Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 11:00 am
Just a few years ago, the Hotel Wisconsin, once a grand downtown Milwaukee hotel, had become a run-down flophouse with a mix of permanent residents and budget-conscious guests.
Today, a $23 million construction project is converting the 12-story, 93-year-old building at 720 N. Old World Third St. into a luxury apartment building to be called The Grand Wisconsin. The apartments are expected to be ready for people to move in by Dec. 1.
In a few years, the 108 apartments will probably be converted to condominiums.
The building was purchased in 1996 by Hotel Wisconsin Co. LLC, an arm of Aventura, Fla.-based Apartment and Land Management LLC.
“It was old and shabby,” said Les Wuertz, construction manager for Hotel Wisconsin Co. “We operated it as a hotel until November of 2003. At that time, we closed it down to decide how we were going to renovate the building.”
Pewaukee-based VJS Construction Services is the general contractor for the project. Hotel Wisconsin hired VJS to replace its original general contractor, Chicago-based K2 Architects Inc. Hotel Wisconsin Co. sued K2 after the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources notified the developer that asbestos was not being properly removed from the building.
The biggest challenge with the project has been the demolition work, said VJS vice president Mike Hnilicka. Almost the entire building has been gutted, except for the original hallways and the historic features of the meeting rooms and the hotel lobby.
“There was so much (material to be removed), and the site was so limited in size and accessibility,” Hnilicka said. “There is no place to stage anything.”
Large amounts of clay book tile had to be removed as part of the demolition process. The wall partitions and the floors were built with the tile and covered with plaster for the walls and concrete for the floors.
In addition, a huge block of concrete, added for no apparent purpose, and a large amount of garbage had to be removed from the basement, which was infested with rats.
“There were mountains of rubble that had to be removed before we could start,” said Stephen Perry, president of Menomonee Falls-based Smith Architects Inc., which was the architect for the project. “The demolition component of the project ends up being a big component of the project.”
The demolition process had to be well-organized. Workers had to use trash shoots to remove the debris and good subcontractors were needed, Hnilicka said.
“You have to find people who will do what they say they are going to do,” he said.
There are about 110 to 120 construction workers on the job site on an average day, Hnilicka said.
The building’s owners received state and federal historic preservation tax credits to restore the building. Those tax credits are worth about $5 million and are critical for making the project viable, Wuertz said.
“It would be very difficult for us to do (the project without the tax credits),” he said.
However, to receive historic preservation tax credits, state and federal officials must approve the project plans. Key historic features of the building must be preserved, and many new elements must be made to resemble the originals.
Following the requirements for historic preservation tax credits is a “very involved process,” and it helps to have experience with that process, Perry said.
“For the west elevation we wanted to replace the windows, they had to match the historic appearance of the original windows as much as possible,” Perry said. “We had to work with (government officials) and work with the guy designing and fabricating the windows. They were designed to replicate the original.”
Many of the building’s historic features are being restored.
“Basically, you’re going to see the building façade and lobby restored to its original look” Wuertz said.
The carpeting was pulled up in the lobby to reveal the original mosaic tile floor. Six historic light fixtures, each worth about $15,000, were removed and will be refurbished to look like new and put back in their original place.
The original woodwork and decorative plaster in the lobby and meeting rooms are being restored. The building has a 1,000-square-foot meeting room on the first floor, which will be used by tenants as a cyber lounge, and a 3,300-square-foot meeting room on the second floor. To restore the decorative plaster, molds are made of the existing plaster to create pieces to replace damaged or missing parts.
The original, historic hallways were maintained, but the old hotel rooms were totally gutted.
The apartments are completely new and feature granite countertops, maple wood cabinets and attractive views of the downtown.
“We designed the apartments the way we wanted to,” Wuertz said. “We tried to make them much more on the contemporary side.”
Rents for the apartments will range from between $750 and $995 for a one-bedroom unit to between $2,680 and $2,735 for a four-bedroom unit.
The historic tax credits require the building to be operated as an apartment building for at least five years. After that, the units will likely be converted to condos, Wuertz said.
The retail space on the first floor is also being totally gutted and rebuilt. There will be a 5,000-square-foot space just south of the main entrance on Old World Third Street and a 1,500-square-foot space just north of the main entrance. Hotel Wisconsin Co. hopes to attract a restaurant to the larger space, Wuertz said.
The basement of the building has also been gutted. A fitness center and an underground parking facility will be built down there.
There will be 23 parking spaces for automobiles and eight motorcycle parking spaces in the basement. Additional parking spaces will be leased from other area parking lots, Wuertz said.
In addition to a workout area, the fitness center will have locker rooms, showers, a steam room, a sauna and a small therapy pool.
The marketing campaign for the apartments began recently and is being handled by Ogden & Co. Inc.
“We’ve had close to 100 calls now,” Wuertz said. “We have 22 potential renters that want to take a tour of
Much of the interest in the building is coming from young professionals who can’t afford to purchase a high-priced downtown condominium, Wuertz said.
“The majority of people (Ogden is) getting contacted by are younger couples or single people,” he said. “Young professionals. We will also get some students from Marquette.”
The building’s facade and first-floor storefront will be restored, as much as possible, to its original appearance. The brick facade will be lit up at night by exterior lights, showing off the restored historic structure.
“This was just one of those buildings that was crying out for someone with some money to save it,” Perry said. “We’re very fortune to have someone from out of town investing in our city.”
The Grand Wisconsin
Address: 720 N. Old World Third St., Milwaukee
# of rooms: 108
Rents: $750 to $2,735
Total redevelopment project cost: $23 million
Owner: Hotel Wisconsin Co. LLC (Apartment and Land Management LLC, Aventura, Fla.)
General contractor: VJS Construction Services
Architect: Smith Architects Inc.