Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company Home Office, Milwaukee Wisconsin

Date added: November 16, 2009 Categories: Wisconsin Commercial

The date stone on the facade, above the central entry, reads "Erected A.D. 1886." On January 28, 1885, Northwestern Mutual's Executive Committee recommended to the Board of Trustees that a new home office be erected, and the firm's plans were made public in the Evening Wisconsin and Milwaukee Sentinel on January 29 and 30, respectively. Title to the property at Broadway and Michigan-lots 4, 5, and 6 of Block 8 in the Third Ward-was legally transferred to Northwestern Mutual from the Newhall House Stock Company on February 4. The purchase price was $90,000. On April 17 the company applied for a permit to build. The two month lapse between acquisition of the lots and application for the permit came about, in large part, because of a bill pending before the Wisconsin legislature in February and March 1885. Introduced by Assemblyman Henry J. Goddard of Chippewa Falls, the bill was designed expressly to prevent construction of the new block, and while its defeat was never in doubt, the company delayed signing contracts until the issue was resolved. By the end of April 1885, the last vestiges of the Newhall House were being removed from the site, and the contract for furnishing and setting the granite walls of basement and first story had been let. By April of the following year Northwestern Mutual's legal department had moved into the "New Insurance Building," as the press called it, with other departments following suit by May 1. The first policy was issued from the new home office on July 19, the first Board of Trustees meeting held there the next day; and on the following day, July 21, 1886, the building was dedicated. The City of Milwaukee and State of Wisconsin published in 1888 reports that block and lots had cost $725,000. Initially, the insurance company occupied only the second floor, with all other rooms and suites made available for rental; and by June 1887, at the latest, all these had been leased. Among the early tenants were the Milwaukee Art School, the National Exchange Bank (southeast corner, first floor), Angus Smith and Company (southeast comer, third story), the Lake Shore and Western Railway (suite on the fourth floor), and West and Meyers Insurance (rooms on the first story).

The building was erected for the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company and served as the firm's home office from 1886 to October 1914, when the present home office, 720 East Wisconsin Avenue, officially opened. In 1923 Northwestern Mutual sold its former headquarters to the Milwaukee Mechanics Insurance Company, from whom the current owner purchased it in 1947.

Northwestern Mutual was founded in Janesville, Wisconsin, in 1857 as the Mutual Life Insurance Company of the State of Wisconsin. Chartered in March of the same year, the fledgling firm issued its first policy in November 1858, and in March of the following year transferred operations to Milwaukee, moving into two rooms in an unpretentious little block at the southwest corner of Wisconsin and Main (now Broadway) . (This small structure was razed in 1899 and replaced by the Railway Exchange Building.) When the lease on these quarters expired in 1862, the company rented space in the newly completed Iron Block at Wisconsin and Water. In 1865 the firm was given its present name and bought and occupied an Italianate block at 416 Main Street, formerly the property of one Lewis Blake. Meanwhile, from 1863 on, Northwestern Mutual had been purchasing parcels of land at the northwest corner of Main and Wisconsin and by 1868 owned a site sufficiently large to allow construction of a commodious office building. Milwaukee's Edward Townsend Mix drew the plans for what was to be the first of three local buildings erected specifically for the company-a fanciful, mansard-crowned Victorian Gothic edifice that opened as Northwestern Mutual's home office on April 28, 1870. (Both this building and the one at 416 Main have been demolished.) By the early 1880s the firm had outgrown these quarters and after weighing the possibility of building one or more additions, decided to erect a new block-the building of 1885-86 documented here.

This situation reflects the awesome growth of the company during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries--during, that is, the tenure of Henry L. Palmer, president from January 1874 to July 1908: in these years Northwestern Mutual had risen to the ranks of one of the largest insurance firms in the nation. By 1910 steps were being taken to erect yet another building, this one to be occupied exclusively by the company; and a block-square site near the east end of Milwaukee's central business district was acquired that year. On July 17, 1912, the cornerstone was laid, and on October 21, 1914, the monumental Neo-classical edifice, designed by Marshall and Fox of Chicago, was dedicated. Enlarged in 1930 and later, this building still serves as Northwestern Mutual's home office.

