Milwaukee Luxury, Harley Heaven
Tim Dixon is a biker. He rides his customized Harley-Davidson Fat Boy through the savage countryside of the Kettle Moraine and reconnects with his Chippewa ancestors as he thinks of ways to make his buildings convergent with the land. "Actually, I’m not so much a developer as a ‘re-developer’," he laughs. "I’m all about preserving the original spirit of what I find and re-combining it in ways that are fresh."
The idea of a hotel that appeals to bikers and business travelers is totally logical in the city that is home to The Motor Company, and the location of the new inn directly across from Harley’s nascent museum is more than serendipity. The decision to go upscale, however, in the style of cathedrals of cool like New York’s Mercer or Seattle’s Edgewater might seem out of kilter with the preconception of this city as home to Hogs, baseball and beer. But the poetry that Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava wove into his flowing post-modern vision on the lakefront, the Milwaukee Art Museum, asserts that neighbor Chicago has a rival when it comes to urban sophistication.
Why did this accomplished entrepreneur take on a voyage through the mercurial universe of hospitality? "One, I know buildings. I know their skeletons; I know what makes them breathe. Two, I throw great experiential parties. A hotel meshes those," Dixon explains. So how does the Iron Horse carve out its niche beyond being seen as an inn for rich urban bikers? "I love industrial art. And this place is a piece of living industrial art."
This would be a fatuous boast if Dixon’s sensibilities and abilities did not match his ambition and execution. He has partnered with Desires Hotels, famous for Miami’s elite Sagamore among others. The Iron Horse’s emblem snorts its acquiescence. Dixon points to the cornices atop the building, and the abstracted heads of horses that could have been sculpted by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. This horse head, which uncannily resembles a branding iron, became the hotel’s symbol. "It’s all here," he says. "It’s as if the place was waiting for this to happen."
The reclamation validates Dixon’s ardor. Applying a fin-de-siècle palette of rust, verdigris, hemlock, steel, and aubergine, the Iron Horse’s bones are fleshed out to luxurious effect. In each room, leather, wood and stone connect seamlessly, with thoughtful nods to the motorcyclist, like hooks for gear, and benches to sit on while removing boots. I glance out the window at the Harley-Davidson Museum and an aluminum sky, and turn to notice what looks like a piece of molten lava suspended above the bed. It is a cast aluminum artwork by Evansville native Amber Van Gelder, just one of the artists upon whom Dixon has bestowed his patronage. "They’re primitive and beautiful, like the metal spills you find on the floors of foundries," says Dixon. The walls also display photo artworks by Charles Dwyer whose portraits of women exhibit an esthetic blending daguerreotype with Klimt. Their sensuality is appropriate, and indicative of the bon vivant personality of the Iron Horse Hotel.
The echoes of Belle Époque here are not surprising. An influx of German and Eastern European immigrants chose Milwaukee at the end of the 19th century. The city became prosperous, as a local historian points out, being, "a point of exchange between farm goods from the west and finished goods from the east," and farm trade gave way to manufacturing. The allegiance to their origins might have faded in the maelstrom of the American dream, but their souls still emanate from the cobblestones that carpet some of the streets here, and the light in the late afternoon whispers memories of Vienna, Krakow, Budapest and Prague. And one can find in this city the kind of Old World eateries, pubs and cafés, albeit spiced with New World irreverence, where friendships can be forged, debates can be held, and romances can be kindled.
This is the spirit Tim Dixon insists on celebrating. "I want leather clad bikers to rub shoulders with lady bankers in Prada," he quips. We walk downstairs, where the bar, called Smyth, is being constructed. The pipes and fittings have been exposed like tubular bells, and a turn of the century cast iron sign-Milwaukee Boiler Room Company 1907-sits exactly where it has been for a century plus one. It is easy to imagine the phantoms of the roadhouse mingling with the guests, bikers and business people, draped across the endless bar, the room’s raucous energy burbling like the music of an Evolution engine.
