just before it closed for the New Year’s holiday on Dec. 31 is a vivid one for Janowiec and Jeffers.
“It was an incalculable feeling of relief,” Janowiec recalls. “But everything lined up. … To actually place this in service by that date was nothing short of a miracle.”
A building to be proud of
For Joe Kurth, chief operating officer at the MAC, the true miracle might be that the MAC will benefit long term from the pandemic pivot from the hotel plan to apartments.
Kurth, previously general manager at The Pfister Hotel and the University of Notre Dame’s Morris Inn and the Notre Dame Conference Center, knows hotels, but he also knew that it would have been hard to make a hotel inside of a private club “feel right.”
“Now those hotel rooms have been turned into those 54 apartments, most of which are leased by (MAC) members, so it has returned to this feeling of very personalized service, where the staff know who you are, and know what your drink of choice is as you sit down at the bar,” Kurth said, who remembers the club’s lean years when he worked just around the corner at The Pfister.
The new partnership between the club and the apartments has once again made the MAC a true jewel of the city, Kurth said. The project restored spaces that remain available to the public, like ballrooms with breathtaking chandeliers and the Elephant Room with its restored 1948 murals and retiled columns, as well as top-notch athletic and fitness facilities, and restaurants, like the rooftop bar and terrace, that are exclusive benefits to MAC members.
“There were over 500 members that stayed with us through the three-year construction project, and continued to pay dues,” Kurth added. “In the last year, over 300 new members have joined because this is the kind of the place that can make a difference in Milwaukee.”