Iron Horse versus Aloft Hotels
By Stephen Strupp
The massive, heavy-duty awning suspended over the entrance to the Iron Horse Hotel gives the feel of entering into some kind of stronghold. Located at 500 West Florida Street, the hotel’s external appearance is Spartan; a solid red brick cube with black window frames and concrete trimming. The no-frills look is appropriate to the building’s history and the area’s history. Over 100 years old, and originally a bedding factory, it is one of many warehouse buildings in the area situated near the Menomonee River Valley railroad yard. The hotel shows an effort to maintain a level of authenticity, but the flawless brick façade and perfect windows prevent it from blending in with the neighboring warehouses.
If the Iron Horse represents an effort to look appropriate to its surroundings without blending in, the Aloft Hotel, located at 1230 Old World Third Street, appears to have no interest in its area, and is instead making an effort to create a vision of the future rather than a reflection of the past. However, the degree to which the Aloft’s facilities are really advanced is open for debate. The building’s exterior is actually plain for the most part – a taupe-colored box with some wood panel detailing and rows of rectangular windows. The only thing keeping the hotel from looking like a regular office building is the plasticky electric-blue wave mounted on the roof, which bears the silver “aloft” insignia. The awning hovering over the entrance uses the same rolling shape and beckons guests to pass through the neon pink laser decal adorned automatic doors into the lobby.
At the Iron Horse Hotel there are no automatic doors; you ascend the front steps, take the handle, and pull the door open. You are made aware of the solidity of the materials the hotel is composed of. Inside, the lobby is dark, lit by candles and dim incandescent bulb chandeliers. Sounds of smooth jazz and lite rock float down from hidden speakers. The interior structure looks less polished than the exterior; the exposed 300-year-old pine beams and original Cream City brick have a broken in solidity, like a trusty leather jacket. Speaking of leather, there’s plenty of it in this lobby. The chairs and sofas are all either antiques or custom-made, and all covered in satiny cowhide. The infatuation with leather is no coincidence given that the Harley-Davidson Museum is located down the street. After all, the Iron Horse bills itself as the “country’s only boutique hotel geared toward motorcycle enthusiasts” (The Iron Horse Hotel). The rooms even feature “custom hooks for hanging heavy leathers” according to the Iron Horse website. The lounge area is packed with furniture, to the point that it is almost an obstacle course to get from one side to the other. In addition to the abundant leather seating, there are display cases and tables full of antique knick-knacks. Old gears and other parts from the building’s original machinery are presented as objects of interest. The decoration pays homage to the “center of modern manufacturing” that Milwaukee was in the late 19th century (Wisconsin Historical Society).
In the Aloft lobby, you are hit with intense blues, greens, oranges, and pinks, covering the sleek furniture and emanating from neon lights. The exposed chrome of the ventilation system on the ceiling reflects the saturated hues. The calmer charcoal shaded couches and chairs along with softer light provided by box lanterns almost balance the sugar-rush, but balance doesn’t seem to be the goal here. This is a space-age candy land escape from reality. It’s all about energy and fun, techno music and glossy finish – not easy listening and rustic Cream City brick. While the Iron Horse Hotel wants you to feel how old and tough it is, Aloft wants you see how new and sleek it is. It has no use for history – it’s about the fast-paced present day. A high-speed marquee near the elevator lists off news about popular TV shows and professional sports. Aloft is meant to feel youthful – board games such as Sorry!, Hungry Hungry Hippos, and Candy Land are for sale along with the traditional hotel commodities of toothbrushes, pain relievers, etc. The floor of the elevator features soft tiles filled with a blue liquid that reacts to pressure, inviting guests to play as they ascend to their rooms. The hallways are plain, with dark gray carpet and walls. The light fixtures are covered in striped fabric enclosures that diffuse the light through beach towel colors. The rooms feature standard amenities; packaged coffee and snacks rest on the shelf above the lock box. Above the bed’s headboard there is a photographic print of animal fur. The magnified image of black and white fine hairs adds an element of intricacy to the room, though the photographer is unnamed and the images are used in every Aloft hotel room around the world. The only original artworks in the hotel are a few paintings by a Racine artist that fit in with the vivid color scheme in the lobby.
