“Bring the ladies,” pleaded a 1924 advertisement for the men-only Antlers Hotel, 616 North 2nd St. at Michigan.
The 11-story hotel, built at the cost of $800,000, offered 16 bowling alleys with human pinsetters, a 20-table pool hall, an indoor golf course, a luxurious ball room, a coffee shop, and 450 fireproof rooms under $2.00/day. The Antlers added a boxing arena in 1946 and the Swan, a 900-seat Broadway-quality supper club theater, in 1962. For most of its lifetime, the Antlers was the second-largest hotel in Milwaukee.
By 1974, most of the glamor was gone. The men-only rooming policy had been lifted, but the hotel rooms were never modernized with private baths, televisions, telephones, or even air conditioning. The Antlers’ rooms were not longer desirable, but they were still available (and affordable) for $8/night plus a $2 key deposit. However, the majority of “guests” were now permanent low-income residents.
Eventually, the City of Milwaukee began to use the Antlers as a homeless shelter. The former coffee shop became a hotel bar notorious for gay cruising, pickpockets and prostitutes. Reporters described the Antlers as an “ashtray hotel” and a “tired old flophouse.” Like many of its contemporaries, the Antlers was now considered another symptom of a sick downtown — old, out-of-date, embarrassing, and holding Milwaukee back from ever being a “first class” city.
A downtown mall was prescribed as the cure to what ailed downtown, but to build it, there would need to be architectural and cultural sacrifices. The early 1980s were a Gold Rush for downtown redevelopment, and many Milwaukeeans were quickly struck with land speculation fever. Then, as now, developers were very eager to trade historic heritage for even the most unsustainable developments.
“We’re not attempting to take a bulldozer to downtown Milwaukee,” said the vice-president of the Milwaukee Redevelopment Authority in 1977. Yet, that’s exactly what happened. On December 21, 1979, the Milwaukee Redevelopment Authority purchased the title of the 11-story Antlers Hotel for $701.00. It was demolished with dynamite, along with its neighbor, the Plankinton House Motor Inn, in October 1980.
The $90 million Grand Avenue plan made no real effort to incorporate or update either historic hotel. After all, the city was celebrating the $28 million Hyatt Regency, the city’s first new hotel built in over a decade. This was no time for looking backwards, only forward. And saving either or both would have sharply reduced the parking capacity of the new mall.
While Milwaukee developers launch retro-nostalgic “1920s hotel lobby”-themed bars where they never existed, the ghosts of the Antlers Hotel lobby bar are buried under the Grand Avenue parking structure on 2nd and Michigan. The structure is a hollow, lifeless monument to a renewal project that flattened the more colorful elements of our 24-hour downtown — and replaced it with a dead mall.