Stella Cretek

Great Architecture

By - Jul 14th, 2008 02:52 pm
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In 2005, the eight-story 1927 Ambassador Hotel at 2308 W. Wisconsin Avenue had a twelve-million dollar fix, a “lift” inside and out. The Art Deco building certainly deserved help. In fact, prior to the sensitive re-do, it had become infamous as a hangout for serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who allegedly murdered one of his victims there. That’s in the past, as are the nearby Oxford Apartments where Dahmer lived. They’ve been demolished. Today, the Ambassador, and the area surrounding it, speak about an era when making whoopee didn’t signal total chaos, unless of course you were in a gin mill toting a sidearm.

In 1925 Paris, the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Moderns was unveiled. WWI was over and people were ready to embrace an architectural movement whose primary thrust was to meld industrial technology with the “primitive” arts of Africa, Egypt, and/or Aztec Mexico. Aluminum, stainless steel, lacquer, exotic woods and in some cases, exotic animal skins (such as zebra), were bonded in a muscular mix suggesting “deluxe, first class, and forward thinking.” All of these lush elements were firmly in place long before the term “Art Deco” really caught fire back in the 1960’s.

If you’ve thrilled to the films of New York artist Matthew Barney, you know he wasn’t exactly high on the idea of architecture which seemed, because of its monumental scale, to crush and demean Homo-sapiens. In his 2002 “Cremaster 3” film, he blasted architect William Van Alen’s 1928-1930 Chrysler Building, which he considered the most excessive Art Deco architecture on our shores. To Barney’s mind, it is a hideous, stainless steel icon dripping with the corrupt power of politics and big money, a kind of mausoleum of madness, built on the backs of immigrant labor. Some critics thought the Crysler was an omen signaling the 1928 stock market plunge.

Comparing The Ambassador Hotel with the Chrysler Building is rather like comparing a rowboat with the Titanic, but it is fair to say that Milwaukee’s Deco jewel shelters, rather than diminishes, persons entering its doors. Six steps up from the canopied and glassy east entrance and you’re in the intimate lobby, where no splashing fountains, jungles of potted plants, relentless music, and/or way too much art, confuse rather than soothe. The lobby chairs, upholstered in fabrics replicating “nature’s forms abstracted,” a popular Art Deco motif, are so discrete as to be barely there. The tables near the seating are small and utilitarian. The décor is refreshingly uncomplicated, even with the deco details inviting you to linger awhile: sconces of frosted glass embellished with metal ferns unfolding, pillars rising to meet a ceiling punctuated with Deco chandeliers, and sunburst motifs proclaiming a “new day is coming.” Gentle curves (less fussy than those of Art Nouveau) harmonize with chevrons, diamond shapes and triangles. Peachy beige, muted browns and grays, enliven the marble and terrazzo floors winding through the area, some leading to the modest Envoy dining room, where tuned-down jazz and rosy-dawn pink walls signal civilized comfort. If you wish to ride skyward to the room of your choice, push a button to open the original bronze elevator doors, lavish with sunburst motifs peeking thru semi-circular clouds and papyrus leaves.

A friend emailed me asking if I knew of a deco apartment where the movie “Dillinger” could be filmed. They’d already looked at the Ambassador, but apparently the comfortable rooms are way too small to suit their celluloid needs.

Situated off the main lobby are the “Ladies” and “Gentlemen” restrooms. The doors leading to each have glass doors depicting a lady and a gentlemen. The guy’s door is fine. In fact, the chap resembles a Fred Astaire type dressed for a night on the town. The female, clad in a long frock, misses the mark, mainly because she looks like she’s not having a good time.

Outside of the building, on the east face, is a sign, “No Loitering/Milwaukee Ordinance 106.31.” It is oddly out-of-sync with the ambiance of the structure, for who wouldn’t want to linger and admire the buff-colored brick detailed with terra cotta and the slender patio which wends its way beneath a neon, martini-topped sign on the south face along Wisconsin Avenue, before ending near a splashing fountain (get rid of the Home-Depot style trellis in the area!) marking a curving path to the ample parking lot. “No Loitering” signs define our times, and we could do with fewer of these off-putting messages.

It’s good to know that the Ambassador’s neighbors are not “Art Deco” clones. Across Wisconsin Avenue is a Scrub.A.Dub car wash with yellow flags topping a black and white checkered façade. A Quick Pick Food Mart sporting appropriately cheesy signage is to the west, as is the majestic Russell Barr Williamson’s 1925 Eagles Club, now home to The Rave. There is nothing gentrified (i.e. “embalmed”) about the neighborhood, unlike much of the Third Ward which is currently suffering from new buildings struggling to upstage each other.

The Ambassador’s marketing brochure proclaims the hotel is “an icon of style.” If you visit, you’ll see that it speaks for itself.

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Deco: Before & After

According to Modernism magazine’s Spring 2007 issue, the embellished pottery of Britain’s Clarice Cliff (1899-1972), is being snapped up by collectors, and is cited as “emblematic of the Art Deco age.” Pieces from her Bizaare series “reflect influences ranging from Cubism to de Stijl to the Ballets Russes.” No doubt she was influenced by a 1927 visit to Paris where she “experienced the ripple effect of the famous Art Deco Exhibition.” Two of her plates, “Sunray” (1929) and ”Tennis” (1930), are decidedly sunny and upbeat. The same issue of Modernism pictures a 1925 silver and enamel pendant by Jean Fouquet, which recently sold for a five-figure sum. On page 16, an ad for “Volute” (Art Deco wallpaper pattern) depicts stylized ferns unfolding amidst wavy lines, and is quite similar to some of the design motifs in the Ambassador Hotel lobby.
The Milwaukee Art Museum’s collection includes Fernand Leger’s “Study for Three Portraits” (1910-11), painted a few years after Picasso and Braque pioneered Cubism. MAM’s website, says the work shows an “association between man and machine.” And though it was a precursor to the later emergence of Art Deco, it paved the way for the furniture designs of Donald Deskey and Eileen Gray, and art notables Georg Jensen, Erte, Rene Lalique, Paul Manship, and Walter Dorwin Teague. Even the animated “Batman” series from the early 1990’s was influenced by Deco, though the creators of the show referred to it as “Dark Deco.” A 1998 computer adventure game produced by LucasArts is fashioned in the Deco style, and if you’re really into the era and go for repro, there is a Deco-themed section at Downtown Disney in Anaheim, California.

Categories: Dem Bones

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