The Iron Horse puts special emphasis on selecting artworks by local artists, almost to the point that the localness takes precedence over the work itself. An American Flag painted on jeans, industrial aluminum sculptures, and murals of beautiful women all fit into the masculine motorcycle rider dream of freedom, ruggedness, and babes. In the context of the boutique hotel, these principles are subdued to fit into the unobtrusive role of decoration.
The hotel’s faithfulness to the time period of its origin is especially relevant considering that the Harley-Davidson Motor Company was incorporated in 1907, the same year that the building was commissioned (Harley-Davidson). The historical context becomes national in the guestroom hallways, with animal-print carpet recalling a motif popular in the early 1900s when many Americans shared a romantic fascination with the safari inspired by former president Theodore Roosevelt’s 1909-1910 expedition to East Africa (Theodore Roosevelt Association). This is one of the few elements in which the line between paying homage to history and recreating history is blurred. It could be intentionally confusing, to create a sense of timelessness. The LCD flat screen TVs, state of the art bathroom fixtures, and Keurig coffee makers that grace each room provide all the luxuries that guests (even road warriors) demand from a boutique hotel. At the same time, the exposed Cream City brick, turn of the century antiques, and vintage stylistic details are reminders that history is all around us.
For better or for worse, historical context is ignored by the Aloft Hotel. It may be that the people at Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. are not interested in the background of the areas they build their hotels in, or it could be a result of the way the creators perceive the patrons they cater to. They may underestimate the level of engagement their guests are willing to have with history. Maybe the mass-produced Aloft Hotels will create their own history and be remembered in the future as the style of the 2000’s. Or maybe Aloft is a passing trend that isn’t quite significant or innovative enough to stick in anyone’s memory.
The Iron Horse Hotel. “For the Rider”. 2010. http://www.theironhorsehotel.com/motorcycle-amenities/for-the-rider.html” target=”_blank”>http://www.theironhorsehotel.com/motorcycle-amenities/for-the-rider.html>
Harley-Davidson. “1900s”. 2010. http://www.harley-davidson.com/wcm/Content/Pages/H-D_History/history_1900s.jsp?locale=en_US” target=”_blank”>http://www.harley-davidson.com/wcm/Content/Pages/H-D_History/history_1900s.jsp?locale=en_US>
Theodore Roosevelt Association. “Early Post Presidential Years”. 2010. http://www.theodoreroosevelt.org/life/biopictures7.htm” target=”_blank”>http://www.theodoreroosevelt.org/life/biopictures7.htm>
Wisconsin Historical Society. “The Rise of Skilled Manufacturing”. 2010. http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/tp%2D044/?action=more_essay” target=”_blank”>http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/tp%2D044/?action=more_essay>
Function and form/Beauty and depth
What is one to consider more beneficial? Function and form or beauty and depth? Like the two sides to a coin, each is not without the other, but one often from opposites. Two of the most recent establishments in Downtown Milwaukee parallel these. One, a highly anticipated luxury hotel, the first independent boutique in the United States (Novaceck). The other, a mid-level chain aimed at younger business travelers across the nation. Ultimately, the goal is to sleep in both establishments, but each approach it from a different side of the coin. The Aloft is welcoming, with an internet café atmosphere to serve clientele needs, while the boutique hotel creates dark lounges with striking artwork and service. The two hotels are hardly comparable; the ultimately visionary environment of the Iron Horse Hotel concours the strange offspring or the W Hotel Chain, the Aloft Hotel. Both aim to be cultural destinations of Milwaukee with vastly different public images and intentions.
The service industry, a feature of developed nations, employs eighty percent of the United States (‘Industry’). Found in every incorporated town in the country, the public interacts with service workers on a daily basis when they spend money. Collectively, the service industry lives or dies on public opinion (or the weight of their wallets) but as individual satellites of entrepreneurship they operate under directives from philosophies, management, owners, and employees. The chain of command far reaching or direct shapes the way a customer is to perceive the business whether through advertisement, environment, products carried, or targeted demographic. Sheltering travelers has been a business since humans gained the ability to travel great distances and pay for a room rather than camping out. Hotels are the modern derivative of this, and they have created a culture meant to welcome and comfort the traveler corporately run or no. Boutique hotels are a smaller group usually owned independently that are reaching to create a singular experience of a stay. Banking on personalization of stays within the establishment, unique decor and premise or location, and the impressions they make upon the patron; each is crafted to portray an environment.
