The Bath Tiles Of Milwaukee's History
A listener wondered if it was true that there were underground baths in Milwaukee where powerful men once met in secret to do powerful things.
"There were underground pools and baths where I’m sure deals got done, because they’re in places used by the movers and shakers, the power brokers of the city," Bobby explains. "The ones we know about were not really secret, but not anybody could just waltz right in."
Deep in the basement of the Wells Building on East Wisconsin Avenue — which looks like many other hundred year old office buildings in Milwaukee — is one of those subterranean pools.
In the early decades of the 20th century, the pool in the Wells Building was owned by the Milwaukee Athletic Club. And the nearby Pfister Hotel had Turkish baths on what is now the spa level. They were both men only.
Eric Nordeen, the owner of Ascendant Holdings — the company that now owns the Wells Building, says, "I mean the Milwaukee Athletic Club was kind of a 'who’s who' of Milwaukee back at the turn of the century. It was 1902 when it opened. And their club grew really quickly at that time. We think there [were] a lot of important people down here but we don’t really know."
As for the underground baths, Eric says, "We knew there was a pool in the basement, but we thought it had been fully covered over or filled in."
"But what we later discovered," he continues, "is only the shallow end is filled in and the deep end is actually still there."
Today, the Wells basement shows its age and decades of neglect. It’s hard to see where the pool once was.
"You have to look for the clues to know you’re there," Eric says. "You can see this ornate marble at the base of this column, which is not what you’d normally see in the base of a building. So that’s kind of a clue that something was here."
Remains of subway tile, marble and concrete mark where the edge of the pool had once been.
"We knew this existed, we knew the pool was here, but what we didn’t know was that there was a section of the deep end of the pool we could access," Eric explains.
They found it as they were clearing out some old file cabinets: a hole in the floor that showed what remains of the pool. He estimates that the room hadn't been walked in for 40 to 50 years.
The powerful men are long gone and no one plans to refurbish the pool. But for just a moment standing there, you can hear the echoes bouncing off the bath tiles of history.
Editor's note: This piece was originally published on January 19, 2018.
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