Milwaukee’s Iron Horse: ruggedly elegant

The first time I met Milwaukee developer Tim Dixon, in early 2008, he was dreaming big and thinking impulsively. Or so I thought.

We wore hard hats and tiptoed around a gutted, musty, century-old warehouse that is near the Sixth Street viaduct in downtown Milwaukee. Tim talked energetically and was leading by instinct. Where I saw half-torn wallboard, he saw sultry murals of local women. Where I saw thick, lackluster beams and dreary shadows, he saw rugged elegance and boutique lodging with an attitude.

Turn-of-the-century furniture would adorn a combination library-breakfast room, with windows big enough to showcase the sunrise. Massive wrought iron chandeliers would light in a two-story-tall lobby. A boiler room would become a giant pool or hot tub – a “gathering place with a clubhouse feel.”

Tim’s goal of creating a classy, one-of-a-kind and in-your-face hotel – to lounge with a cold beer or laptop, to hang your overcoat or leather jacket – seemed way over-the-top. I left with doubts that the end product would match the exuberant premonitions.

Although the transformation didn’t happen quite as quickly as he expected, most of what Tim Dixon described for me that day has emerged. His sassy and stylish Iron Horse Hotel is unlike any other place that you’re likely to spend the night.

The 1907 warehouse could have just as easily turned into another Milwaukee condo or loft apartment project, except for one thing: Two weeks after Tim bought the building, Harley-Davidson announced that its $75 million museum would be constructed next door.

The developer responded by buying a Harley, riding to rallies, studying the subculture and deciding that he’d create a hotel to lure riders as well as other luxury travelers. The name “Iron Horse,” a moniker for motorcycles, also is a nod to the freight trains that chug by daily.

“I don’t want this to be about rivets, torque or spark plugs,” Tim insisted in 2008, to explain the ambience he sought. Like the Harley-Davidson Museum, he has found ways to make industrial décor feel contemporary.

“What you feel here is a sense of comfort, like it was put together over time,” he believes, and the point is hard to argue. Many of the hotel’s antique furnishings were bought within one square mile of the hotel.

He emphasizes that the Iron Horse is built for business execs in stiletto heels as well as dust-covered bikers, but what makes the hotel’s amenities most unusual is the attention to rider and bike needs.

That means covered motorcycle parking, rag bins and check-in carts designed to move saddlebags. Coat hooks are sturdy enough to accommodate heavy leathers. On-site bike washing, service and rentals are effortless.

Inside, an enormous denim American flag, made out of 32.5 pairs of jeans, hangs on a brick lobby wall. In the 100 loft-style guest rooms is wall art that looks like poured foundry metal (one of many “green” features, made from recycled aluminum).

Mural models are average women in mildly seductive poses, fashion photography by Milwaukee native Charles J. Dwyer that “challenges the stereotypes of Milwaukee women.” Over the bigger-than-life images are hand-drawn embellishments, inspired by tattoo art.

In-room bars are stocked with full-sized bottles of wine and premium liquors, plus cold beer.

On the menu of the hotel bar, Branded, is a Sliders Trio, but we’re talking about mini-burgers of kobe beef, pulled pork and veggies. A hot dog appetizer means five mini-links of kobe beef. The DLT adds duck confit to the traditional bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwich.

Smyth, the hotel restaurant, aims to mix comfort foods with artisan products and gourmet preparation. One example: Venison Osso Buco, a braised venison shank served with saffron risotto and roasted carrots.

During warm weather, cocktail lovers linger outdoors in The Yard, shaded by colorful sails and stretching out on thick, durable cushions of sectional seating. Throughout the property, reclaimed materials were used to construct wooden floors to boot benches, just as Tim had envisioned.

What hasn’t happened as planned? Two mezzanine suites, each 1,200 square feet, await completion. The boiler room project also remains, so put on hold any plans for communal dips or steamy soaks – for a while.

For more about the Iron Horse Hotel, 500 W. Florida St., Milwaukee:, 888-543-4766. The property is dog-friendly. Rates range from around $150 to $685 (which includes an in-room meal and spa services).