Standing six-stories tall in Milwaukee’s 5th Ward, the Iron Horse doesn’t physically tower over guests like skyscrapers in our modern downtown. Instead, it exerts strength, weight and power through the cream bricks, wooden beams and overly blatant industrial theme. This combination allows the Iron Horse to function as a piece of the city’s industrial history, while its restaurant, bar, and hotel serve as beacons of our future as cultural destination. The straddling of different eras and classes isn’t just an aspect of the Iron Horse, but a key element at its very foundation.
Built in 1907 as a bedding factory and warehouse, the building spent most of its life as an industrial structure. The location was even chosen based on the proximity to the railroad and the ease of shipping supplies and product. It wasn’t until 2005, when Tim Dixon saw its unique architectural character, made up of a wooden frame and cream city bricks, that the building was torn from its role as a pragmatic structure and reborn as something wholly unimaginable: a luxury hotel.
The industrial past that was maintained through renovation changed from practical aspects to decorative trademarks. Workers who were once the livelihood of this building would no longer recognize the interior, and definitely couldn’t afford to stay overnight. The decor is of their era and perhaps social class, but the rates are far beyond it, reaching upwards of $400 per night. However, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be welcome on the premises, because Branded and Smyth, the bar and restaurant which sit on either side of the ground floor entrance, are open to anyone. These prices, unlike the room rates, are much more reasonable.
During the day, Branded basks in the sunlight cast by gargantuan windows which replaced shipping bay doors, covering the east and south facing walls. This view is briefly interrupted by bottles of alcohol casting long shadows onto the dark, black bartop. This counter starts just short of a maroon-felt pool table by the hotel entrance and extends into the oblong square which makes up the lounge to the east. Stools at the bar face south, are flanked by a narrow walkway, and further flanked by corner-less, bar-height tables along the back wall. On the far eastern side, past the bar’s end, Branded opens up into its lounge populated with tables weighed down by giant metal gears for feet and topped with imperfect wood. Surrounding these tables on the north side are worn, inviting leather booths running along the wall in the shape of an L.
The walls not covered by windows are instead filled by nine window-sized, unframed canvases of Golden Age comic book heroes ranging from Superman and Captain America to Dick Tracy and the Lone Ranger. Their style is sketchy and two-tone with the canvas showing through in most of the space. Blue strokes function as lines, while a golden yellow paint works as fields of color, accents, and backgrounds — varying in use depending on the character. During the day these heroes are bright and vibrant, clearly lit by the windows opposite them, but at night, in the light of the moon and the dimly lit bar, these heroes become menacing protectors of this modern speakeasy.
At night the lounge is eerily lit by Edison bulbs hanging like luminescent vines from the dark wooden abyss. Their long, looped filaments pulse with an orange glow, working in tandem to uniformly light the space. This grouping is broken by a single-file line stretching out above the bar. Reaching towards the lobby, they beckon patrons to come closer, like an outstretched finger slowly curling back on itself. The light isn’t strong enough to spill into the main hotel, but the flickering is just erratic enough to sparkle in the corner of an eye and pique some curious sense of adventure.
This bar is open for anyone to enjoy, but is explicitly aimed at blue-collar patrons. The cogs, the wood, the art, the leather is all part of that story. While this openness of the ground floor seems, at first, like a redeeming quality of the Iron Horse’s otherwise expensive design, it’s also means for the hotel to manipulate an authentic atmosphere to complement its manufactured aesthetic. The proletariat is on display, like the building itself, for the enjoyment of bourgeois clients able to drop a month’s rent on a single night of luxury.
Many of their clients already play this game of class-tourism by passively taking part in motorcycle culture. They don’t work on their bikes, they take them in to be fixed. Similarly, these clients don’t stay at a motel, they find someplace that furthers their blue-collar fiction while staying firmly above its reality. In the Iron Horse, clients can safely come downstairs to mingle with the proletariat they are disguised as, while surrounded by discarded gears as decoration, expensive Edison bulbs for atmosphere, and art ripped from the pages of comics and hung proudly on the wall. When they’ve had their fill, they retreat from the ground floor, climbing back to their place above us.
The narrative of the Iron Horse glosses over this classism and focuses on celebrating our industrial history while treating everyone to a high-class experience. That duality of reaching the high and low class at once is essential to their mission. The hotel needs an air of exclusivity to maintain wealthy clients’ interests, while the bar needs the patronage of blue-collar Milwaukeans to fill its chairs, tables, and stools. Their attempt at striking a compromise, however, is segregation barely veiled by capitalism. There are no rules or signs against climbing to the second floor and beyond, but a working-class wallet can’t afford to stay the night. No matter how lofty their ambitions, the end result of the Iron Horse is something all our heroes would fight against.
This critique was completed for a Senior Writing course at MIAD, in Fall 2014. The assignment was to approach the establishment from either a Marxist or Feminist perspective; I chose the former (which you figured out by this point).