Historic Interest

    Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:35 pm

    When The PrivateBank opens its permanent Wisconsin office in more than 15,000 square feet of space at 743 N. Water St. in downtown Milwaukee later this year, visitors will see bank space designed to look like it did in the early 1900s.

    Daniel Burnham, a renowned architect and city planner, designed the building. It first opened for business in 1913 as Milwaukee’s First National Bank and later as First Wisconsin National Bank, which later became First Wisconsin, then Firstar and today is known as U.S. Bank.

    First Wisconsin moved its headquarters from the 743 N. Water St. building to the current U.S. Bank building at 777 E. Wisconsin Ave. in 1973.

    The total amount of space being renovated in the 743 N. Water St. building is about 20,000 square feet. The remaining 5,000 square feet will be divided between a front lobby area, which will open to both the bank’s space and a restaurant being developed on the first floor. The front lobby features 35-foot high ceilings.

    The PrivateBank’s new offices are scheduled to be open in October. The PrivateBank is a unit of Chicago-based PrivateBancorp Inc.

    Jay Williams, chairman and chief executive officer of The PrivateBank, said the bank wanted to make a statement with its Milwaukee headquarters, giving it a feeling of history and grandeur.

    "We want to make it an inviting area for people to come, something high-end and high quality," Williams said. "(Our customers) expect something special, and that’s what we want to deliver."

    Williams declined to disclose the costs to renovate the space for PrivateBank.

    He said the history of the building and its well known architect make it an ideal location for The PrivateBank, a newcomer to the Milwaukee banking community.

    "Given the historical significance, we believe the presence here could help us, being a new company creating its headquarters in Milwaukee," Williams said. "Everybody that’s anybody in the 20th century has done business in this building."

    Williams and Mark Lemke, the company’s managing director and head of commercial real estate lending in Wisconsin, said the bank believed it was important to restore the building to its former grandeur both because of its history and as a way to show The PrivateBank’s place in the local banking community. Renovations to the first floor and main lobby of the building include creating large marble columns, intricate ceiling details, elaborate moulding and high-end fixtures.

    Shorewood-based architects J. French & Associates Inc. designed The PrivateBank’s new facilities.

    "With a building like this, you dance the fine line between what makes sense economically and stewardship," Williams said. "We’re interested to be sure we do it the right way."

    Aside from the building’s history, Lemke said its location in Milwaukee’s financial district is ideal.

    "It was an opportunity to take space in a prime location," he said. "The space from the (Milwaukee) river to Water Street is an excellent location. And it’s a beautiful building."

    The renovations are an attempt to recreate the feel of what the building was like in 1913 when it first opened, while dealing with realities after a 1960 remodeling, Williams said.

    "We’re trying to get (the design) to 1913," he said. "Things like the light fixtures, fluted columns will give it that feel, even though we could never get back there exactly."

    Williams and his wife, Madonna Williams, who has assisted with much of the design and decoration of the renovated space, were able to find Burnham’s original drawings of the building through an Internet search. Some of the drawings have been restored and will be hung throughout the new bank. They are being used to help guide the renovations.

    "We want people to walk in and feel and see the classic old building," Jay Williams said. The renovations are not being done to the exact specifications of Burnham’s original plans, Williams said. But the idea is to capture some of their elements.

    "We’re recreating it in the style (of 1913)," he said. "It’s not historically correct, but in the style of the times."

    In addition to Burnham’s restored drawings, a series of 75 historic photos by photographer Sumner Matteson from the Milwaukee Public Museum’s collection have been reproduced, and will be hung in offices throughout the new bank. Matteson’s photos were taken while he lived in Milwaukee between 1909 and 1920. The photos include images of Lake Park, the Milwaukee Yacht Club, scenes from Prospect Avenue and many more.

    The photos and blueprints have been restored and reproduced by AE Graphics.

    "As we started to work on this building, I felt a need to celebrate Milwaukee," Madonna Williams said. "We’re trying to use as many Milwaukee manufactured items as possible. And if not Milwaukee, at least Wisconsin."

