Today is my last day working at The Loyalty Building, a.k.a. the 611 Building, a hulking, huggable mass of granite on the corner of Broadway and Michigan in downtown Milwaukee. It is 125 years old, and it was built at the behest of some hulking, I’m guessing not-so-huggable scions who founded the Northwestern Mutual Insurance Co. It is destined to become a boutique(ish) hotel.
I don’t know. It just depresses me that a place where men wearing bowlers, bow ties and well-shined shoes once smoked pipes and stored big piles of cash in private safes will soon become a place for Harley-riding, Summerfest-going tourists wearing unseemly shorts. But I tend to overdramatize things.
Let me tell you what it is like to work in a building conceived before there was e-mail, drywall, halogen lighting and air conditioning. Let me tell you before we all forget the sensation of eight hours a day in a functional building constructed when craftsmanship was a living breathing necessary solution to everyday life.
First of all: light. When you first walk into this heavy, brooding structure it’s easy to expect a dark place. But no! Behold the atrium:
Look at that thing! Back in the day, it was a sensible solution because it captured a natural resource — sunlight — which was very helpful before electricity was a common option. I love that wherever you wander, even if you turn a secretive little corner tucked under the eaves, there are windows built into the interior to capture and extend the reach of the light.
The offices I have worked in, on the fourth floor, wrap around two sides of the atrium. If you aren’t lucky enough to sit in a cubicle with an exterior window, you can easily find a cubicle with an interior window. Sometimes, I think the interior windows are better — less glare, and no dramatic shifts of light as the sun moves. You can tell that every piece of glass was originally designed to swing on hinges, and I can only imagine what kind of cross ventilation this place could get on a hot summer day, especially so close to the river and the lake.
The windows, by the way, are massive. I first started working here in the grayness of January, and my colleagues had to suffer through my exclamations about the light that poured like glitter through those tall stretches of glass. I kept pulling up the Venetian blinds to within an inch of their lives, probably blinding everyone in the process. Sorry, guys. But what a luxury after all the shoeboxes I’ve worked in.
And the staircase! I don’t know how I’ll ever get used to a stairwell again. The Loyalty’s grand marble steps got me ready for my day. Some were worn down in spots — a quiet message from working stiffs who had gone before me. I could take in the scope of the day as I looked up, around and into the other offices. I could feel part of a community of office-dom. I always liked that stair walk.
Sitting in my cubicle, I had a kick-ass view of the Grain Exchange (Mackie Building) across the street. Sometimes when one of us wanted to know where David or Cris or Tim was, we’d just stand up, look through the atrium, and see them in a meeting room across the way. Very handy — and a nice metaphor about transparency in the workplace.
I liked the way the Loyalty’s designers used curves to offset the squareness, and set the patterned floors askew. Speaking of floors — I never tired of those incredible tiles. The window sills were deep and perfect for plants. Wacky copper newel posts that looked like harlequin hats marked my way as I climbed the staircase. A mail chute ran like a ribbon down all five floors and was still in service. The doors were heavy and substantial when you entered a room, and left.
In a building like this, moment, purpose, and thought are implicit in every space. Nothing about it is a toss-off. It makes a person think: I am not a toss-off, either.
You can read some things about the building’s history here and here. But you may be disappointed. I spent much too much time looking around the internet for information, and ultimately didn’t find the kind of history I wanted — who used to work here? What was it like to be a woman here when the place was new? Who got fired, who screwed up, who got famous, who laid the foundation for things we now take for granted? What’s the story behind that amazing tile? Whose hands made the stair railings so smooth and the brass doorknobs so shiny?
I never, ever wondered any of those things working inside a cinder-block office building.