The Iron Horse Hotel located at 500 W. Florida Street is Milwaukee’s finest example of a boutique hotel in the city. Located in the Historic Fifth Ward, once known for its industrial climate, the antiquated mattress factory of Berger Bedding Company has been transformed into a fashionably vintage and part baroque idea of industrial art fused with an exceptional guest experience. The Iron Horse, aptly named in conjunction with the term for Harley
Davidson’s Motorcyles, is ‘recognized by Condé Nast Traveler for their 2009 Hot List and the Tablet10 top hotels (Downtown) the Hotel is vastly different from any chain’. (Downtown) Upon entering the dark interior, one is greeted with valet, doorman, front desk and a vast foyer filled with various antiques left over from the turn of the century. Strategic lighting, local artwork by Cindy Lesky, Amber Van Galder, and Charles Dwyer as well as Customized chandeliers and furniture complete the vision of Bridgette Breitenbach of Breitenbach-Weiss, the designer who mastered the project. Although not initially tied to the Harley Davidson Company, the idea of using thematic related decor is a great pairing with the city’s best known company and its industrial past. There are hundred year old leather chairs, fixtures from factories and churches all over the U.S.; antique motorcycles and engine parts litter the lobby. Rooms are laid out with magazines of the guest’s interests, and customized according to stay. Although slightly smaller, they are spacious and well organized. Large photographs and stenciling by Charles Dwyer of local women fill a wall adjacent to accent the Cream City Brick. The furnishings are lavish, horsehair benches, dark woods and lush carpet are sure to win over any customer. The hotel’s manager is quoted to summarize it in key words as “Comfortable, stylish, masculine and slightly industrial.” The amenities are not the only compliments to the hotel however, it’s bars and restaurants Branded, The Yard, Smyth, and the Library, are among the best in the Midwest, and are each tailored to specific tastes from French to biker moderne. In all, it is an impressive achievement and is a welcome addition to the city’s landscape.
In contrast, the Aloft Hotel located at 1230 Old World Third Street is the perfunctory business travelers alternative to the Holiday Inn and Best Western. The W Hotel empire has drifted from their original motif of a hybrid boutique and upscale hotel to a sleek, bright chain mostly likely conceived by a design team based on statistical medians of color and ideas of what ‘classy’ is. It reads of pop cultural enticement; showy and a bit-cock eyed, the IKEA for one to sleep in. That is not without the benefits of color and pattern, but the cooler palette and neon acrylic accents beget Lisa Frank as inspiration. A pool and workout room flank the inner foyer, a brightly lit front desk greets you alongside a small dinette area, as well as work stations and couches. It is clean and sharp, but misses the comfort of just a few monotonous couches and tables; there is something harsh about it. Through the lobby an open courtyard filled with oversize couches and benches punctuated by oversize cushions and pillows for the guest to overlook the river. An indoor outdoor fireplace is a sweet touch and creates a cozier area in the corner. Just beyond the fireplace indoors is WXYZ, a small neon lit bar, serves interesting drinks, and has nice reviews. The rooms, like Iron Horse, are on the small size. No luxury items per say, but soft colors, and modern fixtures are appeasing. There is impressiveness about the hotel however; it makes a grand statement for changing the way we think about hotel chains, service, and small amenities. At affordable prices and alternatives to older chains, if one is looking for sleep and an enjoyable atmosphere it is something to consider.