Northwestern Mutual's block of 1885-86 rose on the site of the Newhall House, a famed early-day Milwaukee hotel. Built and furnished in 1857 at the cost of some $275,000, the Newhall House was a six-story, 300-room edifice that ranked in its time as "the largest and finest hotel in the West." In the early morning hours of January 10, 1883, fire broke out in the basement and, bursting through the elevator shaft, spread rapidly throughout the building. Before the flames could be extinguished, seventy-eight guests and employees had lost their lives, giving the Newhall House fire grim status among the major disasters in Milwaukee history.

During the winter of 1885 Northwestern Mutual's building committee and firm president Henry L. Palmer decided that the proposed new home office building should fill the entire site-that is, measure 180 feet on Broadway and 120 feet on Michigan Street-and should be a "good, substantial, solid building." They had determined, further, that it would consist of five stories and a basement. They planned that the basement would contain rental offices, the first story would have a bank in the southeast corner and offices for lease elsewhere, the second story would be occupied by Northwestern Mutual. The Evening Wisconsin for February 3 added that there would be two passenger elevators, while the Sentinel for the same day noted that a large courtyard with a skylight probably would occupy the central area of the building from first floor to roof. Later that month the building committee, firm president Palmer and an unidentified architect all went to Chicago to inspect new office buildings. They were apparently impressed by Chicago's First National Bank and began to think in terms of erecting a classical block. All these ideas except the choice of style, were incorporated into the final plans.

Northwestern Mutual's "Executive Committee Record" reported on March 3 that the building committee met and corresponded with Solon Spencer Beman of Chicago, Edward Townsend Mix of Milwaukee, and C. W. Clinton of New York before asking Beman and Mix to prepare preliminary plans and cost estimates. After examining the sketches and figures and holding additional conferences with both men, the committee unanimously recommended the adoption of Beman's design.

Beman began work on plans for the building in early March. While he was refining them he travelled with Henry Palmer and Charles D. Nash of the building committee to New York to study recently completed commercial blocks in the city. As soon as Beman finished a number of drawings for the structure, the building committee turned to consider materials to be used for the street elevations. They considered combining red granite at the basement and first floor levels with red stone or red brick above before settling on gray granites and gray Bedford stone.

The design of the building under Beman's direction became Richardsonian Romanesque rather than the classical style first envisioned by the building committee. It resembled several other projects designed by Beman at that time; The Pullman Building of 1884 in Chicago (now destroyed), the Studebaker Building (Fine Arts Building) of 1886, also in Chicago, and several structures in the new town of Pullman, Illinois. On March 7, 1885, the Evening Wisconsin remarked that Northwestern Mutual's new home office would be similar to the "greatly admired Pullman Block." H. H. Richardson's Cheney Block (1875-76) in Hartford, Connecticut and the Marshall Field Wholesale Warehouse (1885-87) exercised a marked influence on Beman's design for Northwestern Mutual's home office.

So pleased with Beman's work was Charles D. Nash that at the annual meeting of the Board of Trustees in July 1886, he offered a resolution recognizing the architect for his "great genius and unflinching integrity," expressing approval of the "beautiful and substantial structure he has designed and which has been erected under his supervision," praising him for negotiating "advantageous contracts," and, finally, commending him as "one of the leading men in his profession in this country and a most genial and worthy gentleman."

For a generation or more Northwestern Mutual's block of 1885-86 was popularly known as the New Insurance Building. In the early 1930s it was named the Loyalty Building after the Loyalty Group of insurance companies headquartered there. (The group is first listed at this address in the Milwaukee City Directory for 1931; its last listing as Loyalty Group occurs in 1957, and by 1958 its name had been changed to America Fore Loyalty Group.) While the Loyalty Building title is still current, the block's official name has been, for some time now, the 611 North Broadway Building.