What started with a bathtub is now an award-winning luxury resort in Wisconsin
By Kate Silver
Kohler. It’s a word that around the world is associated with bathtubs and sinks. In the Midwest, the two syllables also denote history, luxury and a geographic location: Kohler, Wisconsin.
This month the village of about 2,000 people, located about an hour north of Milwaukee, will swell to more than 10,000 for Kohler Food & Wine Oct. 19-22. The 17th annual festival will draw guests from near and far for more than 100 culinary events featuring renowned chefs, food personalities and food and wine. It’s also an opportunity for visitors to explore this unique company-town-turned-luxury-escape, where four generations have helped shape a tiny village into “Destination Kohler,” home to one of the highest-rated hotels and spas in the country.
And it all began with a water trough.
HISTORY MEETS LUXURY
An Austrian immigrant named John Michael Kohler — founder of Kohler Co. — began manufacturing plumbing products in 1883, when he added an enamel finish and four claw feet to a cast-iron horse trough and sold it as a bathtub. Kohler Co. went on to become an American business success story. To support its growth, the company, which was passed down through the Kohler family, built a dormitory in 1918 to provide housing for its employees, many of whom were immigrants trying to save money to bring their families to America. While living there, they were given three meals a day and an education that would prepare them to take a citizenship test.
By the 1970s, times had changed and the company had grown. Employee housing was no longer a need, and the building had deteriorated. Herbert Kohler Jr., the current company president, had the idea to preserve the building and transform it into a hotel. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, renovated and re-opened in 1981 as The American Club, a luxury hotel that pays tribute to its roots (fewer than 70 hotels in North America are rated both AAA Five-Diamond and Forbes Five-Star, and it’s one of them).
But it didn’t stop there. Christine Loose, group director of lodging with Kohler Co., says that Herbert Kohler Jr. knew he needed to find a way to draw guests to this small Wisconsin town. “We’re not on a lake, we’re not on the ocean, we’re not in the mountains. We’re in this little, provincial town of Kohler, which is as clean and lovely as towns can get,” she says. “Why would people want to come to visit us?”
They found the answer in golf.
“Mr. Kohler, being the strategic visionary he is, built some world-class golf courses, which we have four of,” she says. Those courses are at two venues, Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run. In 2020, Whistling Straits is hosting the Ryder Cup. “It’s the pinnacle event of golf. To have that is just amazing,” Loose says.
KOHLER KNOWS WATER
And then there’s the Kohler Waters Spa experience. “We’ve been in the plumbing industry for almost 150 years now. We like to joke that we know a thing or two about water,” says Garrett Mersberger, director of wellness and Kohler Waters Spas at Kohler Co. There are four Kohler Waters Spas around the world. The largest, at 25,000 square feet, is neighbor to The American Club (it has a five-star rating from Forbes). There’s another one just outside Chicago, another at the Old Course Hotel at St. Andrews in Scotland and the latest spa is in Green Bay, Wisconsin (more on that in a bit).
All of the spas are distinguished by Kohler Co.’s expertise and innovation.
“We’re all about water,” Mersberger says.
One element that stands out is the Kohler Custom Vichy Shower, which was designed by Kohler engineers who consulted with the spa’s most tenured aestheticians to create a high-tech shower that uses varying water temperatures and pressures for an immersive hydrotherapy treatment.
The key, says Mersberger, is that it leaves the aesthetician’s hands free to massage, exfoliate and treat the guest (rather than handling the Vichy shower, as happens at many spas). Another draw: the Acoustic Bath, which uses sound, vibration and hydrotherapy to heighten relaxation. Both are treatments that can only be found at Kohler spas.
“We’ve been asked many, many times by spas around the world if we would sell that technology and we’ve stayed true — no, we want to keep those as our unique selling points here in Kohler, and you can only enjoy that type of experience at a Kohler Waters Spas,” Mersberger says.
THE LEGACY LIVES ON
Kohler history lives on throughout The American Club. Guests can dine in the original employee dining room, the Wisconsin Room (one of five dining options on-site and one of 12 dining establishments at the resort), and take a history tour, which is offered daily.
The hotel will celebrate its 100th birthday next year, and doubles as a company showroom, with many of its fixtures and furnishings representing brands from the company’s portfolio (state-of-the-art Kohler shower and bath products, Ann Sacks tile, backup generators from the Global Power Group and more.)
The legacy continues beyond the doors of The American Club. Loose points out that the Village of Kohler was one of the first planned communities in the U.S.
“The Olmsted brothers, who designed Central Park, designed the first European garden community when they put together the blueprints for the Village of Kohler and the area surrounding the company,” she says.
Guests at The American Club can take a shuttle around the village to other Kohler properties, including the four golf courses; Inn on Woodlake; a number of restaurants and shops, including a market and chocolate shop that creates Kohler Original Recipe Chocolates; Sports Core Health & Racquet Club for swimming, tennis and fitness facilities and classes.
Guests also have access to River Wildlife, a 500-acre wilderness preserve, for hiking, kayaking, fishing, trap shooting and other activities.
Kohler Co. expanded its hospitality to another city in Wisconsin in July, when Lodge Kohler opened in Green Bay. Lodge Kohler is a part of the new Green Bay Packers’ Titletown District, a 35-acre development west of Lambeau Field that’s home to a skating rink, sledding hill, park, a brewery and more. As with other Kohler properties, the four-diamond hotel is a place for guests to experience the latest Kohler products and immerse themselves in the Kohler Waters Spa. If they want a glimpse of Lambeau Field, they can head up to the fifth-floor restaurant, Taverne in the Sky.
“It’s the best view of the stadium in town,” Loose says.
As time passes, the Wisconsin legacy continues to grow. And it all began with a water trough. americanclubresort.com