Architecture Milwaukee

Episode posted July 20, 2021

Podcast Episode #12:  The Roaring Twenties Hotels of Holabird & Roche

This is Cream City, Windy City.  I’m Wendy Bright.

Every episode, we explore thought-provoking connections between Milwaukee and Chicago, two cities 90-miles apart on the shores of Lake Michigan.  This podcast is an effort to lay out some of these links, to connect the stories of the two cities.

Today we explore two hotels: 1920s hotels in Milwaukee and Chicago.  You may know these hotels as the Hilton Chicago and the Hilton Milwaukee City Center, but when built nearly one century ago they were known as Chicago’s Stevens Hotel and Milwaukee’s Hotel Schroeder.  The Stevens opened in 1927 and the Schroeder in 1928.  Both Chicago’s Stevens and Milwaukee’s Schroeder were conceived as a brand new kind of large-scale, urban hotel, downtown, packed with amenities and the latest technology, all in a massive but elegant building.  Both hotels were designed by renowned architecture firm, Holabird & Roche.  Let’s take a look at these two innovative 1920s hotels and explore what made them groundbreaking.

A view of 1928


It was the Roaring Twenties and money was flowing.

This was the era of the large-scale, urban, commercial hotel.

In the early 20th century, the American hotel began to be rethought, reinvented.  The exuberant economy of the ‘20s sped the process along.

Modern life called for more complex solutions.  The old-fashioned luxury hotel no longer fit the needs of 20th-century people.  By the 1920s the new urban, commercial hotel made a point of it.

Inspirations for this type of new hotel included the Waldorf-Astoria in New York (built in the 1890s) and the Auditorium Annex (today’s Congress Hotel) in Chicago (built in 1906) by Holabird & Roche.  The new urban commercial hotel would provide the lavish amenities and décor found in the old luxury hotels, but introduce efficiency, opportunities for leisure and consumption, and economies of scale.  The new hotels would provide popularly priced accommodations and easily handle exponentially greater numbers of guests.

By the 20th century American society had been reorganized, dominated by corporate and consumer capitalism.  This emerging consumer culture created a demand in cities for more hotel rooms, restaurants, and event spaces.  Modern amenities had raised consumers’ expectations of comfort while traveling.  Business travelers demanded more perks, as well.  The urban commercial hotel would be designed to offer a vast and varied combination of business and leisure amenities.

Specifically catering to the middle-class, the key to success was to combine modern business methods in hotel operations with exceptional personal service.  And modern architecture, engineering, and new technologies would be central to the creation of this new type of hotel.

The urban commercial hotel was now envisioned as a ‘city within a city,’ a multistory monolith run like a factory and staffed by many hundreds, even thousands.  Hotel capacity would now soar to 3,000 guest rooms.  The first ‘skyscraper hotels’ would rise in American cities, symbols of the dizzying growth of 1920s skylines.  The massive urban hotels essentially introduced an industrial approach to lodging…but with all the gracious amenities.

Chicago was at the forefront of this new hotel development.  The city’s growing commercial importance and its location at the heart of national rail networks resulted in one of the most progressive and influential hotel industries in the country.

And Chicago architects Holabird & Roche were at the center of it.  The firm was considered among the top tier of specialists in modern, large-scale hotel design.  In their own firm’s operations they also had adopted a modern, efficient, corporate structure.  Their large staff of draftsmen and designers split up tasks, often with dozens of employees assigned to each project.

William Holabird and Martin Roche

After the Great Fire of 1871, Chicago was the place of opportunity for architects.  William Holabird and Martin Roche, who had both apprenticed under the “Father of the Skyscraper,” William LeBaron Jenney, together established their own firm in 1883.  Holabird & Roche designed some of the world’s first skyscrapers in Chicago and across the Midwest.  They worked expertly with the steel frame, with brick, stone, terra cotta and classically-inspired ornament. They refined the design of the tall commercial office building.  They built dozens of skyscrapers in the 1880s and 1890s and became known for their efficiency and innovations.

The early 20th century meant continued success for the firm as they designed classically- and historically-inspired buildings, which were exceptionally popular at the time.  By 1910 Holabird & Roche, with 100 draftsmen, was one of the largest architecture firms in the U.S.

