The Pfister Hotel Press Coverage

Travel & Recreation Weekender

Night at the Museum

Art Connoisseurs find A picture-perfect Weekend in Milwaukee.

You may have communed with the impressionists at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, physician or even lost yourself in the ancient (and frankly, overwhelming) halls of the Uffizi in Florence, but a few hours at a museum is just that—a few hours, often rushed and squeezed into a long itinerary of activities. Rarely do art-loving travelers get a chance to linger more than a few precious minutes with a favorite work.

So imagine the opportunity to spend the weekend in an elegantly appointed suite in a similarly art-rich environment, where you can actually take your time with a collection— returning to paintings that inspire you and enjoying them at different times of day. No passport or flight required—just a short drive north to Milwaukee and a reservation at The Pfister Hotel.

Those who know the area are likely already familiar with the opulent Romanesque Revival gem which opened in 1893 as “the grand hotel of the West”—such a Gilded-Age marvel that residents reportedly gathered outside to watch the electrified lights switch on at night. They might also know that, pharm for more than a century, The Pfister Hotel has hosted Hollywood celebrities (Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, among others), every U.S. president since Truman, and royalty from all over the world. And with a reputation for privacy and discretion for its elite clientele, it’s still the preferred Milwaukee stay for everyone from visiting NBA stars to the Duchess of York. But few may realize the significance of the elaborate, sometimes scandalous, paintings that fill the halls and ballrooms of this storied icon.

The Pfister Hotel art collection is considered the largest of its kind at any hotel throughout the world—a whimsical assemblage of belle epoque salon excess, romance and European eccentricities. In an effort to expand the hotel’s reputation as a destination for art connoisseurs, the hotel has launched a new series of programming and activities to draw in art-loving patrons and support a new generation of artists.

Milwaukee-born painter Stephanie Barenz is one of them.

In addition to leading guests on a guided tour of the extensive Victorian art collection— which comprises more than 80 works and sprawls from the ornate lobby through the ballrooms and up to the 23rd floor Blu lounge (opened in the 1960s as the Silk Room with such luminaries as Tony Bennett and Joan Rivers)— Barenz is also a Pfister artist-in-residence.

Created five years ago, the artist-in-residence program features a working art studio and gallery that is open to hotel guests and visitors. Over the last year of her residency, Barenz has been working on a collection she calls  e Carriers, an exploration of travel and how the journeys we take transform our perceptions of home and the places we have visited. Several of the pieces fi nished during her residency have already been sold to visiting connoisseurs. At least one will be on display at the hotel’s burgeoning artist-in-residence gallery as a legacy piece and permanent gift.

WHEN YOU GO: Milwaukee

Milwaukee may be better known to the world for beer and Harley- Davidson, but our neighbor to the north also offers an impressive art and culture scene—complete with hipster dining, swanky shops and internationally renowned architecture. Your Milwaukee art tour must-stops include:

Milwaukee Art Museum

The original art gallery that would evolve into a world-class museum opened in 1888, five years before The Pfister Hotel welcomed its first guests. Today, the MAM encompasses 341,000 square feet and includes the War Memorial Building and the stunning Quadracci Pavilion, designed in 2001 by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava (who also designed the Reiman Bridge that connects pedestrians to downtown Milwaukee, which can be seen from one of The Pfister Hotel ballrooms). With a mission to collect and preserve art for the community, the museum includes more than 30,000 works and serves as a resource for the state with revolving exhibitions. It also houses one of the largest collections of works by Wisconsin native Georgia O’Keeffe, as well as important works by Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Henri de Toulouse- Lautrec, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol. The museum is an easy walk from The Pfister Hotel (weather permitting). Mam.org

