A Setting for New Citizens

From its name, you might assume the world-class American Club hotel is hesitant to put out the welcome mat for other nationalities. In fact, the luxury resort claims a noble history of commitment to assimilating immigrants into the U.S.

Walter J. Kohler, Sr., president of the bathroom fixture manufacturing company and governor of Wisconsin from 1929 to 1931, believed his immigrant workers deserved "not only wages, but roses as well." To that end, in 1918 he built a 347-foot-long Tudor-style dormitory to provide them with clean, comfortable housing. A pleasant living environment, he thought, would encourage his foreign-born employees to become American citizens.

Kohler constructed his club opposite the factory, with a broad, tree-lined avenue separating the two. The green and purple slate roof and red brick exterior influenced one newspaper at the time to report, "The American Club is one of the most magnificent buildings of its kind ever constructed." Inside were 115 bedrooms for single men, each furnished with an enameled iron bed, chair and combination wardrobe-dresser. In 1924 Kohler added a wing with 88 more bedrooms, including some for women.

American flags hanging everywhere reminded residents of Kohler's citizenship plan each time they entered. The American Club was outfitted with the best of everything, especially bathroom fixtures. The modern kitchen boasted such innovations as electric dishwashers and devices for paring potatoes and chopping meat. Below, an ice machine allowed storage of, among other things, 4,000 head of cabbage. Good food was a prime ingredient of life at the American Club. Residents enjoyed plenty of wholesome fare as they dined to the recorded strains of John Philip Sousa's patriotic marches. The only rule was that the workers clean their plates. The American Club operated at cost, and waste was not tolerated.

For $27.50 a month, residents received not only a place to live, food and "plain washing" but also the use of a four-lane bowling alley and card, billiard and tap rooms inside the club. The Kohler Recreation Club organized such all-American activities as a baseball league, and the Kohler Band regularly performed summer concerts on the front lawn. The Kohler School met Tuesday evenings to teach employees English and prepare them to become naturalized citizens. Each spring on "Americanization Day," Kohler gave them full pay and transportation to the county court house to take the oath of citizenship. By 1930, Kohler's plan had encouraged nearly 700 immigrant workers to become U.S. citizens.

By the early 1940s, the company no longer needed to import its workers, there were a number of housing options, and public transportation made it easy to live farther from the factory. The American Club had outlived its purpose.

To make it more attractive, private baths and closets were added, and the club took on the character of an inn, accepting non-Kohler guests. It continued as an inn until 1978. By then the interior of the 60-year-old building was showing its age. Company president Herbert V. Kohler, Jr., grandson of Walter J., decided to remake the American Club again, this time as a luxurious hotel.

Three years of renovation left the outside unchanged, but inside, 50 lavish guest rooms now filled the space once occupied by the small dormitory rooms. Within months of the American Club's reopening in 1981, another wing was added. The new bricks and mortar duplicated those of the original structure, and artificial aging of the addition's slate roof and copper gutters created a perfect match. A third wing added in 1993 brought the inn to a total of 21,000 square feet of conference space and 236 guest rooms and suites.

The American Club still furnishes a complete living experience. Guests settle into deep chairs before roaring fireplaces in well-appointed public rooms and enjoy tea in the library. Polished wood paneling and gleaming brass are everywhere. The hotel has four interior garden courtyards, each based on a different theme. One, for example, resembles a Wisconsin prairie outfitted with a babbling brook.

Eating is no small pleasure at the American Club. Nine distinctly different restaurants run the gamut from Blackwolf Run Clubhouse (a dead ringer for a Southwestern lodge) to the Greenhouse (transported stained-glass window by stained-glass window from England). The Immigrant Restaurant is considered one of the 350 best restaurants in the U.S., Mexico and Canada by the nonprofit trade organization Distinguished Restaurants of North America of Monterey, California.

An 85,000-square-foot fitness center offers everything from indoor and outdoor tennis courts to two swimming pools and more. In 1996 Golf Digest magazine named the 18-hole PGA Blackwolf Run as one of the top eight public golf courses in the country. For a nominal fee, hotel guests can visit River Wildlife, a magnificent 500-acre wilderness preserve and wildlife sanctuary. They can also tour the hotel, the Kohler Company and the Waelderhaus--a replica of an early 1800s Austrian house in the forest of Bregenz, with a room devoted to Girl Scouting. Near the hotel are the Shops at Woodlake Kohler, boasting everything "from Armani to Zucchini."

But visitors may want to linger in their rooms. Guest bathrooms--the signature of the Kohler Company--are uncommonly opulent and light years ahead of the standard hotel facilities. Whirlpools and designer fixtures are the norm. If you can't bear to leave all that opulence behind when you check out, visit the Kohler Design Center next door to the hotel to see bathrooms fit for royalty. You'll be tempted to remortgage the house and move into your new bathroom permanently.

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