They soon began designing the large, urban commercial hotels.  The LaSalle Hotel in Chicago’s Loop and the rebuilding of Chicago’s Palmer House were two of these prestige projects.

As we begin our look at Chicago’s Stevens Hotel and Milwaukee’s Hotel Schroeder, it is worth noting that this late 1920s moment was when the firm changed its name.  You may have heard both Holabird & Roche and Holabird & Root.  Here’s why. The original partners had died — William Holabird in 1923 and Martin Roche in 1927.  Holabird’s son John, who had been working at the firm for years, took over leadership.  He was joined by a coworker, the son of great Chicago architect, John Wellborn Root.  In 1928 John Holabird and John Wellborn Root, Jr. formed Holabird & Root, the successor firm to Holabird & Roche.  By this time, the firm employed some 300 people.  Both our hotels are credited to Holabird & Roche.  By early 1928, the year of the firm name change, both hotels had been completed.

Holabird & Roche, c1915

Early 20th-century hotel design called for a new approach.  Technological systems and large-scale engineering solutions meant a rethinking of a hotel’s decorative program.  Emerging building types with their size and the use of steel could be intimidating to people, unless they were given an appearance that was familiar and reassuring.  Other building types at that time—the department store, apartment building, and tall office building—had gone through radical changes in form.  So traditional decoration was often used to conceal the modern technologies beneath.  The typical hotel design program of the early 20th century featured an eclectic array of neoclassical ornament — hearkening back to pre-modern times.  This nostalgic approach to hotel design appealed to popular taste and ensured commercial viability.

Architects Holabird & Roche directed the massive collective efforts now required to bring these complicated hotels to fruition.  Besides the usual process of working with engineers and interior designers, the architects now collaborated with the hotel management team and a wide variety of specialists, including communications designers, kitchen engineers, housekeeping experts, laundry consultants, and those who would ensure the most distribution of food from the kitchens to the many dining areas.

Example of food distribution map from the Palmer House

The 1920s urban hotels were mindbogglingly complex in their many functions. Lobbies would continue to be traditionally impressive, but would expand in size and include grand staircases.  Room was to be made for guest and staff elevators, the registration desk, safe deposit vaults, public telephones, ticket offices, telegraph offices, checkrooms, porter’s stations, restrooms, storage rooms, cigar and newsstands.  The need for event space made vast ballrooms, exhibit spaces, and banquet halls central to the hotel plan.  Retail shops proliferated in the new hotels, located along arcades within the hotel and on street-facing elevations.  Restaurants, coffee shops, ice cream parlors, soda fountains, and (once Prohibition was lifted) pubs and cocktail lounges were to be found throughout the hotels. Amenities galore were added for guest leisure and comfort: everything from well-stocked libraries to movie theaters, bowling alleys to barbershops.  When at a new modern urban hotel, you could have your children and pets taken care of, your hair, shoes, and laundry done, and any health needs met with onsite pharmacies and medical facilities.  All of these functions necessitated intense coordination and an intricately detailed plan.


Holabird & Roche began work on the Chicago hotel first.

Chicago was experiencing dramatic population growth as well as corporate growth.  It was becoming an ever more attractive convention city.  There were professional, fraternal, and trade organizations that demanded meeting space and depended on hotels to supply it.

At the turn of the 20th century visitors to Chicago with the means to pay for first-class hotels often couldn’t find first-class accommodations.  New York had the same number of travelers each year as Chicago did, but ten times as many first-class hotels. More good hotels would make Chicago a more desirable city for travelers and conventioneers.  By the 1920s the city had urgent need for first-class meeting spaces and accommodations.

J.W. Stevens, Ernest Stevens, Raymond Stevens

A born financier, James W. Stevens had made a fortune in insurance, then brought his sons, Raymond and Ernest into his businesses.  In the early years of the 20th century J.W. Stevens and his sons ventured into the hotel business.  Their lavish LaSalle Hotel, on Madison and LaSalle in the Loop, designed by Holabird & Roche, opened in 1909 and was highly successful.  But it did not have the convention space the city needed.

J.W. and son Ernest in 1921 began conceptualizing a new, much larger, modern hotel.  The vision was to create an entirely self-sufficient city within a city, a place capable of offering the most extensive convention and conference facilities in a single place.