So which is a more commendable venture? The Iron Horse, for its design and singular environment? Or the Aloft, a preliminary stand against larger, older hotel chains monopoly on the affordable stay? That all depends on what one seeks to attain from a hotel stay; full-service and a one-of-a-kind establishment, or comfort, cleanliness, and a few differences from the Best Western. Strictly from a design standpoint, Iron Horse has a much more interesting premise and is an incredible effort to project the owner’s vision. It has historical artifacts, city ties, art infused rooms, and a collection of places to fine dine or just drink. Aloft lacks by mass producing what they believe consumers wanted by adding cheap tricks. Mass appeal however, is taken by Aloft. The hotel is much more child and family friendly, affordable and should be a lucrative venture, despite its northern location and slow start. The W’s wayward child is not without promise. The Iron Horse Hotel experience is not one all are willing to try despite its art house culture, perhaps after just talking room rates. Although born of the same industry, both have chosen their demographic and side of design or function, now competing on different planes.
“Industry Statistics Sampler: NAICS 5613.” Census Bureau Home Page. 2002. Web. 26 July 2010. <http://www.census.gov/econ/census02/data/industry/E5613.HTM
Downtown Milwaukee Hotels :: The Iron Horse Hotel, Boutique Hotel in Downtown Milwaukee. Web. 27 July 2010. <http://www.theironhorsehotel.com/>.
Novacheck, Lou. “Accommodation News and Review: The Iron Horse Hotel – Blogcritics Culture.” Blogcritics – News Reviews and Opinion. 1 May 2008. Web. 27 July 2010. <http://blogcritics.org/culture/article/accommodation-news-and-review-the-iron/>.
“Aloft Milwaukee Hotels: Aloft Milwaukee Downtown – Hotel Rooms at Alofthotels.” Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide – Hotel Reservations with Best Rates, Guaranteed. Web. 27 July 2010. <http://www.starwoodhotels.com/alofthotels/property/overview/index.html?propertyID=3254>.
Rough, Rustic and Rich vs Hip, Yuppie and Target
Milwaukee has the ability to brag about a number of unique, delightful and different hotels. The Pfister and the Ambassador, both close to a century old, offer the guest art on the walls, lush and regal architecture, antique furniture, and many amenities to create a whole experience for anyone staying there. The County Clare Guesthouse offers a very different stay for the guest, creating an Irish country cottage like environment in the heart of downtown, offering a bed and breakfast touch, along with an Irish pub. The Iron Horse Hotel and the Aloft hotels, Milwaukee’s two newest boutique hotels, offer the guest something completely different, both from what other fine hotels in the area have to offer, and from each other as well.
The Aloft hotel is somewhat of an enigma. It stands downtown along the river-walk, accessible to many of the popular Water Street bars and entertainment of downtown Milwaukee. From the outside, it screams to be looked at, with a large, bright blue swooping roofline above a red brick and white exterior; the name in large letters readable from the highway. At the entrance to the building is a valet stand, like many a finer hotel, but, while there were two people working that day that I could see, no one ever came to open the door for me or welcome me in.
The grand entrance room is fairly impressive, and will take the viewers breath away, but that may not be a positive thing. The colors and styling of the room are definitely loud. Bright pastels in pink, brown, green and yellow cover every inch of open space, with striped patterns dominating every flat horizontal and vertical surface. Club music streams from the speakers in the ceiling, but quietly, at elevator music volumes. The center of the room opens out into a nice little seating area, with fairly comfortable chairs in front of a flashy fireplace, which overlook the bar and the outdoor courtyard. The bar has the look of a swank nightclub, with frosted glass shelves, under-lit by green and blue neon lights, supporting an array of alcohols behind a sleek black bar, while next to that, a pink pool table sits below paintings by a local artist. Many of the forms are nicely designed, staying as modern as possible, with circles repeating and sinuous lines are found all throughout the building. Few of the walls contain corners, the edges rounding. The service desk itself is a large circular desk, sat underneath a circular light, with a hole cut in the roof above that looks like a deep depth unless the light catches the ductwork right. On the desk, as well as many other places in the hotel, large glass vases contain designs of fruit, but it does not look as if it’s expected to be eaten. Most of the room has high ceilings, with wood faux ceilings put in place, creating curves and leading the eye around the room, breaking up the space a little more. The designers edged on the popular industrial loft style that is found many places throughout the city, leaving high ceilings and exposed ductwork. For some reason, the feeling isn’t quite right, with the duct work a shiny chrome, set against inset lighting in the ceiling and all the bright colors.
