Yesterday, the building that houses the Milwaukee County Historical Society celebrated its 100th birthday. However, the MCHS building that stands today has not always belonged to the Historical Society. In fact, in the early 20th century, the building housed one of the largest banks in Milwaukee, the Second Ward Savings Bank. The bank was founded on December 26, 1855 by Wilhelm Jacobs, Augustus Wilmanns and John Bertschy; Jacobs worked as the head cashier, while Wilmanns served as the president of the bank. The first bank was located at Third and Chestnut, which is now Third and Juneau and was one of Milwaukee’s first banks. In the late 1850’s the bank moved to Third Street, Cedar, and West Water, which today is Third Street, Kilbourn, and Pere Marquette Park, which is the current location.
In 1866, the bank was reorganized and patronized by the leading brewers of Milwaukee: Valentine Blatz, Joseph Schlitz, Philip Best, Emil Schandein and August Uihlein. Due to the investment of the major beer barons’ support of Second Ward Savings bank, the bank became known as the “Brewers’ Bank”. Over time, August Uihlein became the largest stock holder and served as the president of the bank. In 1893, there was a national financial panic, in which Second Ward Savings Bank was one of the few Milwaukee banks to survive. During the Panic, bankers were worried about the reliability of the banks; however, Uihlein personally guaranteed the security of all the deposits, which equaled about $9,000,000, therefore he was able to keep Second Ward Savings Bank stable. When he died in 1911, the bank was given over to his son, Joseph Uihlein.
Under Joseph Uihlein, another new building was erected, which is the building that still stands today. Construction was started in 1911, took 2 years to build and became open to the public on February 3, 1913. The building cost $400,000 to build; the largest amount of money was spent on the vault doors, which were $75,000 altogether. Another $67,000 was spent on the stone, $40,000 on marble, $38,000 on architectural iron, and $29,000 for the concrete work. The architectural firm of Kirchhoff and Rose designed the building. The design was influenced by the Beaux-Arts Classicism. The building is extremely heavy, and in order to support it, there are 600 pilings, each one foot in diameter. The vault on the north end of the building weighs 27.5 tons, and the other six have a similar weight. At the tops of the pillars are clusters of hops, symbolizing the patronage of the beer barons. The building was built in an unusual shape to fit the site; however, the building became a prominent symbol of Milwaukee banking.
With the new building opened, the bank prospered even more and in 1928, the bank merged with the First Wisconsin National Bank. The bank remained in operation until 1965, when the building was donated to the county to be used for the Milwaukee County Historical Society. Today the building is used as the Society’s headquarters, houses a museum, contains an extensive artifact collection, and an archival research library. The inside of the building has changed over the years that the Historical Society has housed it but in 2008, the building was restored to how it looked in 1913. Also in 2008, the movie Public Enemies was filmed inside the building. Although the movie portrays John Dillinger robbing the bank; however, the Second Ward Savings Bank never had a single robbery in its time of service. The bank teller stations are not on display, but instead there are exhibits that show the history of Milwaukee. The Second Ward Savings bank building is a historical treasure of Milwaukee, but more importantly, the building holds some of the greatest pieces of Milwaukee history inside its vault doors.
Help the Milwaukee County Historical Society celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Second Ward Savings Bank’s grand opening by stopping by for a visit to see the building in person and peruse through our large photographic collection containing images of the building throughout its long and storied history.