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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Glory of the Grain Exchange

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It’s amazing what kinds of treasure can be discovered beneath a few coats of paint and a dropped ceiling. Milwaukee is home to many once-magnificent temples to commerce that faded in significance over the years, were later outfitted to fulfill other purposes and then restored to their former glory in the name of historic preservation. One such example is the Grain Exchange Room in the old Chamber of Commerce building, now called the Mackie Building, at 225 E. Michigan St.

In the years following the Civil War, Scottish immigrant Alexander Mitchell had become a banker, railroad magnate and grain-trade backer of nearly sovereign power in Milwaukee. He was, as The Making of Milwaukee author John Gurda describes, “an emperor of capital whose authority was beyond question.” He and his wife, Martha, had a preference for opulence, a trait expressed in both their residence and Alexander’s business enterprises. In addition to heading Wisconsin’s largest bank (Wisconsin Marine and Fire Insurance Company Bank) and largest railroad (Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul Railroad), he also ran the largest marine and fire insurance firm in the West: Northwestern National Insurance. In 1876, he decided to bring them all together under one lavish roof. He hired leading architect Edward Townsend Mix to design a six-story stone commercial building in the French Second Empire style, aptly named the Mitchell Building.

Mitchell was aware the Chamber of Commerce, the neighbor directly east of his new building, was unhappy in its cramped digs. So he offered to tear down its existing structure, build a new and improved building, and lease it to the Chamber long-term. Designed by Mix and completed in 1880, the focal point of the new Chamber of Commerce Building was a three-story commodity trading room called the Grain Exchange that contained a sunken, tiered trading “pit” where the price of wheat was set. Modeled after the one in the previous Chamber of Commerce building, this trading floor pit is thought to have been the first one ever constructed.

According to Gurda, the room was among “the most lavishly decorated public spaces in the region.” Commissioned by local artists, the ceiling and walls were adorned with frescoes, murals and wall paintings that shared the theme of industry, transportation, agriculture, trade and commerce. Colossal faux-marble pillars boasted gilded capitals with carved depictions of locomotives and steamships. At the center of the ceiling was a skylight surrounded by frescoes of wheat sheaf medallions and Wisconsin wild flowers.

In the face of diminished market activity, grain trading ceased at the Chamber of Commerce building in 1935. After World War II, the old Grain Exchange Room was given a false ceiling and subdivided into offices. The two-story space above the ceiling fell into serious disrepair. In 1981, the Ashley family began intensive restoration of the Grain Exchange. It took two years to recreate the murals, frescoes, plasterwork, woodwork, faux-marbling and other features that made the Grain Exchange so stunning during Milwaukee’s term as the world’s wheat capital.