The Gilded Age

Picture-perfect receptions at Milwaukee's luxury hotels.

Milwaukee’s luxury hotels offer the perfect milieu for the black tuxes and evening gowns of a storybook wedding. Located in the heart of downtown, they’re within easy reach by plane or train. They sit near the theater district, RiverWalk, Grand Avenue Mall, and the Historic Third Ward. Guests can visit the lakefront, Milwaukee Art Museum, art galleries, specialty shops, and in the evening hit the nightclubs. Upscale restaurants, ethnic food, and afternoon teas will tempt every taste.
    Above all, the architecture of these classic hotels provides built-in elegance for events and photographs. Katy Rowe of Artist Group Photography loves the Old World atmosphere of Milwaukee’s hotels. “We take photos on the staircase, then the mezzanine, up to a balcony with chandeliers,” Rowe says. “The experience is so rich and layered.” Once the couple reaches the ballroom, they step into enchantment.

The Pfister
The three-story lobby of Milwaukee’s Pfister hotel is steeped in history. The hotel cost more than $1 million to build in 1893, the most expensive hotel of its time. Wrought-iron railings, marble columns, and gold-leaf trim reflect 19th-century luxury. Under the ceiling fresco and chandeliers, the hotel’s priceless Victorian art collection displays the refined tastes of an earlier era.
    The Pfister has welcomed more than 6,000 brides and grooms in its 117-year history. These days it hosts about 70 weddings per year. The Grand Ballroom, with Parisian-style crystal chandeliers, seats up to 600 guests, and can be configured for expansive or intimate spaces. The Imperial Ballroom, seating 300, features tray ceilings, a balcony overlooking the ballroom, sumptuous décor, and panoramic city views.
    The views from Blu, the top-floor martini bar, are jaw-dropping. There’s also a new banquet hall on the 23rd floor designed for 60 people, perfect for rehearsal dinners and smaller receptions.
    When Ashley Campbell and her fiancé Andy were choosing a reception site, she says, “It came down to trust. My parents trusted that everything would be done right if they chose the Pfister.” Campbell adds, “[Catering director] Ted Grange went above and beyond to handle the details. It felt like having a wedding planner.”
    For their Scottish-themed reception in the Imperial Ballroom, a bagpiper played on the balcony. After the reception, guests took the party to the nearby Mason Street Grill. “The entire night seemed like a fairy-tale,” she says. The couple spent the night in a Pfister honeymoon suite, and Sunday brunch was held in Blu.
    “The staff must see weddings all the time,” Campbell says, “but they all acted like ours was so special.”

Hilton Milwaukee
Kate Alvarado and her husband David initially searched online to find a reception hall that could accommodate their guest list. As soon as they toured the Hilton, they knew they had found the perfect venue. Its lavish original ballrooms were fit for a princess: tiered 19th-century French décor with rich wood, gold leaf, and russet carpets and draperies. The Crystal Ballroom seats 600 guests; the Empire seats 250. Once you book a ballroom (a year in advance), you can attend a food tasting offered every three months.
    The Hilton, on Wisconsin Avenue, boasts five ballrooms, and hosts 60 to 80 weddings per year. It was built in 1927 as the Schroeder Sheridan, a landmark signature hotel. Marcus Weddings, which also owns the Pfister, Intercontinental, and Grand Geneva Resort, bought the hotel in 1972, turned it into the Marc Plaza for two decades, then fully renovated it. In 1995, it reopened in all its Jazz Age grandeur as the Hilton Milwaukee City Center.
    Alvarado’s favorite aspect was the level of professionalism. “Throughout the night, Hilton employees were constantly checking in,” she recalls. But her favorite moment overall? Arriving for cocktails. Her guests were waiting, and the room was filled with her flowers, centerpieces, and the cake. “I tried to stop and take it all in,” she says.
    As part of the package, the bride and groom get a complimentary room. Their Hilton suite was, Alvarado says, “the nicest hotel room I’ve ever been in.” Plus, she says, “to have a wedding in the hotel was great for out-of-town guests. They could just go up to their rooms and didn’t have to navigate the city.”