Historic Third Ward 

Remember Wicker Park and Bucktown in the early ’90s? That’s the Historic Third Ward arts and fashion district today, offering Milwaukee’s most vibrant selection of spas, theaters and boutiques in a restored warehouse setting. And that’s not to mention more than 30 art galleries and a lively restaurant scene (Coquette Café and Tulip are among some local favorites). Home to the Third Ward Riverwalk and the Milwaukee Public Market (which is, in itself, amazing), this is the place to see and be seen. The April 25-26 Gallery Night (gallerynightandday.org)— which goes on all day and night, showcasing 49 venues—is held here, as are a host of other arts events throughout the year. And if you have two and a half hours to spare, you can take a tour of the historic neighborhood while sampling restaurants along the way—one of the foodie hosts dubs it a progressive meal with a side of history. Milwaukeefoodtours.com/thirdward; historicthirdward.org

Charles Allis & Villa Terrace Art Museums

Housed in a 1911 Tudor-style mansion built for Charles Allis, the Charles Allis Art Collection was bequeathed to the public in its intact form. Featuring primarily 19th century French and American paintings, Chinese and Japanese porcelains, Renaissance bronzes and original antique furnishings, the museum also features rotating exhibitions with work by Wisconsin artists. Its companion institution, the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, is situated in a residence designed and built in the style of an Italian Renaissance villa by renowned North Shore architect David Adler in 1923. The museum features fine and decorative arts dating from the 15th through 18th centuries, a Renaissance garden and changing exhibitions. Cavtmuseums.org

“Each artist comes in with a proposal, and this was mine,” Barenz explained one recent weekend in the Pfister studio. “I wanted to make paintings that carry the memories and stories that came through my studio doors at The Pfister Hotel.”

A new artist-in-residence takes over the studio in April as Barenz passes the baton to multimedia sculptor Niki Johnson, who will use her time at The Pfister Hotel to sculpt six child-size bathtubs out of oil clay, then cast them in porcelain. Each bathtub will depict heroines from fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. There will also be a corresponding series of commemorative plates. Visitors to the hotel will have the opportunity to watch these creations come to life and witness the process firsthand.

Another hotel off ering for art-loving patrons will be a free shuttle to local galleries during Gallery Night the weekend of April 25-26, which includes a full roster of art-related events and activities in the nearby Historic Third Ward Arts District.

Barenz, who has lived and painted around the world, said she is proud to see an institution in her hometown devote so much attention to art—old and new. “The Pfister artist-in-residence program has been a wonderful addition to the Milwaukee art community. It provides a platform which enables artists to expose their work on a local and national level,” she explained. “It also brings a unique opportunity for guests to learn about the Pfister’s extensive Victorian art collection through a guided art tour by the current Pfister artist-in-residence.”

So while a weekend at The Pfister Hotel may not be exactly like spending the night at the Louvre, it’s certainly one of those rare, unexpected treats any art-loving traveler would savor. Especially if you cap it all off with high tea or a cocktail at Blu. The views of Lake Michigan are famous—one might even say, pretty as a picture. 424 E. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee, 414.273.8222, thep sterhotel.com

The Pfister Legacy

A world-recognized art collection begs the question: How did all those Victorian genre pieces wind up in a hotel in Milwaukee, and why?

If you go on The Pfister Hotel art tour, you will learn that Guido Pfister left Germany and came to the frontier town of Milwaukee in 1845, making a fortune and pursuing his American Dream to open a hotel that would be a “palace for the people.” Pfister knew there should be great works of art and began collecting pieces from Europe and America to furnish his fantasy.

Pfister died in 1889 while the hotel was still in the planning stages, but his son, Charles Pfister, continued his father’s vision. Construction started in 1890; the hotel opened in 1893; and the price tag came in at a jaw-dropping $1.5 million. It was one of America’s first all-electric (and completely fireproof) hotels, and each room had its own individually controlled electric thermostat—a first in the world.

As for the art collection, it continued to grow, and each piece found a place of prominence in the hotel. As Russell Bowman, director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, wrote in an introduction to a guide of the collection, it is “an exceptional example of late Victorian taste in America.” Bowman pointed out that such Europeans as Adolf Schreyer and Eugene Fromentin, along with Americans Daniel Ridgway Knight and Richard LaBarre Goodwin, “figure prominently” in the collections of many European and American museums today.

What is most striking about the collection is its glimpse into another era—with subversive references to infidelity, betrayal, and romantic ideas about Europe (Venice, in particular) and world travel.

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