At 85, the Ambassador Hotel is an architectural gem with great secrets

Mike Muckian, Contributing writer

Much has changed at the Ambassador Hotel since its doors first opened in 1928. But even more has remained the same with the hotel’s stylish Art Deco interior.

After a 10-year, $14-million restoration, the Ambassador today shines brighter than ever. On May 4, when the venerable establishment marks 85 years of operation, it has become once again one of Milwaukee’s most prestigious hotel properties.

Guests both famous and infamous have visited the Ambassador over the years, making contributions to the hotel’s history that range from music to murder. 

During the 1930s, lounge patrons were entertained by the piano stylings of a West Allis native with the strange stage name of Walter Busterkeys. The young pianist went on to become the internationally renowned entertainer Liberace. 

In 1960, presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy spoke to a United Chemical Workers Convention at the hotel. In 1964, the Beatles took Milwaukee by storm and spent a night at the Ambassador Hotel, which was surrounded by hundreds of adoring fans.

During the 1970s and ’80s, the hotel’s neighborhood fell into decline and the Ambassador was roughly remodeled into a low-end residence hotel. On Sept. 15, 1987, hotel guest and serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer committed his second of 17 murders – and his first Milwaukee murder – in one of the Ambassador’s guest rooms. Dahmer smuggled the corpse of victim Steven Tuomi, one of four victims he met at the now-defunct Club 219, out in a suitcase, according to “The Man Who Could Not Kill Enough,” Annie Schwartz’s definitive book on Dahmer.

Fortunately, things have changed and, thanks to the lengthy restoration by Rick Wiegand, a 1981 graduate of nearby Marquette University, the hotel has regained its stature. What started as folly in the eyes of many turned out to be a savvy investment for the real estate developer.

Redecorate like an Egyptian

The Ambassador was originally designed by Milwaukee architects Urban Peacock and Armin Frank. Peacock was known for his period revival work in both public buildings and private residences. In addition to numerous classic Milwaukee movie theaters, all long since demolished, Peacock designed the former Deaconess Hospital, the convent at the St. John’s Cathedral complex, and the Copeland Service Station, 4924 W. Roosevelt Drive. The later is now Sherman Perk, a coffeehouse serving the Sherman Park neighborhood.

The Copeland was designed in the Streamline Moderne style, an aerodynamic offshoot of the Art Deco movement that swept the nation during the 1920s. The Ambassador’s own Art Deco details show signs of Egyptian Revival, a popular sub-motif prompted in part by archeologist Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb. Under this influence, Art Deco’s blend of craft motif and Machine Age imagery is flavored with the “Egyptomania” of the age, and the Ambassador sports distinct signs of this look.

Drop ceilings, worn carpeting and painted appliances greeted Wiegand when he bought the property 18 years ago. Remodeling efforts revealed more hidden gems than he had imagined.

Removal of the false ceilings revealed classic Art Deco designs pressed into the metal and plaster of the crown moldings. Carpeting was pulled up from the elegant marble and terrazzo flooring decorated in classic Art Deco black-and-white patterns. Layers of paint stripped from the lobby wall sconces yielded fixtures with a classic brushed nickel finish. 

There are wall coves designed especially for the cathedral-shaped radios popular during the period. The restoration’s centerpieces, however, are the bronze elevator doors, unique in the fact that they pull out rather than slide open. The Ambassador’s elevators provide the hotel’s most popular photo op, say staff members.

A classic look for a new millennium

The Ambassador blends the best of the age in which it was created with modern amenities for the guests it now serves. 

The Ambassador is the closest hotel to Marquette University, the Mitchell Park Domes and Miller Park. It’s also minutes away from Milwaukee’s lakefront and downtown attractions, all of which it services with a complimentary shuttle for hotel and restaurant guests. Even though the hotel’s name has changed, free parking is still a major benefit.

The Ambassador also is the closest hotel to the The Rave, and it serves both the rock venue’s audiences and bands. The lower-priced property located across Wisconsin Avenue from the hotel offers residence rooms and other conveniences for those who don’t need the hotel’s full amenities.

The rooms at the hotel not only have increased their amenities, but they also have grown in size. When the Ambassador opened in 1928, it boasted 300 rooms. Many of those rooms have been combined into larger rooms, including nine hot-tub suites and one presidential suite. Today, the Ambassador has 170 well-appointed rooms that blend the best of both the old and the new.

One thing that hasn’t changed much is the neon roof sign. Although the word “Motor” has been removed and the sign has been adjusted to face west rather than east, the Ambassador Hotel name still blazes across the Milwaukee sky just as it did in 1928. And guests today are as appreciative of the amenities the hotel offers as they were when its doors first opened – maybe more so.

Party like it’s 1928

The Ambassador Hotel celebrates its 85th birthday in style – in the style that was popular in 1928. Those with a taste for classic elegance can tuck into a four-course, prix-fixe Great Gatsby dinner at The Envoy restaurant featuring soup du jour, Waldorf salad, stuffed pork tenderloin and sour cream lemon cake for $27 per person.

There’s even more savings at The Envoy Lounge, the hotel’s stylish bar. During happy hour from 4 to 7 p.m., Monday to Friday, you can enjoy a classic cocktail, such as a martini, for $12, and then order a second one for the price at which it was sold in 1928. That would be just 25 cents, so you’ll want to come early and bring a friend. And if the outdoor patio isn’t yet open, it soon will be.

For more information, visit ambassadormilwaukee.com.