The Bath Tiles of Milwaukee's History

Jan 19, 2018

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.

To answer this Bubbler Talk question, Bonnie North met up with OnMilwaukee’s Bobby Tanzilo, who tends to know this stuff, and Eric Nordeen, of the Wells Building, to find out.

The entryway to Milwaukee's Wells Building. Note, the calligraphy used for the word Wells can be read both entering and leaving the building.
Credit Bonnie North

"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."

Eric guiding Bonnie and Bobby through the Wells Building's basement.
Credit Bonnie North

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."

Eric and Bobby standing in the deep end of the pool.
Credit Bonnie North

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."

On the left, you can see part of a column that once bisected the deep end of the pool.
Credit Bonnie North

Remains of subway tile, marble and concrete mark where the edge of the pool had once been.

While standing in the deep end of the pool, you can see the subway tile that marks what was once a pool wall.

"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.

A hole in the false floor looking down into the pool.
Credit Bonnie North

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.

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