By 1922 Holabird & Roche had 60 men working on the Stevens plans, which were finished late that year.  The newly formed Stevens Hotel Company had chosen a site on South Michigan Avenue, just down the street from other fine Chicago hotels: the Auditorium, the Congress, and the Blackstone. Construction began in July 1925.  The massive hotel was completed in only 18 months.

Opening day for the new Stevens Hotel was May 2, 1927.  At the time the Stevens was the largest hotel in the world. It would remain so for 40 years.

In 1926 Holabird & Roche received another commission for a modern, urban hotel…this time in burgeoning Milwaukee.

Walter Schroeder, the Milwaukee businessman who was building a regional chain of hotels, was planning his largest hotel yet.

Schroeder was born in Milwaukee to German immigrant parents and slowly worked his way up from clerk, to reporter, to joining his father in a real estate and insurance business.  Walter was an energetic and successful salesman and soon the agency was the largest in Wisconsin.  He had learned the world of real estate and, by the early 1920s, was ready to begin work on his group of fine hotels.  He would ultimately build seven hotels and purchase two more, around Wisconsin and in Minnesota and Michigan.

Walter Schroeder

In 1926, Walter Schroeder initiated his most ambitious, multi-million dollar project: the Hotel Schroeder in Milwaukee.

Construction began in November 1926 and the new hotel opened its doors in early 1928.  Hotel Schroeder was Milwaukee’s and Wisconsin’s tallest hotel.  It was Schroeder’s pride and joy.

The Stevens Hotel opened on a spring evening in Chicago, May 3, 1927, with great festivities.  Hundreds of people streamed in through the main entrance.  The hotel interior was gleaming and bright, filled with congratulatory flowers sent from all over the country.  An elaborate dinner was served in one of the four dining rooms and architect John Holabird was an honored guest there.  Dressed in their finest, people danced to live music in the ballroom.  And, in order to see all of the hotel, they took guided tours and walked …and walked…miles through the hotel.  J.W. and Ernest Stevens were there shaking hands and thanking well-wishers.


While some were skeptical of the South Loop location, it proved to be a success and served to enliven the area around it.  Located between 7th & 8th Streets and South Michigan Avenue, the giant hotel had an unobstructed view toward Grant Park across the street and Lake Michigan.  Its massive form prominently stood out in that part of the city.  It was conveniently located near Symphony Hall, the Art Institute, the Field Museum, and many train stations.

Even before the Stevens Hotel opened, it was promoted as the largest hotel in the world.  And upon completion, indeed it was.  Its 25 stories and 1.4 million square feet contained 3,000 rooms, which far surpassed the reigning largest hotel.  Its daily population was said to be as many as 7,000 guests, but with visitors to the hotel and foot traffic figured in, the number rose to 40,000 people coming through the hotel every day.

Designed in Beaux-Arts style, said to be a “modification of Louis XVI,”  the front façade’s Ionic pilasters provided visual allusions to Versailles.  The grandness of the tall windows, relief sculpture panels, limestone stone sculptural figures, and elegant lanterns made the Stevens Hotel a showplace.

The exterior was clad in red brick and Bedford limestone, the ground floor storefronts set in polished pink granite, with three stories of limestone above.  The hotel was shaped with projections and courts so that every room faced the outside.  A stone cornice capped the roofline, with a four-story penthouse tower rising from the center of the roof.

The main entrance of the Stevens Hotel faced Michigan Avenue.  Inside, a 400-foot long corridor lined with shops ran the length of the hotel, from 7th to 8th Streets.

One of the most celebrated aspects of the Stevens was its steel-frame construction.  When the steel frame was complete in May 1926, one year before the hotel opening, steelworkers at the top triumphantly raised the American flag.  20,000 tons of steel had been used and it was one of the costliest aspects of the hotel’s construction.  One feat that was particularly heralded was the enormous steel truss system for the second-story ballroom.  The ballroom’s ceiling was designed to carry the load of twenty-two stories above.

The main hotel was given an annex building, a slim fourteen-story service building at the back, fronting on Wabash Avenue.  It was built to house the mechanical plant, loading platforms, and many other functions that did not need to be in the hotel proper, such as laundry, auxiliary kitchens, dinnerware and linen storage, and maintenance workshops with space for everything from carpentry to printing.

