Architectural terra cotta has many uses. It can be used to provide fireproofing for a steel-skeleton structure. It is useful for creating beautiful façades and handsome streets. One less obvious purpose is the capacity for terra cotta to give perspective and guidance in our daily lives.
A sculpture of an owl perched on a school building reminds children to aspire for further knowledge. Gothic pinnacles on a church affirm a powerful and spiritual devotion to a higher being. These are just a couple examples of how terra cotta has been used artistically to communicate something other than its function or beauty. Terra cotta, or any architectural ornament, has the possibility to convey a message. In Milwaukee, we are fortunate to have historical examples of terra cotta that offer such advice. Let's look at a few!
At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is the beautiful collection of red buildings known as "the Downer Quad." When I was a prospective student there, these buildings were a little bit of superficial encouragement to enroll at U.W.M. Beside their overall affect, there are some messages on these buildings that are extraordinary.
The most ornate of the red buildings is Holton Hall, built in 1899. It has three oriel windows with a series of panels telling different classical adages. One that has stood out to me is the shield bearing a dolphin and an anchor. The symbol features the inscription Aldi, Discip, and Angl, which translates to Aldo’s English Disciple. It was the printer’s mark from the 19th-century printer William Pickering and was an adaptation of the 16th-century Italian printer Aldus Manutius. The dolphin-and-anchor emblem is an oxymoron that means "Festina lente" or "Make haste slowly." Personally I have found meaning in this symbol for my own efforts as a tile-maker, historian, and educator. I even like to call it my own motto at times. However, this year making haste seems stressful, and doing just "slow" seems to be all I can manage. But when I am in my lows, this message reminds me that even accomplishing a little bit keeps things moving.
Humility is a lesson that at any point in someone's career does them good. Especially on a college campus, when ambitions are big and dreams are high, a little bit of mockery can be healthy.
Across the street from Holton is Garland Hall, built in 1910. On those windows are sculptures of lion heads. Such kings of beasts are symbolic of courage and bravery. These noble cats, however, stick their tongues out as if they are totally unimpressed by anyone's awesome effort to be bold or confident.
Another form of humility is expressed in Milwaukee's most iconic structure, City Hall. The structure was completed in 1895 and designed by local architect Henry C. Koch. Its style was unlike any other City Hall in America. It also demonstrated a message about civic life unique to Milwaukee.
A humble lesson on civic engagement may not come to mind when you see the City Hall. Its impressive 350-foot bell tower made it the world's tallest habitable structure when it was built. It sumptuous ornamentation is something celestial as well. One may be thinking they are looking at a building inspired by a German fairy tale, with a princess locked in the tower. Such fantasy is palpable as one can see all sorts of creatures such as fauns, puttos, jackals, and some sort of winged dragon, phoenix, or basilisk (see below). But... what does all this fairy tale nonsense tell us about the operations of municipal government or civic engagement, if anything at all?
Henry Koch was reaffirming a fondness and connection to German ancestry, as it so handsomely emulates the Rathaus in Hamburg and the once nearby Pabst Building. But the architect's enchanted menagerie was not about being simply German or Teutonic, but rather a lesson on humility. In spite of all the bureaucratic policies and seriousness of matters related to city government, there is a purpose for humor and imagination. The plump cherubs, grinning grotesques, and guardian beasts are intended to be laughable, exciting, and adventurous. They inspire us to be young at heart and playful in our minds. These types of messages are important for anyone passing by and especially the people who operate in the local government. In a place of power and decision-making, this ornament reminds city officials to support the mental health and well being of its people.
Indeed, it is an outstanding privilege that the City of Milwaukee has such a beautiful building. The nature of it being a structure owned by the people and operating for the people is also incredible.
Another interesting message found in the built-environment is on Walter Schroeder's hotel built in the 1920s (picture below). Near the top of the structure is a frieze that wraps around most of the building. Between the windows are naturalistic figures, mostly nude, with healthy anatomy. They rest their elbows on the edge of shields and are grouped together in pairs. Behind each figure is a garland of flowers tied between vases. The decoration gives the impression that staying at this hotel is like a trip to paradise. Hotel guests can relax, be themselves, and enjoy their stay.
Traditionally figures tucked between windows and strings of flowers would be puttos similarly to City Hall. However, the original Hotel Schroeder shows adult figures and as a consequence looses the sense of innocence that cherubs often portray. These figures are also placed on the frieze and difficult to see from the street level. As a result, the healthful and athletic figures seem exceptional and elite in their location. The relief sculptures of flower baskets and fanciful birds on the lower stories also reinforces a sense of imagined wealth and abundance.
