Along the Milwaukee downtown skyline a fresh, modern hotel tower rises 19 stories, with gleaming glass window walls reflecting the shimmering waves of Lake Michigan on sunny days. A single “flame” symbol graces the top of the hotel, a shining beacon welcoming visitors to the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino resort.
The flame is much more than a mere design feature. It pays homage to the Forest County Potawatomi Community’s important and traditional role as “Keepers of the Fire.”
When the tribe decided it wanted to add a hotel to its casino and entertainment offerings, it entrusted Cuningham Group to carry out its vision. “When we sat down with Cuningham Group, our goal was to create a hotel that would be a source of pride for the tribe, the city and the state,” Potawatomi Hotel & Casino General Manager Mike Goodrich has stated.
Cuningham worked closely with the tribe on the project for three and a half years, Cuningham Group Project Director John Culligan said. “And so we put a lot of heart and soul into the design and its delivery,” Culligan said. “The Forest County Potawatomi were tremendous to work with. They were great collaborators and were instrumental in helping develop a really unique and one-of a-kind hotel that reflects their brand and their culture.”
The tribe, he said, recognized that adding a hotel was key to transforming the casino into a true regional destination resort.
Early in the design process, the vision of an iconic hotel tower along Milwaukee’s downtown skyline resonated with the entire Potawatomi team and became the project’s design focus.
Located in the heart of Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley, it is surrounded primarily by low-rise industrial buildings and is directly across the freeway from downtown. The hotel’s exterior integrates Milwaukee’s classic and modern architecture, according to Cuningham. Its three-story podium reflects the city’s rich tradition of using brick and stone that seamlessly integrates the hotel and casino with its neighbors.
Cuningham worked diligently to ensure that the project related to the surrounding neighborhood while also creating the Potawatomi’s vision of an iconic one-of-a-kind modern tower that would make the tribe, city of Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin proud, Culligan said. “And I think we accomplished that,” he said.
Cuningham Group used its design philosophy, Every Building Tells A Story®, while collaborating with the tribe to develop a project that integrates the tribe’s unique story, culture, community and location into the design of the hotel, which opened in August and was celebrated with a grand opening ceremony in early October.
“The tribe was very open to symbolically presenting their culture and the fact that Wisconsin is their home. With that in mind, one of the theme components of the design that they really embraced very early on was the idea that their cultural traditional role as Keepers of the Fire, meaning the campfire, is represented in the very modern flame at the top of the tower,” Culligan said. “They’re very excited about that symbolic gesture that also would welcome their guests from near and far. Along the freeways, driving toward it and as you fly into town; it’s very apparent along with their name emblazoned along the roof edge—POTAWATOMI,” he said.
Cuningham Group Lead Project Designer Yongkoo Lee described the hotel’s exterior design in more detail. “The tribe’s desire to create a one-of-a-kind iconic hotel led to the design of a modern, fresh and transparent glass tower that rises from its masonry base. Its green-tinted, floor-to-floor glass window wall system includes a scattering of sloped bay windows that add interesting shadows along its primary facades and reflect the shimmering waves of Lake Michigan on a sunny day,” Lee said.
A prow-like roofline floats over a continuous 16-foot-tall band of glass that encloses the top floor suites, while the illuminated POTAWATOMI letters and the light show from the 20-foot-high symbolic “flame” above the tower welcome guests. The flame is illuminated by energy-efficient light fixtures that provide striking patterns and symbols in a rainbow of colors. The light shows can reflect the changing seasons, special events and an exuberant or subdued glow along the Milwaukee skyline.
Interior design elements reflect the tribe’s culture and its relationship with nature, Culligan said. For instance, the hotel lobby incorporates the concept of a forest in a fresh, modern way, he said.
With nature being such an important element for the tribe, Cuningham’s design team represented it with a modern palette reflecting characteristics of the tower’s modern design and finishes, Culligan said, noting it also complemented the existing casino and its strong four-seasons design motif.
“They wanted to create a very welcoming, exciting, entertaining, fresh hotel that would support the rest of the amenities on their property and were very open to modern interpretations,” Culligan said.