The rooms themselves are quite small, with little room to maneuver. At around $160 a night, I’ve stayed in Red Roofs with far greater space and options, so the location and the styling are definitely the selling points. The rooms have large soft beds, set against interesting headboards, and each room has a flat screen lcd television with multimedia connection. The bathrooms are nicely appointed, with a decent sized shower, and very stylish and interesting sinks outside the bathing area.
Aloft is a chain hotel, though they fall under the boutique name with a small number of rooms, and because they strive to create a different experience from the average hotel. They seek to provide a space for the young business person on the go, coming into town for business, and hitting the clubs at night. Each Aloft is similar, so the experience of the guest is something they know before hand, and the pricing is at the high end of business travel.
The Iron Horse Hotel is an entirely different beast. Entering, the doors were flung open by two friendly and talkative valet/receptionists. The space inside was like no hotel I’ve ever seen before. The lighting is low, and the smell is of antique wood and leather, but not a stale smell. It was masculine but inviting, well worn but not old. Straight ahead is a large open space, with large leather couches. Each one was slightly different, but they are tough; put together with large metal rivets that shine against the deep black leather, yet they receive the body nicely, allowing the guest to sink in and enjoy a long conversation. Around the space are hundreds of little antiques, from curio cabinets in deep walnut that display turn of the century train sets and model cars and motorcycles to porcelain bowls laid out on couch tables with wooden sticks that look as if they may have once had some function, but now have a nice aesthetic appeal. On a platform is a new BMW racing bike, set between two display cabinets, that is up to be won in a drawing. Around the corner to the right upon entering is a stylish saloon style bar, with a small restaurant hid in a cozy corner around a slight divide. A hundred year old slate pool table sits to the other side of the bar, adding to the saloon feel, but it doesn’t seem wild, and the bar tender is quite exceptional and enjoyable.
Back to the left is yet another bar area and restaurant, again dimly lit, with high backed leather padded booths. To the very back, behind the elevator entrance, is a library area, filled with books from Matisse to newspapers to the newest motorcycle magazines. Rows of low reading tables have brass office lamps, each one a replica of the other, but a series of very sculptural and stylish lamps. They have a steam-punk aesthetic, as if they are mechanical high tech creations made from gears and simple 19th century materials. The tables have solid metal tops, and carts off to the side have heavy hammered steel drawers and large metal wheels. A very large and inviting fireplace sits in the corner, and appears as though it would be a very relaxing place to sit and read on a cold winter night in.
Upstairs a walkway to the rooms circles the great hall below, offering the viewer access to the custom made wrought iron chandeliers. The carpet is a zebra pattern, echoing the love of big game hunting by Teddy Roosevelt, who was president at the time the building was originally built in 1907. The rooms are large, with standup double showers and custom sinks that are stylish yet functional. The rooms offer large beds, heavy furniture, a table, and a comfortable couch. The walls have murals done by local artist Dwight Dweyer, done in a 1920’s fashion with beautiful Milwaukee models.
The basement to the Iron horse has a gallery area, displaying more work from local Milwaukee artists in a revolving gallery. The space is large and open, displaying the work well. The floors proudly display the original mature fir support beams, which are massive and rustic. Those same pillars are also proudly displayed upstairs, along with the large wood support beams for the roof.
The Iron Horse is a full service hotel, with a number of managers and staff ready and willing to serve the needs of its guests. Sitting right next to the Harley Davidson Museum, it offers clients many amenities specific to the bike riding crowd, with space for riding boots and large, stylish hooks for heavy leather riding jackets and helmets. The aesthetic echoes the classy but road worn look of a motorcycle, both powerful and sleek. They also offer riding tours and other attractions to draw in the motorcycle crowd that Milwaukee is so famous for.