But this is not the full message. Look carefully at the representation of the adult figures in relation to the rest of the decoration. Examine their facial expressions and their bodies as a whole. While they clearly are looking down at each other, they seem to have no emotion. They also lack a sense of individuality or personality. They are the same figure, molded, and copied across each side of the building. And they stand between each other like the flowerpots between them. They are just as decorative as the decoration itself. All the wealth they posses may put them at the top, but it makes them no more full of life than the material objects that surrounds them.
The last lesson in terra cotta I want to share is not in Milwaukee, necessarily, but in the village of Shorewood. It is my favorite piece of architectural terra cotta. On the Armory Courts Building, built in 1930 and designed by Herbert Tullgren, are three identical panels that represent the joy of contemplating nature. They show a young man, wearing a hat, sitting on the ground with his leg crossed over the other. He is surrounded by flowers and in his sight is a large, healthy tree. There is no sketchbook in his hands, no binoculars, or even a watch on his wrist. He is not reading a book, or looking for his cellular phone as one would today. He is in his own element, relaxed, and alone in his own thoughts. The message is quite simple: enjoy the present. The building, located only a small walk from either Estabrook Park on the Milwaukee River or Atwater Beach on Lake Michigan, shows advice that takes little effort to follow.
These examples of architectural terra cotta show that ornament can be more than decoration. And there is more than beauty in ornament that contributes to better mental health and well-being. When done right, it can influence our moral character, reaffirm our values and beliefs, excite our imagination, and inspire how we spend our day. Today this effort to use art in the built-environment exists, but it is nowhere comparable to what it was like one-hundred years ago. It was a different era. Fortunately, in Milwaukee, we can enjoy many historic sites that still have these lessons in terra cotta.
Our history lives with us in many ways. In Milwaukee, there is a distinct joy of experiencing history through architecture. The fact that Milwaukeeans proudly refer to this place as the “Cream City” shows how much adoration this city has for its old buildings. Whether a building is a plain, 1890’s brick corner shop, or has a sumptuous façade like that of the Plankinton Arcade Building, all these structures call to us in many ways. From the heritage they represent to the craft and ornamentation they are built on, the “old” architecture is appreciated deeply in our hearts. As we continue to live with so many historic structures, it is important we challenge how they shape our built-environment and the narrative of our community.
The Railway Exchange Building was recently a part of a test on how the built-environment is a reflection of who we are and how we represent ourselves. A mural by artist Shepard Fairey was proposed for the south side of the structure. It was supposed to be based on his artwork, “Voting Rights are Human Rights,” which was one of two prints in his series, “American Rage.” The artworks were designed in collaboration with Steve Schapiro who documented civil rights protests in the 1960s.
Admittedly, the print is a beautiful work of art. And I appreciate the artist’s effort to represent issues that our society is struggling with. As prints on a wall with proceeds that support the Equal Justice Initiative and Black Lives Matter, the artist is doing their fair share in using their privilege and voice to support a greater cause. Unfortunately, as a mural in downtown Milwaukee, the work is a totally different conversation.
First let us begin with the subject of the building itself - which is a lovely sight of architectural terra cotta. It is a product of late nineteenth-century Chicago School commercial architecture designed by Buemming & Dick of Milwaukee alongside Jenney & Mundie of Chicago. The visual language of the façade follows traditions of classical antiquity. It’s tripartite design is based on three portions of a column. Its arched entryway is decorated with a keystone, rosettes, festoons, and cartouches. The upper stories are where the real party exists, decorated with cherubs, lions, anthemion, and all the aforementioned details. While the brown, earthy red exterior materials are brick and terra cotta, they simulate Lake Superior brownstone. This imitation of carved stone gives the impression that the façade is of high-quality, expensive taste.
I find value in explaining all these details because they were meant to be a display of Henry Herman’s wealth and success in 1900 when the skyscraper was being built. Mr. Herman had acquired the Copper Range Railway at the beginning of 1897 with George Dow of Cambridge, Wisconsin. By 1899 he was General Manager and Treasurer of the Chicago & Superior Railway. Herman had great interests in becoming a real estate businessman and constructed this office building to house offices for law, insurance, and railroad businesses. A portrait of him and his curly mustache can be seen on the front page of the Milwaukee Sentinel from Tuesday, December 19, 1899. The measure of his part in the railroad industry and real estate was expressed through the building of this structure and its use of ornament.
