The Pit

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What we have here isn’t the seat of governance of a Ruritanian duchy but the Milwaukee Grain Exchange, seen below in its first splendor and then opposite in its recent exuberant restoration.

The Chamber of Commerce building, which houses the exchange, rose in 1879, a time when the nation’s largest wheat market traded in Milwaukee. The city’s Farm Belt location was one reason; equally important was the system of honest measure—inspecting, weighing, and grading the grains— that carried Milwaukee’s reputation as a trustworthy commercial partner as far as the markets of Europe.

The building’s massive sandstone and granite exterior was crowned by a 150-foot-high clock tower, but it was the spacious exchange room within that caused the greatest excitement. On opening day visitors crowded into the 60-by-115-foot hall to marvel at its brilliant colors, brass chandeliers, carved columns, allegorical paintings, and all the other splendid fixtures that suggested to nineteenth-century Amer- ica that the workings of commerce could very well be God’s work, too.

A distinctive feature carried over from the previous Chamber of Commerce site was an octagonal stepped platform seen in the old photograph. In 1878, the Chamber’s secretary later recalled, “A man in Chicago applied for a patent on the device of a trading pit with steps, and had the cheek to serve us with a notice that if we didn’t pay him a royalty he’d sue us. Of course we laughed at the preposterous attempt to obtain money … we could produce hundreds of witnesses to testify that our pit was in use ten years before he applied for his patent.”

In 1979 the owner’s widow committed $750,000 to restore the building; four years later not only the details but the spirit had been fully recaptured.

In the room’s east wing traders pored over tables covered with bowls of grain samples. At day’s end the grain was thrown from the windows to waiting pigeons. The balcony seen at the left of both photographs was reserved for spectators, who found entertainment in the controlled frenzy of a market in full cry.

By the 1930s the market had fallen into decline, after an infestation of Wisconsin’s grain fields by the cinch bug forced farmers to turn to dairying. When finally the Chamber moved out and the place was converted to offices, the exchange room suffered all possible insult. A suspended ceiling covered the delicate paintings of the state’s grasses, flowers, and seeds. The ornate faux marble columns were stripped to the underlying brick, and the huge stained-glass windows were bought by a local saloon.

In 1979 the widow of the building’s owner committed $750,000 to an extensive restoration. When the room was dedicated in October 1983, not only the details but the spirit had been fully recaptured. Because an unobstructed floor was necessary for the parties and dances that now help pay for the building’s upkeep, one key element is missing. In its place and visible in the present-day photo is a commemorative medallion set into the floor. The medallion was cut in the shape of an octagon and marks exactly the same space as that long-gone icon of the market, the unruly traders’ pit.