The Aloft and the Iron Horse Hotel both offer unique hotel experiences for their guests, but the approach and demographic are quite different. The Aloft is aimed at young business professionals, straight out of college, with Ikea like styling accented with bright beach style coloring. It targets itself as a nightclub to visit after visiting the local clubs, with a room upstairs. While it is swank, its style has more of the appearance of what older people think the young kids like, which is usually quite far off from what they actually desire, but it does provide a different kind of stay for the guest, and is affordable for a few day business trip. The Iron Horse on the other hand is aiming to be a vacation in an of itself. It is a four diamond hotel, registering on the top ten of almost every hotel guide in the nation, and goes above and beyond just trying to provide a comfy bed for someone who is in and out. Every bit of the hotel is carefully considered, every detail analyzed and explored. Artistic touches grace every square inch of the building, but they are done tastefully, following the theme of the building and all echoing the same rustic, rough, but rich aesthetic found in the structure itself, with it’s exposed cream city brick walls and thick timbers. With prices varying from $250 to $700 for a room per night, the target demographic is quite different from Aloft though, and it is much more of a high profile place or vacation spot.
Class and Crass
By Ashley Janke
Approaching the Iron Horse Hotel, I am forced through road construction and end in a detoured place, seemingly away from the downtown area. The definition of a boutique hotel is a non-corporate hotel with a hosting capacity of 200 or less. The Iron Horse fits that definition, but uniquely considers the Harley Davidson motor cycle crowd a primary audience.
What is the Harley crowd? Bikers? Leather coated and detailed with studs? Sweat glistening as it beads and streams down massive tattooed biceps? These are all stereotypes, but the gearing towards an audience is the enhancement of stereotypes and gender specific generalizations. From reading other reviews and statements, I am aware that the Iron Horse specifically aims at a masculine atmosphere. Being a female, and a non-Harley owner, what am I expected to gather from this environment? How will I relate to an atmosphere that hosts no consideration for my placement within it?
I reach the building by bike (the non motorized kind) and am already recognized as being out of place. The valet asks me to place my bike on the side of the building as though it would distract from the first impression of an actual customer, and I am sure they may be right. Although semi-disguised by the raw environment of the abandoned warehouses, and factories, there is a notable difference about this six-story, red clay brick building. If the line of simmering Harley motorcycles does not draw attention to this structure, then the twelve foot awning made from large individual planks of finished wood, supported by cast iron beams, must. At this point I remember the cost of a Harley bike, and question what type of person indulges themselves in buying such an expensive impracticality. Immediately I am answered by the very presence of the group standing in front of me — A crowd of formally dressed men. Each man wears black dress pants with a pressed crease, still visible down the center of the leg, dress shirts only visible by the collar as they are covered by black sport jackets. They bear dark sunglasses on their faces, too reflective to tell if they are looking at each other or the 5’6” woman wearing a cobalt jersey skirt and stained cloth shoes, approaching them. Wait. These are not the leather clothed tattooed covered men I imagined. Their dress looks to be representative of moderately wealthy business men.
I saunter past them to pull back the heavy weighted doors. Moving into the first entrance way, I am confronted by the smell famously related with new cars, fresh leather. I pull back the second door and am overwhelmed by a second stronger smell. It is deep and complex. Expensive men’s cologne; It reminds me of Hollister stores which are known for spraying their signature perfume into air ducts. The environment of the lobby slowly focuses as my eyes adjust to the dim indirect lighting of candle lit tables and artificially simulated candle chandeliers. The first objects I am presented with are vibrant granny smith apples that glow in contrast to the hazy night gray couch that backs them, and the deep mahogany table they are placed on. The couch is low and embellished with buttons that cover the back. There is a single cushion decorated with embroidered pillows. The corners and edges are accented with the expected studs but are unrepentantly tactful. My perception of this exquisite piece of furniture is it has been costume made for the space and it does not stand-alone. Eclectic items of furniture clutter the lounge, each specifically detailed and considered.
As I take a seat in one of the velvet chairs to further take in my environment, I notice a slight lightheadedness, undoubtedly from the strong perfume, or maybe the burning oil candles sitting in front of me. I look over my right shoulder and notice the perfect alignment of the apples with the fully stocked bar. A theme of intoxication arises whether it is from the smell and surroundings, the customer’s alcoholic consumption, or the witches’ apple spell over Snow White. I begin to consider this must be what a villain’s lounge would be like and shake my head at my own foolish thought.