To that end, the two-story lobby “forest” welcomes Potawatomi’s guests. Cuningham used a natural, warm-colored palette that complements the existing casino’s four seasons design concept. Guests entering the lobby walk through its modern forest with sunlight streaming down through the ceiling’s colorful “canopy of leaves.” The lobby also incorporates abstract natural elements including “rock outcroppings” and “tree” columns with illuminated splayed corners designed to direct attention up to recessed ceiling lights that create colorful “sunbeams.”
Another lobby element was inspired by nearby Lake Michigan. It is a custom art wall consisting of hand-painted and illuminated yellow and blue glass shards that creates an eye-catching backdrop for the reception desk. The lobby also includes an open lobby bar, a coffee shop and Locavore, the hotel’s casual dining restaurant.
A third story includes approximately 13,000 square feet of conference space, seven meeting rooms and pre-function areas that look out through full-height windows to the hotel’s park-like entrance. The 2,000-square-foot Harmony Room also provides views of the neighboring Marquette University athletic fields and downtown Milwaukee. The 3,000-square-foot Serenity Room features a dramatic ceiling with color-changing lights, as well as a 1,850-square-foot patio with expansive downtown views. The meeting rooms supplement and support the recently renovated 32,000-square-foot Exposition Center in the casino—with that renovation also designed by Cuningham Group.
The hotel project transitions guests from the high-energy casino entertainment venues to a relaxing getaway featuring playful colors and carpet patterns inspired by the play of city lights on rivers and lakes, according to Cuningham. Fresh, light colored corridor walls are accentuated by deep purple guest room entries that create a modern, stylish elegance. Accommodations include 365 standard guest rooms and 16 suites, including seven corner units and a 3,000-square-foot, top-floor Presidential Suite that also features an outdoor balcony offering panoramic views of downtown Milwaukee, Lake Michigan and beyond.
Standard guest rooms have a “rich, dark, textured feature wall” that encloses the bathroom, built-in bar and closet. Custom millwork and full height headboards offer unique guest room features, and many suites and standard rooms feature angled interior and exterior walls that offer spectacular, wall-to-wall views. The top four floors contain suites with adjoining connector guest rooms. These suites have upgraded finishes that coordinate with the adjacent guest rooms and also feature posh bedrooms, luxurious master baths, bars and powder rooms that make them ideal for entertaining.
Throughout the project, Cuningham focused on Potawatomi’s priority of being environmentally conscientious and sustainable, with design and construction based on LEED Certification Guidelines, Culligan noted. The hotel is green, smoke-free and has many additional environmentally friendly features including recycled products and materials; energy efficient mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems; an innovative stormwater management system; and a landscape design using native plantings.
Asked about design challenges, Culligan responded that the hotel’s primary design challenge was ensuring a project that provided the greatest future opportunity for the tribe.
The casino is built on the Potawatomi’s trust land, and the hotel is built on adjacent non-trust property. That, he said, preserves the trust land for future developments or expansions.
“Early in the design process we developed a flexible, long-term, master plan that initially integrates the hotel and casino and supports all of the property’s amenities through a grand three-story atrium,” he said. “In the future, the casino can be expanded on the remaining trust land and seamlessly embrace the entire hotel. A second 19-story wing can also be added to the hotel and provide additional guest rooms and suites and even more exciting amenities to Potawatomi’s guests.”
Guest response to the new hotel has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Potawatomi Hotel Director Hassan Abdel-Moneim. “They love the décor, room amenities and quality of finishes in addition to the service and the convenience now afforded to plan their gaming trips from greater distances,” he stated.
The hotel recently celebrated with a formal grand opening on Oct. 1.
“It was a great two days of celebration—a lot of fun and very exciting,” Culligan said. “There’s been a real buzz about the expansion of the property and the positive impact it will have on bringing additional guests to Milwaukee.”
Project Name: Potawatomi Hotel & Casino—New Hotel Tower
Location: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Owner: Forest County Potawatomi Community
Operator: Potawatomi Hotel & Casino
Design Architect: Cuningham Group Architecture, Inc.
Interior Design: Cuningham Group Architecture, Inc.
Lighting Design: Schuler Shook
Local Architect: Zimmerman Architectural Studios, Inc.
Contractor: Gilbane Building Company
Mechanical: exp U.S. Services, Inc.
Structural Engineer: Reigstad & Associates, Inc.