Hotel Schroeder when new

Less than one year later, in Milwaukee, the new Hotel Schroeder would open.  On a cold Saturday evening at exactly 6 PM, January 28, 1928, doors opened for business and awed crowds entered the elegant building.  Clean up and finishing touches were ongoing, so the grand dedication would take place three weeks later, on Friday, February 17th.  A New York City band was lined up to play in the main dining room. And proud Walter Schroeder was on hand to welcome his first guests.

The Schroeder was a marvel in many ways: it was the tallest hotel in Milwaukee and in Wisconsin, and second tallest building in Milwaukee (after City Hall).  The building was a skyscraper, with setbacks, upper floors smaller than those lower, resulting in its throne-like shape.  Its 25 stories contained 850 guest rooms.  A staff of 500 would tend to the needs of every guest under the personal direction of Walter Schroeder.

Located at 5th and Wisconsin Avenue (which had recently been renamed from Grand Avenue), Wisconsin Avenue was Milwaukee’s main street, and the Hotel Schroeder was perfectly located downtown in the city’s business district, near train stations, the Auditorium, Central Library and Public Museum, and the vast array of stores, restaurants, and theaters on Wisconsin Avenue.  The hotel itself would add many more restaurants and street-level shops to downtown.

Although part of Walter Schroeder’s chain of hotels, this was no cookie-cutter design. Hotel Schroeder was planned as an independent hotel, unique in design and operations.

The building faced east – toward the lakefront – its primary entrance on North 5th Street with an additional entrance on Wisconsin Avenue. The four-story base was clad in limestone set upon a polished black and pink Minnesota granite foundation.  The rest of the building was faced with red brick and buff terra cotta trim.

Holabird & Roche designed the Schroeder in the new modern style – what we now call Art Deco.  Here and there, French classical details are combined with it, but the sleek, streamlined appearance of Art Deco is undeniable.  The low-relief stone carvings on the exterior feature stylized female figures, plants, flowers, and peacocks.  The repeated vertical lines at the window surrounds as well as the pronounced verticality and set-backs of the building all spell Art Deco.

Inside the hotel, the Art Deco glamour continues.  Walter Schroeder spared no expense to make his hotel impressive.  The two entrances and arcades flow into the central, marble-clad lobby.  Two broad stairways with bronze handrails lead up to the second floor main lobby or down to dining, drinking, and other amenities.  The polished floor is composed of red Italian, black Belgian, and gray Tennessee marbles.  Gold leaf accents the marble columns and pilasters and continues on to the ceiling.  The space is a symphony of fine woods, crystal chandeliers, and glowing brass, making it one of the most magnificent places in Milwaukee.

The elevated lobby contained the registration area, central office, check room, telephone booths, telegraph office, and cigar and newspaper stands.  The lobby lounge featured an 80-foot long bar, the longest in Milwaukee.

The 850 guest rooms were beautifully designed and all featured modern bathrooms, plenty of light and air, and beautiful views.  Rooms could be occupied separately or connected as suites.

Hotel Schroeder’s ballrooms were stunning and plush with velvet drapes.  The Empire Room and Silver Ballroom sparkled with exquisite chandeliers, gleaming mirrors, and touches of silver and gold.

Lounge at the Hotel Schroeder

Chicago’s Stevens Hotel was likewise rich in ornamentation, its interiors appointed with bronze, Travertine and St. Genevieve marbles, and crystal chandeliers.  The hotel was immense and opulent, but managed to preserve a sense of human scale.

The Grand Stair Hall was flanked by curved staircases.  By the mid-1920s grand staircases had just about disappeared from hotels, replaced by elevator banks, but the Stevens brought back the elegance with its two-story, symmetrical, double staircase, evoking the palaces of Europe.  The hall was topped by a ceiling mural in fresco-style of clouds against an azure sky –a kind of celestial city.  Paralleling the lobby on an upper level are other generously proportioned spaces, including a broad corridor that served as a guest writing room.

The staircases led up to the Grand Ballroom, main dining room, and the lounge with its tapestries, fine furniture, and soaring windows that provided perfect views of the lakefront.

J.W. Stevens had enthusiastically embraced the idea of his hotel as a city within a city, though His idea of a city ran more toward an old English village than a bustling metropolis.  His guests would be kept safe and happy within its walls.   The long north-south corridor was, to him, a shop-lined English lane through which one could saunter, meander, and stroll.