I look to the left and notice two ten foot display cases on either side of the elevated red Harley motorcycle. Within the glass show case cabinets, items vary from a two foot painted wooden horse, to a toy locomotive train, to a transparent glass vase filled with rusted screws and railroad nails, to wooden casino chips. A similar array of objects are placed on surrounding low coffee tables, and higher set stands. The stands are made from raw iron legs and heavily varnished slabs of wood. Massive oak columns, original to the 1907 building, divide the spacing of the furniture. I feel as though I am in a chamber. Looking over my shoulder, I am presented with the most iconic piece in the hotel, an American Flag made only from blue jean pants. This is not the thuggish building I expected. I would coin it as soave, smooth, and even classy. My final justification of this realization is that pool games are free, but a mixed drink hovers around $15 dollars.
The ALoft Hotel is a completely different experience. They advertise themselves as a “Hip” hotel aiming at younger adults, and hold around the same number of guests as Iron Horse. It is placed conveniently in the middle of the city and when I turn back I see the cityscape of Milwaukee framed justly. The outside walls of the building are flat tan and generic. The height is tall to match the surroundings of the down town area. It is unmistakable, considering the logo is spelled out huge on all sides.
In the front of the building, valets are dressed in high chroma blue polo’s with a white printed ALoft logo in the corner right and large printed letters spell out V-A-L-E-T on the back. The door guys talk amongst each other and do not utter a word as I walk through the motion censored doors. Upon entering I cough as I inhaul my first whiff of a scent I can personally only classify as stench. It smells like cheap body spray from the dollar store. It is a zingy smell with no full consistency. I wonder to myself if all hotels spray perfume in their air ducts.
The ceiling is lower than the Iron Horse and changes between covered and exposed vents and pipes. The places that are covered are made from poorly simulated maple, which seems to be one of the only consistent themes in the building. Lights switch between frosted plastic boxes coming out from cutout places in the “wood” covers, multi colored striped nylon fabric which looks as though it was taken from a seventies lawn chair and stretched over a light box, and a few track lights.
As I move forward, I am immediately confronted with the largest accent of the lobby, a massive circular reception desk in the middle left of the entranceway, suggesting that they are there to serve the customer, even though there was no receptionist within the desk.
I look for a place to sit, consider my surroundings and notice that the only common element of design is that it looks as if they went to Target and bought out their furniture department. Upon finding a seat, I am not surprised to discover that they are fake leather chairs and looking down at the fake wooden table my suspicions are confirmed that the flickering inside of the frosted glasses are fake candles.
Glancing around I notice abstract paintings consisting of dull out of the tube colors like “purple” and maybe a thalo blue, printed on stretched canvas. Similar images are printed on the throw pillows. Art for the sake of decoration. I feel insulted as an artist, that my lifestyle is being exploited in such a cold manner.
Flat screen TVs are scattered around the lounge, but their sound is covered by the DJ remixes blasting over the loudspeakers. I question how the bartender across from me in the neon lit bar can work in this atmosphere all night. It reminds me of what a Nickelodeon “pre-teen” environment would be, and confirm this hypothesis when I walk into the elevators and notice gel gridded floors. They are supposed to simulate the game Dance Dance Revolution but reminded me of the 90’s gel shoes fad. I wonder who the designers actually thought they were appealing to as I notice that it is eight in the evening and have not seen a single person besides the staff in the half an hour I have spent here.
Concerning the evident cheapness of the ALoft setting, especially compared to the Iron Horse, I expect the room rates to be accordingly inexpensive. But a room at the A Loft is $130. The Iron Horse Hotel can be only $90 a night on off-season, but rates vary and are usually upward from $160. Even in pricing, these two hotels are little of what I expected. One aims towards my age group and misses it entirely, the other gears towards a general sophisticated audience, and makes those present appreciative that they are considered as such. To design a place is to be entirely aware of how the space is formed and the messages which develop out of it. Every wall color, object placement, smell, or lighting fixture is absorbed by the viewer whether they are aware or not. Because of this the designer must be conscious of every element which is added to a room and what story it tells, and it should tell. The objective of any hotel is to make the customer feel comfortable enough in the space that they spend money to stay there. I would pay to spend a night at Iron Horse, and I live in Milwaukee. ALoft, however, I would pay to leave.