    Williams had been thinking about where to build a headquarters for the new Milwaukee bank since he accepted his position as chairman and CEO in early 2004.

    "When he took this on as a career move and was looking for a building, he knew it had to be a special location," Madonna Williams said. "And when we first looked at (this building), it dawned on us that this was a piece of history waiting to be discovered."

    The decorations inside the building, including the lamps, floor finishings, furniture and wall hangings, will be designed to look like they were built in 1913, Madonna said.

    The original bank had 35-foot high ceilings and a large open walkway, lined with offices and teller windows. Columns are being built to resemble the original character of the building, which had high ceilings on its first floor. Workers are using pieces of marble recovered from other areas of the building to construct pieces of the lobby, Williams said.

    The 16-story building was originally constructed in a U shape with a south-facing light court.

    That light court was filled in during a remodeling in the 1960s, when more office space was desired. At that time, much of the original first floor was split into two floors, where still more offices were created.

    Milwaukee-based Brass Light Gallery is designing light fixtures for the new bank. The bank is working with several other local specialty manufacturers for the restoration project.

    The renovated space will also include many modern features which weren’t included in the original building. Its front lobby will have a plasma screen TV to show stock market and financial news, a computer terminal where customers can check stocks or e-mail, and a coffee area.

    Just behind the lobby area, a new elevator has been installed, where customers can access the original bank vault and its 13,000 safety deposit boxes. The vault features a three-foot thick metal door.

    Williams and Lemke said the bank vault will be restored so customers can use it for safety deposits. While restoring the vault and adding an elevator added expenses to the project, both said those were worth the extra costs.

    "As a real estate lender, I can say this has a significantly higher level of finish than other tenants typically do," Lemke said. "Part of it is Jay’s stewardship focus. Part of it is our business."

    The PrivateBank is a unit of PrivateBancorp Inc. from Chicago, which was formed in 1989 to provide personalized financial services to affluent clients, professionals, owners of closely held businesses and commercial real estate investors. The interior of the Milwaukee bank, which includes many private, closed offices for bankers that have large glass walls and windows, is designed to evoke feelings of trust, prominence and refined taste, Williams said.

    "We’re The PrivateBank, and we focus on building net worth," he said. "We want our clients to feel confident that they’re dealing with high-quality people when they’re here."

    The PrivateBank has partnered with Compass Properties, which owns the building, on the renovation costs. Costs for areas such as the main lobby are being shared, Williams said.

    He also said the property owners have been very cooperative and receptive to The PrivateBank’s ideas to renovate its space.

    "I think this is going to be a very attractive building when we’re finished," Williams said.

    Williams said The PrivateBank’s renovations are different than most, in that many companies would not be willing to spend as much time and money to improve existing space.

    "That’s part of the stewardship role we’re taking on," he said. "It isn’t how most people would finish the space."

    743 N. Water St. timeline

    1913 Construction completed of First National Bank building at 743 N. Water Street.

    1919 First National Bank merges with Wisconsin National Bank to form First Wisconsin National Bank.

    1960-61 The building undergoes a significant addition and remodeling. Its original U shape, which included a large area to allow natural lighting, is filled in. Much of the original first floor area that featured 35-foot-high ceilings is filled in to create a second floor mezzanine with office spaces.

    1973 First Wisconsin moves its headquarters to its newly constructed, 42-story building at 777 E. Wisconsin Ave., but maintains a branch location at 743 N. Water St. The building is sold by First  Wisconsin, which then leases space from its new owners for its branch location. A significant portion of the former headquarters on the second floor mezzanine is filled with office tenants.

    2000 The branch location for the bank, then known as Firstar Bank, is closed. The space the branch had occupied sits vacant for the next five years.

    2005 The Private Bank moves into office space on the building’s mezzanine while renovations begin on the first floor of the building. The vault area is remodeled and prepared for use, and the bank is scheduled to move into its new space by October.

    August 19, 2005, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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