The hotel felt gracious and even charming, but it was operated with the utmost modern efficiency.  The staff of 2,500 and the finely coordinated systems were intended to meet every need of the the hotel guest quickly and smoothly.  At the opening celebration, tour guides pointed out that, “at the Stevens Hotel, a guest is more than a guest.”

The hotel provided many services.  There was the beauty shop with 23 booths and six manicure stands, and the 27-chair barbershop said to be the envy of any king who ever lived at Versailles.  The hotel offered pet care as well as childcare.  The “Fairyland” playroom for children was on the 12th floor, complete with a matron attendant, toys, and a soda fountain.  There were telephones everywhere; the hotel telephone room contained 3,800 lines.  Two telegraph stations made sending telegrams easy.

In case of sickness, the guest would not even have to leave the hotel.  The Stevens included an actual hospital, with reception room, consulting and operating rooms, two wards for patients, and bedrooms for the physician and nurses.  And the pharmacy was conveniently on site.

The hotel ‘city within a city’ provided many conveniences.  Guests could obtain theater tickets and railroad tickets.  The dry-cleaning plant could handle as many as 500 suits a day.  Guests could send their laundry in the morning and receive it back clean and pressed by evening.  Just about any type of purchase a guest wanted or needed to make could be accomplished at the Stevens.  There were clothing stores, gift shops, a flower shop, candy shop, and a cigar stand with a humidor for thousands of boxes of Havana cigars.

Japanese Lunch Room at the Stevens Hotel

Anything a guest was hungry or thirsty for could be found.  Dining and drinking options abounded: restaurants, coffee shops, ice cream parlors, soda fountains, pubs, and cocktail lounges.  Much of the food and drink, as well as fresh ice, and ice cream, were made on site.  The hotel’s ice cream factory produced 120 gallons per hour.

The modern hotel kitchens were incredible in both their size and efficiency.  The storage areas were vast; one silver chest alone contained 2,000 dozen forks.  There were large rooms set aside only for dishwashing.  The massive amounts of food to prepare required speedy systems.  A bushel of potatoes could be pared every three minutes.

But luxury touches set the Stevens apart. The hotel had a professionally staffed library with a capacity of 15,000 volumes.  There was an art gallery and a movie theater, a quiet lounge with fireplace, and a billiard room.  The five-lane bowling alley with mechanical pinsetters was popular.  But the hotel’s vast rooftop offered unique experiences:  there was the rooftop miniature golf course, known as the High-Ho Club, fenced-in courts for handball and tennis, and the two roof gardens that gave guests the chance to sit and stroll under the stars, enjoying the cool breezes off the lake.

The employees were treated well, too.  Women employees had a club room and lounge for relaxation. The men had a similar set up with an added billiard room.

The Stevens was focused on the business traveler.  Commercial travelers often relied on hotels they stayed in to provide sample rooms for rent.  Sample rooms were temporary showrooms where local merchants could come view and order the traveling salesmen’s goods.  The Stevens built dedicated sample rooms for this purpose.

An example of sample room design

The Stevens Hotel had the largest private power plant in the world, which generated all of the hotel’s own light, heat, and an early form of air-conditioning.  A water filtration plant was built, as well. Throughout the building ran a system of pneumatic tubes for sending and receiving messages.  The hotel had its own police and fire departments, while on each floor of the hotel were two pull boxes, if needed, for sending an alarm to the Chicago fire department.

Every guest room had its own modern bathroom with white tile wainscoting and gleaming white vitreous china fixtures.  Each room had a telephone and a radio.  Despite the glamour of the hotel’s public spaces, the guest room furnishings were Colonial Revival and homey, very much America’s preference at the time.

Grand Ballroom at the Stevens Hotel

The Stevens Hotel was serious about adding convention space in Chicago. Its banquet facilities in total could serve 8,000 people at one sitting.  The second floor Grand ballroom, dining rooms, and lounge could together accommodate thousands of people, the main dining room alone seating 1,000.  The Grand Ballroom – with that incredible steel truss system (invisible to guests) – was completely free of pillars, a feat of architectural ingenuity.  The room was adorned like the palace of Versailles, its chandeliers made in France with Czechoslovakian crystal. The first gala held in the Grand Ballroom was for the 1927 Motion Picture Association when the hotel hosted 3,000 people in the film industry including many movie stars.