We saddle up, and I follow Tim on a tour around town. The riding in Milwaukee is replete with rewards. You can trundle through Third Ward, the city’s version of SoHo, and feel the energy as the industrial structures are being turned into condominiums, restaurants and shops, all aimed at an upwardly mobile youthful gentry. Or power out into the hinterland up to Road America where road racers and super motards compete; even further, to Dundee and Benson’s Hideaway, a UFO-themed tavern, to enjoy stories of extraterrestrials from the bartender as you sip a Leinenkugel and tackle a burger that could fuel a lumberjack.
Though the ambiance of Messrs. Harley and Davidson could not be more present, Dixon is clear about the non-denominational inclinations of the hotel and its "motorcycle spa". The cellar has been upgraded with a freight-size elevator and secure parking for almost 90 machines to be coddled for their owners.
In the lobby, the Iron Horse reserves a place of honor for a featured bike. The establishment’s grand opening is graced by a whimsical retro custom by Dave Cook that celebrates the pioneers of the sport. "We’re going to invite the best builders to have their work displayed here like art. Because it is," adds Brigette Breitenbach, whose Company B manages public relations and special events for the hotel. The Iron Horse’s motorcycle mojo is swirling out of the gate. Breitenbach shares the buzz with us: the hotel’s opening weekend is sold out.
Dixon’s team has conspired to offer a $100,000 Ultimate Gift Guide Package that is, to paraphrase the famous Jim Morrison song, "wishful/sinful." The purchaser and a fortunate companion, should one be chosen, will enjoy a Premium Corner Alcove room with views of downtown Milwaukee and the Harley-Davidson Museum, a value of $4,500, with Champagne, Wis. cheeses, chocolates and strawberries upon arrival. Dixon will be on hand to give a personal tour of the premises.
With riding on the menu, shipping and receiving, as well as detailing of the owners’ motorcycle, is provided; three-day rentals for two of any make or model are an option. The Iron Horse adds daily packed saddlebag lunches, ride routes and a map of bike-friendly spots throughout the area, and a day with Dixon on a scenic ride through the Kettle Moraine and Greater Milwaukee. Two 60-minute Post-Ride Biker Rejuvenation Massages per person complete the picture.
Gastronomes and oenophiles will be satiated: dinner for two at Smyth one evening; romantic in-room dining another evening with a special menu prepared by Chef Thomas Schulz; and a private seven-course dinner prepared by Dixon and Schulz to cap off the stay.
A custom leather check-in bag contains discreetly branded Iron Horse Hotel matching shirts, and skull caps; a sterling silver icon pendant necklace on leather rope for her, sterling and diamond icon cufflinks for him, these with a value of $2,500, accent the package. The presentation of a signed fine art photograph by artist Charles Dwyer (valued at $15,000) is paired with a personal guided tour of local art galleries. Commissioned portraits by world-renowned motorcycle artist Tom Fritz, whose paintings are valued at $20,000 and up, add another touch of class to this exceptional sojourn.
The piece de resistance to this package is a bespoke machine by Dave Cook; a meeting with the builder, a tour of his studio, and consultation, resulting in a unique creation valued at $50,000.
"There is one aspect of this package that can be called priceless," Breitenbach adds. "We’re very privileged, by special arrangement with the Harley-Davidson Museum, to also offer with this package an exclusive private tour of the Museum with curator Jim Fricke." The steel-girder architecture alone places the new $75 million, 20-acre Museum complex, which includes the company archive, beyond presumed moto-centric boundaries.
"This is really about the evolution of an American success story which has become not only a lifestyle icon, but a culture embraced around the world," Fricke remarked as we toured the edifice prior to its official opening. The elegance and studiousness of this monumental institution are disarming, and the visual treasures too much to be absorbed in a single visit.
With an executive mandate respectful of the legacy and shrewd guidance by Fricke and Museum Director Stacey Scheisl, the Museum has wisely sidestepped the gewgaws of mass appeal and let the objects and media unfold their magnificent story. From Harley-Davidson Serial Number One to the endless permutations of the Harley alphabet, this is a singular education in the art and industry of the motorcycle.
For those ready for the ultimate pleasures of the best on two-wheels wrapped in motorcycle history, all that need be done is to mark the longitude and latitude of the Iron Horse on one’s roadmap.
ULTIMATE MOTORCYCLING DECEMBER 2008 / JANUARY 2009