My family and I will be returning to Milwaukee for our vacation in about a week — a return and vacation I’m looking forward to. We’ll be trying to recapture the delight that was last year’s vacation; I wrote about it below, last August. See you at the Pfister and Karl Ratzsch’s (now under new ownership, I understand, but it looks as good as ever).
I’ll spare you the gory details of how my family and I ended up in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for our vacation this year; let it just be said that when in the deepest valley we sought out a place where our daughters might be happy and comfortable — a hotel with a pool — and checked in, tired and the worse for wear after a four hour drive, at The Pfister in one of the older sections of the city. My wife had grown up in Milwaukee, but mostly in its suburbs, and after eight years or so of visiting almost yearly I’d never actually set foot downtown. As it turned out, better late than never.
We spent four days and three nights at the hotel — itself a gem, designed by Henry C. Koch and opened in 1893. As the cliché goes, they don’t make them like this any more: a high vaulted ceiling rising three floors above the lobby, cherubs flying merrily through a pink and white sky, and the kind of heavy mahogany reception desks that you only see in movies these days. As we settled into our sixth floor suite, with a bedroom and a sitting room, I was comforted by — well, by the permanence of the furnishings, a far cry from the pre-fab furniture and fixtures of contemporary hotels. Here, too, the ceiling was high, the door and wall mouldings wooden rather than stucco. After the swim, we took a little tour of the hotel, which boasts the largest collection of Victorian art in any hotel anywhere in the world (though a second’s thought makes you wonder just who the competition is), mostly located on the second, third, and seventh floors of the hotel. These hallways were particularly quiet; we didn’t come across any Victorian art aficionados, and I confess I’m not one myself. But the art itself reflected the design of the hotel, also completed in the late Victorian era, and vice versa. The Pfister isn’t a glamorous hotel — it’s too sedate for that, and this quality was maintained when Ben Marcus bought the hotel in 1962, attaching a 13-story addition which didn’t compromise the original structure (the pool and a lovely cafe sit atop the addition) — but it is solid, it is elegantly comfortable.
I suppose it was this atmosphere that led me to think of what T.S. Eliot called the “Permanent Things,” an idea associated with 18th-century Toryism rather than what passes for conservatism in the Republican Party and Fox News today. “Conservatism is too often conservation of the wrong things,” Eliot wrote, “liberalism a relaxation of discipline; revolution a denial of the permanent things.” These permanent things can be found in architecture and in cities too, as well as in religion and culture, and though Eliot doesn’t define precisely what these permanent things are, his friend Russell Kirk took a stab at it: “By ‘the Permanent Things’ [Eliot] meant those elements in the human condition that give us our nature, without which we are as the beasts that perish. They work upon us all in the sense that both they and we are bound up in that continuity of belief and institution called the great mysterious incorporation of the human race.” It is also a sense of wonder and an acceptance of human modesty in the face of experience that should remind us of our place in the universe. Even a hotel can exhibit that sense, in the design of its high ceilings, the permanence of fixtures even in a place, such as a hotel, which serves transience, surrounding human beings — well, in the case of the Pfister — with art. Nor does that art stop with the Victorian era; the hotel also supports on-location artists and writers, who document the hotel and those who pass through it through creative acts.
The Pfister staff, for the most part, exhibits that personal reticence which is I suppose a part of the makeup of the stereotypical Midwesterner. But there are exceptions, and I suppose those exceptions demonstrate the permanent things of community that make life worth living. One evening in the lobby of the hotel we found ourselves near the concierge’s desk, looking at some of the paintings on the walls, when the concierge, a rather older man wearing a cravat and a formal suit, took notice of us. He leaned down to Goldie and Billie and said, “There’s something I’d like to show you. There’s a painting of a dog on the seventh floor, and his eyes follow you around wherever you go in the room. Come with me.” So, playing hooky for a few minutes, he left his desk and led us up to the seventh floor, where Goldie and Billie were mesmerized by the dog in the painting, whose eyes indeed follow them around the room. “I want to show you one more thing,” the concierge said. He pulled a large chain of keys from his pocket and opened the door to a huge, empty ballroom that looked out over the city from high windows, wrought-iron electric chandeliers (the first to be installed in Milwaukee) dotting the ceiling. The girls ran around the room — nearly the size of a football field, though I’m sure this is an exaggeration — as the concierge shared a few stories of guests at the hotel — Barbra Streisand, John F. Kennedy — and a few stories about its history. This ballroom was indeed luxurious, and the girls (not to mention their parents) were awed by its opulence — all presented, by a thoughtful staff member, specially for a rather tired family for the East Coast.
The Pfister was built in the early days of the city, which itself was settled in the middle of the 19th century first by French Catholic missionaries and fur traders and then, a little later, by German and Eastern European immigrants, who established the breweries which gave the city its reputation as a beer capital of the world. Wikipedia tells me it’s the 31st largest city in the United States, and strolls through the neighborhood suggest that, despite the apparently inescapable urge toward modernization that includes skyscrapers and rather ugly modern buildings, there’s some permanence in the architecture here, too. Many of the commercial structures put up in the late 19th century, like the Pfister, remain in use, and they’re maintained rather well; there’s something of a nightlife downtown, though as a New Yorker I was a little shocked to find just how empty the sidewalks were even in the middle of the day, in the business district. Shocked and, I suppose, relieved by the lack of furious activity, too. There’s still a small-city German feeling to the town (and at Karl Ratzsch’s, a restaurant in business since 1904, I had some of the best sauerbraten I’ve had in years).
On the plane back home to New York the other day, I thought about how to bring a little of all this back to New York — a city itself defined these days by the impermanence of the pop-up gallery and store and theatre, the narcissism of the selfie. It may be quite impossible of course; New York left the 19th century behind some, well, some 115 years ago, and that’s that. But there were a few suggestions.
On my walks through Milwaukee I stopped a few times at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, a few blocks from the hotel, a Catholic church that nonetheless eschewed a great deal of the Baroque and Romanesque trappings of other American cathedrals of the era. It was originally built in 1847 but destroyed by fire in 1935; restorations were complete only in 2002. I visited it in the afternoon, when few people were in the church, surprised by its simplicity — a simplicity which itself, ironically, engendered those feelings of modesty and wonder suggested through thinking of the Permanent Things. The Catholic Church is of course an ancient institution and only lives now because — well, one begins to suspect that it lives now, in places like the Cathedral of St. John, because there is something of a human and spiritual truth to it that can’t be shaken by modernity. The Milwaukee cathedral partakes of both. Much of the artwork and the stained glass is remarkably contemporary, most of it created by Milwaukee-area artists (a virtual tour of the cathedral can be found here). We brought Billie and Goldie here, too, late one afternoon, and one of the deacons of the church (I think) was just closing up; for us, he turned the lights on over the altar, illuminating the Corona pictured above, and he kindly shared a few of his own thoughts and highlights of the cathedral.
I can’t say whether the girls felt awed or modest in the cathedral; I’m not sure they know exactly what those are quite yet; and this was their first visit to a Christian church, too. We are all New Yorkers, but I hope we were able to bring a little of this Milwaukee back with us. I could never live there, I don’t think, for a variety of very practical reasons. But I hope we do get back; we all need these reminders of the Permanent Things.