I recently stayed at the Ramada Plaza Hotel in downtown Fond du Lac. “Why does that matter?,” you may ask. Because it used to be the Retlaw.
The Retlaw was one of seven hotels built across Wisconsin in the 1920s by Walter Schroeder, an insurance magnate, hotelier and philanthropist. He built the Schroeder Hotel (now a Hilton) in Milwaukee and the Retlaw in Fond du Lac. Among Schroeder’s other properties were the Astor in Milwaukee, the Northland in Green Bay, the Loraine in Madison, and the Wausau Hotel. Travel by train was still important in the ‘20s, so Schroeder’s hotels were built in the heart of town. By 1920 there were also 12 million automobiles in the U.S. which helped drive a boom in leisure travel.
Since I’m always interested in architects and their designs, it took just a little digging to learn that Herbert W. Tullgren had a hand in designing at least three of Schroeder’s hotels – the Retlaw, Loraine and Northland. All look back to historic styles for their design inspiration. They are solid masonry structures and well-proportioned. The lobby of the Retlaw (now a Ramada) is not very large, but opens to the second story to add a touch of grandness.
Tullgren practiced in Milwaukee and did some of the best Art Deco buildings in the city which are, to me, far more interesting that his traditional hotel designs. I’ve not explored Milwaukee for a while, but some of Tullgren’s work stands out when I think of Deco in the city: the Scottish Rite Masonic Center on Van Buren Street (Tullgren and Schroeder were members) that has fabulous carved figures, the apartment building at 1260 N. Prospect with its green-trimmed windows, and the Milwaukee Western Fuel Company building further north on Prospect. This last building is one of my favorites—a small, two-story rectangle with orange columns and terrific bas relief panels depicting men at work. It is now a Japanese restaurant.
But back to Walter Schroeder. The larger of his Milwaukee hotels bears his family name. The Loraine was named for his niece. And the Retlaw? That’s Walter backwards – a puzzle revealed to me by my father many years ago when driving through Fond du Lac, long before I had a chance to spend the night.