What is the oldest building in Milwaukee? That's the question Emily Pauly posed to WUWM in this week's Bubbler Talk.
“I work in the Mitchell Building downtown, which is a pretty old building," Pauly says. "I believe it was built in the 1870s – and knowing that Milwaukee is older than that, I figure there must be something older than what I work in."
While this may seem like a straight-forward question to answer, it’s not.
“Prior to the City Hall we have now, there was a much smaller city hall, and it wasn’t large enough for all the records, and records were kept in different places," explains Bob Giese. He's a volunteer with Historic Milwaukee.
"There were fires, and fires destroyed some of these records. Now the one building we know for sure the date is Old Saint Mary’s Church – right on the front of it, it does say 1846. But we do have another building downtown that may precede that.”
That building is located at 625 N. Broadway and is currently the location of Iannelli’s Custom Shoppe.
Back in the day, it was known as Snyder’s Marble Hall, after Fred Snyder. “It was called Marble Hall because of the beautiful bar, but also because it had marble and slate tiles on the floor… and it still exists under here,” Mike Iannelli says. His family has owned the building for 39 years and Iannelli runs his upholstery business out of the space.
Giese and Iannelli explain that this wasn’t just any drinking establishment in Milwaukee – it was an important meeting ground for politicians. A fire in January, 1933, prompted one Wisconsin News reporter to wax poetical, as it “brought back a flood of memories of one of Milwaukee’s most famous saloons and gambling houses.”
To quote further:
Although Marble Hall was actually a saloon, the name fixed itself to the entire building and identified the gambling rooms on the second floor, scene of wholesale political wagering, as well….Marble Hall was political headquarters for the entire state. Governors and mayors rubbed elbows there…Marble Hall’s gambling was ‘big league’. Huge wagers were made on every election – national, state, and local. No odds were official until Marble Hall set its own.
But it was the ‘downstairs’ that shaped the political destiny of the city, and state. There judges, mayors, councilmen, even governors were ‘made’ – and their toasts drunk in Old Crow or Hennessy, neat.
Though the exact age of the building is unknown, Giese believes it goes back to about 1846.
“There used to be four stories, but now you only see two. That could have been because of the fire of the Newhall House, or who knows what other damage may have been caused,” he explains.
The Newhall House Hotel fire of 1883, which by all accounts was nothing short of devastating, completely destroyed the hotel located next to Marble Hall.
A photo was taken after the hotel fire shows Marbel Hall with advertisements on the side of the building. “So, we know the building was here prior to the hotel being built,” Giese explains.
"We know the building was here in 1856 because… the Newhall Hotel was built in 1856," Iannelli says. "So we figure they must have made an easement for this wall when they built the Newhall Hotel. We have that easement.”
He adds, “My dad found that German newspaper that had a date on it in here, stuck in the ceiling that said 1846."
Between the re-discovered elements, the historic photos, framed artifacts and the storefront Iannelli has attempted to restore as fully as possible to its original appearance; it’s pretty clear that this building holds a unique and significant place in Milwaukee’s history.
While we may never know the true age of the old Marble Hall building, it does remain a contender for oldest building in Milwaukee, at least pre-dating the establishment of Wisconsin as a state in 1848.
What’s perhaps more fascinating, though, is it’s life since then: serving as a central watering hole for prominent politicians and the well-to-do, while surviving multiple fires and even prohibition.
So what does Emily Pauly, our question asker, make of all of this? "When I asked the question, I didn't realize I was going to get to see everything first-hand, and that it was so close to where I work every single day," she says. "It makes me think of all the history that's gone on around where I work, and within the city. It's a lot to think about."