East Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee was a large city in 1859, but large is relative. With 45,000 residents, pigs still roamed the city's gravel streets. Most of downtown was residential, with the business district clustered at Wisconsin Avenue and the Milwaukee River. But Milwaukee was growing up, and life, health and property insurance was becoming increasingly important.
Northwestern Mutual Insurance was founded when "Northwest" meant "Midwest." Entrepreneur and promoter John C. Johnson founded the company in 1857 in Janesville. On March 7, 1859, all but one board member voted to move the fledgling company to Milwaukee. Mr. Johnson cast the sole "no" vote. The following morning, all of the company's assets and records were packed off to Milwaukee in a now-lost black leather-covered trunk.
The single home office employee of the Northwestern Mutual was housed in the office of its first Milwaukee agent, on the southwest corner of Wisconsin and Broadway. As the company grew, it moved—but not far. The next three headquarters were all within one block of that original office.
By 1870, Northwestern Mutual had built its first main office, designed by Milwaukee architect Edward Townsend Mix, on the northwest corner of Wisconsin and Broadway. But even before that, Northwestern celebrated its growing success, with a banquet in 1867 at Milwaukee's elegant Newhall House. Agents were invited, a practice followed annually ever since. Continuing to expand, the company built a headquarters and main office one block south in 1855—at 611 North Broadway. This magnificent Richardsonian Romanesque structure, designed by S.S. Beman of Chicago, still stands as one of Milwaukee's premier historic buildings.
The company had a national market by the 1890's, with a growing office force and agents in every state and territory of the continental United States. By 1812, a larger main office was needed. In 1914 the company moved four blocks to its present headquarters at 720 East Wisconsin Avenue.
History now documents the existence of what settlers called Lake Emily located near what is now Wisconsin Avenue and Van Buren Street, but its existence was not widely known. Engineers were surprised to discover it in 1912 during preparations to build the current Northwestern Mutual headquarters building. Over 3,000 fifty-foot-long cedar pilings were needed to support the concrete base of the building, and remain there today.
The neo-classical structure with its 10 massive Corinthian columns was designed by Marshall & Fox of Chicago. It cost $3.1 million in 1914. With its relatively modest eight-story height, the granite edifice reflected the chosen conservative image of the Quiet Company, as Northwestern Mutual has long been known, And it stood in silent contrast to the skyscapers being built by other corporations in the early 1900's.