Early 1930s auto exhibit at the Stevens Hotel

On a lower level was the hotel’s huge exhibition hall, for auto exhibits and the like, with 35,000 square feet of space, touted as “equal in dimensions to the Coliseum.”

It truly was a city within a city.


Unfortunately, after the thrilling beginning, the Great Depression ruined the Stevens family.  Like four out of five American hotels during the Depression, the Stevens Hotel went bankrupt.  The government took the hotel into receivership, and its value plunged.  The State of Illinois charged the hotel’s owners with financial corruption, Ernest Stevens was on trial for embezzlement, and after the family’s insurance business went bankrupt, his brother died by suicide.

In 1942 the U.S. Army purchased the Stevens Hotel for use as barracks and classrooms for the Army Air Force for the duration of World War II.  The Grand Ballroom was used as a mess hall.  Over 10,000 air cadets passed through the hotel during that time.

As World War II drew to a close, in 1945 Conrad Hilton, the fabled innkeeper, purchased the Stevens Hotel.  He formed the Hilton Hotels Corporation the following year and in 1951 the board of directors changed the hotel name to the Conrad Hilton.  The hotel has carried the Hilton name ever since.

View of Conrad Hotel from Grant Park c1950s

Milwaukee’s Hotel Schroeder made it through the Great Depression.  And Walter Schroeder stayed on, living in the hotel’s penthouse suite until 1965.

The Hotel Schroeder would play a crucial role in Milwaukee’s radio and television broadcasting history.  The top floor of the hotel held broadcast studios and the rooftop transmitter towers broadcast radio programs and, in the 1930s, Milwaukee’s early television programming.  This was the birthplace of the city’s UHF television in 1953, which would eventually become WVTV,  the rooftop tower its transmitter site until 1981.

The Schroeder was sold to Sheraton Hotels in 1965 and renamed the Sheraton-Schroeder Hotel.  There were efforts to drop the Schroeder name in the late 1960s, but Milwaukeeans wouldn’t hear of it; they still hadn’t gotten over the addition of ‘Sheraton’ to the beloved hotel’s name.

Sheraton Schroeder sign on hotel, c1960s

Although the Sheraton-Schroeder never ended up dropping its last name, change eventually came.  In 1972,  Ben Marcus of the Marcus Corporation headed up a group of Milwaukee investors and purchased the hotel.  They renamed it the Marc Plaza.  And in 1995, Marcus affiliated with the Hilton chain.  The old Schroeder became the Hilton Milwaukee City Center, and, as in Chicago, has carried the Hilton name ever since.

Walter Schroeder, who passed away in 1967, is still remembered today for his generous philanthropy in Milwaukee.  He is also remembered for his gracious hospitality and the many dinner parties he hosted at the hotel that always made him proud.

Sheraton-Schroder view from Wisconsin Avenue

These two hotels, masterworks of Holabird & Roche, fine examples of the 1920s modern, city-within-a-city hotel, greatly enhanced their two cities.  The hotels to this day continue to be treasured places in Milwaukee and Chicago, where people happily stay on their leisure and business travel, where they attend a wide variety of conventions, conferences and other events, and where they celebrate life’s joys, such as weddings.  The two 1920s hotels have both been restored and updated over the years to ensure their ongoing success.  Although renamed Hilton and part of an international chain today, the Hotel Schroeder and Stevens Hotel were the uniquely bold visions of businessmen J.W. Stevens and Walter Schroeder, two men with big dreams for their respective cities.


Thanks so much for joining me.  I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions.  You can leave them at the blog post for this episode at

If you’re visually oriented as I am, you need to see the interesting images I found to accompany this story: photos, floorplans and more.  They’ll take you back to the Roaring Twenties.

If you would like to know more about the title of this podcast, take a listen to Episode 1.

Many thanks to my son, Zack Goehner, for his brilliant graphic design work.

Intro music: “Chicago Blues,” by the Kenny Dorham Quintet.

Outro music, “I Lost My Baby In Milwaukee,” by KEdKE.

See you next time.



Book Your Tour!