Unfortunately his capital success was more of a fantasy than actual prosperity. He apparently had strange business practices revolving the assigning of mortgages and ended up with many financial problems. On April 17, 1903, the Milwaukee Journal reported on these affairs and how Herman had apparently gone missing. His potential whereabouts were as close as Chicago or New York or as far away as New Orleans or South America.
Although the image of Herman in Milwaukee is primarily only preserved through the structure he left behind, the actual story of this person does feel a bit lost. A hundred and twenty years ago this symbol of Henry Herman was a celebration of his capital success and a reminder of his failure. It was the story of a white man and his business affairs. Yet the erection of the building also represented the conquering of the native landscape and extracting its natural wealth. We can appreciate the ornamental beauty of this building, but we would be foolish to ignore how cultures different from the white industrial male were and continued to be affected by this symbolism.
This brings us back to today with the recently proposed mural and its artist Sherpard Fairey. Featuring the artist on this building would add to the narrative of this space as a white-male edifice. As I have tried to make clear, this building is rooted in the story of whiteness and male entrepreneurship. Fairey’s story is not terribly different. And the scale of this project and its location on the building would give it generous visibility to the public, adding to the skyline that is already predominantly built by the vision of white men.
Acknowledging the identity of the artist and the history of the space as primarily white and male is part of the picture, but does not make commissioning Fairey a problem. White men creating murals is not the argument. Fairey’s mural depicts a political message about the struggle of Black people and their right to vote in this country. If it were to be installed, it would be another example of a story about a people of color struggling for justice being told by a white person. This causes many issues, especially for a city like Milwaukee, where the African-American story too often comes through the white lens. Furthermore, it would be another white person benefiting from their struggle.
Fairey’s message as a print is very different from a large-scale, downtown mural. Its size-able presence in the skyline makes the problem unbearable. I think the fact this mural was rejected for a totally different reason - that of the Historic Preservation Committee needing to complete their guidelines for the installation of murals on historically-designated properties, is a blessing in disguise for community members who did not see the issues represented in the Fairey mural as a problem. The decision opens up time for more conversation on how buildings represent who we are and who is invited to participate in shaping our built-environment.
I would hope that the property owners of the Railway Exchange Building go forward with commissioning a person of color to be showcased on their beautiful building. I think they have demonstrated their ability to collaborate with community organizations to create opportunities for artists. Also, based on the content of Fairey’s proposed mural, they have shown interest in representing diverse voices.
Milwaukee is a city with many gorgeous buildings of the past. Their history is certainly almost all founded on the story of the industrial white male. And I want to make sure it is clear that it is okay to be proud of that history and see the beauty in it, as long as other perspectives are brought to the table as well. Our community has grown and I think this proposed mural shows that our built-environment has not necessarily grown with it. More can be done in the vein of true inclusion. And it includes both recognizing the work people of color are already doing in narrating the story of our urban landscape and granting them more opportunities that shape our historic architecture.
Sources & Further Reading:
Letter Pleading More Community Dialogue on Mural by local artists
Urban Milwaukee August 3 feature on the Voting Rights Mural
Urban Milwaukee July 9 feature on the Voting Rights Mural
Bobby Tanzilo's 2015 Feature on Railway Exchange
Old Milwaukee Database
"Building a Railroad." Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, 6 Jan. 1897, p. 8. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers.
Milwaukee Journal, FOURTH ed., 17 Apr. 1903, p. 8. NewsBank: Access World News – Historical and Current.
School buildings are treasure-boxes of mysteries. Secret stairways, hidden corridors and underground tunnels are just some of the features that leaves students and alum curious about their locations and purposes. This is especially the case with historic schools from the late 1930s like Casimir Pulaski High.
One such mystery at the high school is the collection of faience tiles above the bubblers. Everything about the school building is designed so well that someone walking in the hallway may not even notice these tiles. However, upon close examination, it is easy to get lost in the pictorial adventure represented in these artworks.
How were these tiles created? Who made them? What story do they tell? These were questions that students explored in a tile-making workshop at this Milwaukee public school. Before quarantine initiated due to the coronavirus outbreak, Art teacher, Ms. Megan O'connell Tharpe and I teamed up on a lesson to create new tiles inspired by the old ones with her students.