Hotel Metro
For more intimate weddings, the Metro’s 63 suites house guests in style and comfort. Its ballroom seats 100 and features English linen-clad walls, bamboo plank floors, and bronze chandeliers. A sunlit atrium integrates with the ballroom through a glass wall.
Hotel Metro is perhaps Milwaukee’s premier boutique hotel, and it was the first to be certified by Travel Green Wisconsin, an eco-friendly tourism program. Originally built as offices in 1937, the building was remodeled in 1996, blending European Art Deco with contemporary trends in sustainability.
    Zen on 7, with space for up to 50 guests, is a rooftop option for a smaller wedding, rehearsal dinner, or Sunday brunch. The modern glass-enclosed space has a private bar, fireplace, and open-air garden with a fountain, reflecting pool, and city views.
    “Hotel Metro is more quirky, for people who appreciate the Deco,” says Rowe. “You always see famous basketball players in the lobby and feel like you’re a superstar.”

The Intercontinental
As a contemporary venue, the guestrooms of the four-star Intercontinental offer great amenities, pleasing design, and city views. “The Intercontinental will appeal to the modern bride,” says Peggy Williams-Smith, corporate director of catering for Marcus Hotels & Resorts. “It has a hip feel.”
    The Intercontinental was renovated in 2007. Space limitations keep its wedding count to around 45 per year, so call early to reserve a date. The Grand Salon, overlooking Lake Michigan, accommodates up to 400 guests, with balconies that are tailor-made for Champagne toasts and photographs. The Lobby Salon, for up to 120 guests, offers the convenient option of starting with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, then transitioning to the ballroom.
    At the Intercontinental, the banquet and the restaurant share a kitchen, so the executive and restaurant chefs work together on presentation and quality.

The Ambassador
In 1928, the Ambassador was known as the “Art Deco jewel of Wisconsin Avenue.” The name still fits. Its original chandeliers, marble floors, and wrought iron have been refurbished, and many couples reserve the lobby just for photo sessions. However, the Ambassador, on the western edge of Marquette University, is also a perfect venue for an upscale smaller wedding.
    “I call it simple elegance,” says Lori Fuhrmann, director of sales and marketing. The Embassy Room seats 60 guests. In warm weather, and full bloom, the Ambassador’s patio gardens provide European charm. Café Deco leads to an enclosed patio, for delightful indoor and outdoor cocktail gatherings.
    The Ambassador provides free on-site parking and complimentary downtown shuttle service, so it’s easy for guests to return to their rooms between events to freshen up, relax, and enjoy a cocktail in the Envoy lounge. Guests may want to take advantage of its unique special—a second drink comes at the original 1928 price.

Take Your Pick
With so many choices, Williams-Smith recommends considering a range of hotels for various wedding events. A rehearsal dinner can be at one location, the reception at the ballroom of your choice, and a gift-opening brunch at another hotel. As far as pricing, she says, “venues are much more flexible in this economy. It never hurts to ask.” Most hotels offer package deals for guestrooms, receptions, and bridal suites.
    The bottom line is that Milwaukee’s classic hotels each have a distinct style, but they all maintain the luxurious standards of an older era; they’re made for romance. Try sitting at one of their stylish bars and sipping a classic cocktail: It’s impossible not to feel like Bogie and Bacall, or Gable and Lombard, aglow in a golden age.

At a Glance

  • The Pfister Ballrooms: Grand Ballroom, seats 600; Imperial, seats 300 | Bonus: A slice of history; full-service salon and spa, pool
  • Hilton Milwaukee City Center Ballrooms: Crystal, seats 600; Empire, seats 250 | Bonus: Top-notch service, lavish fairy-tale setting
  • The Intercontinental Ballrooms: Grand Salon, seats 420; Lobby Salon, seats 120 | Bonus: Modern, with Lake Michigan views
  • Hotel Metro Ballroom: Seats 100 | Bonus: Art Deco, intimate and chic
  • The Ambassador Ballroom: Embassy room, seats 60 | Bonus: Art Deco, with garden patio