Many of the students were talented artists and expressed interest in pursuing art after school! All the while, the students had confessed not having done much in clay before. Before I visited, O'Connell Tharpe introduced this new territory with her students. They experimented, played, and got their hands messy; the only way to start using clay!
When I visited, I presented the history about their extraordinary school building and its tiles. It was fun to share my enthusiasm for the building they call home. The students were interested to learn about their school and were excited for the hands-on activity that followed.
For many of the students, this was the first time they used clay for an assignment. Each pressed their own tile with a custom-made plaster mold. The design was a 5-inch circle similar to the 8-inch tiles in the hallway. The students were demonstrated how to carve the raised-line technique, however, they were given options with how to represent their desired image on to their tile.
Although the students never got the chance to glaze their tiles, they were able to finish carving their work before quarantine began. They did a stellar job! O'Connel Tharpe and I wanted to make sure the students got their work back but the thought of returning their tiles bisque-fired just seemed sad considering all the things happening in our lives. Furthermore, many of the students had graduated from high school too. Hence, I glazed their tiles before the end of the year when I was able to work in my school building again. Since then O'Connell Tharpe has been returning them to her artists. We are so proud of them!
Please enjoy the collection of faience tiles created by students at Casimir Pulaski High, inspired by their very own school.
In the majestic Midwest prairie, many buildings known as the "Sullivanesque" made quaint farm towns look like "Little Chicagos." The comparison is cute, but really does have some truth. Between 1910 and 1930, a Chicago terra-cotta manufacturer, the Midland Terra Cotta Company, specialized in stock ornament that was affordable and readily available to any builder or contractor. Once someone is familiar with the product, these buildings are immediately recognizable. Ronald Schmitt authored a book on this subject, Sullivanesque: Urban Architecture and Ornamentation, published in 2002. His outstanding research on the Sullivanesque presents the influence of this Prairie aesthetic that embellished both urban and rural America. While his work primarily focused on the Midwest, it also covered the entire continental United States, as well as Canada and Puerto Rico.
The ornamentation on this building pictured above competes with the bright teal awnings, neon lights, posters, and active traffic. However, this is the type of "unnoticed" and "under-appreciated" ornament that Schmitt valued in his book plays a significant part of the narrative of Wisconsin's vernacular architecture. While it is an import from Chicago, this type of ornament can be found all across the state, from Superior, Rhinelander, Lancaster, Manitowoc, and many other cities, towns, and villages. The design aesthetic is inspired by a love for nature and a fascination with geometry, order, and balance, it originates in the Midwest.
Since stock-ornament was Midland's trademark, identical designs appear on buildings in all different locations. One of particular interest to Wisconsin is medallion no. 4508. It's a circular disc with a diameter of approximately 3 feet. In Schmitt's book on the Sullivanesque, he printed a plate of the medallion with trimmings on one of the introductory pages. If you don't have a copy of this essential book, you can see it on the "A Chicago Sojourn" blog from March 13, 2016, on Sullivanesque buildings in Chicago. He included photographs of many buildings with the medallion no. 4508. Also, on Eric Nordstrum's blog Urban Remains, he pictures a catalog image of Plate 45 from the manufacturer.
In my research, I have found that the medallion appeared on several buildings as well, however, not all of them were from Midland or terra cotta.
Notice in Wisconsin there were four examples of Midland Terra Cotta's medallion no. 4508 from the 1920s. In 1915 the disc was installed on the Otto Hilgermann Building in Rhinelander. In 1922 a commercial building (probably a bank or insurance co.) used the disc in Milwaukee with one whole medallion and four half-discs. Four years later Siebert & Kegler installed seven discs on the new Forest Home automobile showroom for the Chevrolet Co. And up north again in 1927 the medallion units were installed on a single-story building for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in Superior. The discs on each installation are all identical, hence "stock ornament," but are surrounded with slightly different trimmings. The white, opaque enamel glaze appeared in Rhinelander and Superior, but in Milwaukee there were green and cream-colored glazes used.
While these occurrences are just neat and fun for the terra-cotta explorer (and also support their preservation!), perhaps most interesting are two installations that appear similar to the Midland Terra Cotta medallion, but are not from the company nor are terra cotta.
In 1928 architect Gus A. Krasin designed an addition to the Hotel Charles in Marshfield. The cheesemakers Blodgett & Sons Co. owned and built the original structure built in 1926 and commissioned Krasin for the addition. The architect did not contract Midland, but instead managed to have concrete units made that resemble the Sullivanesque ornament. This imitation also occurred in Sheboygan. A similar example with more depth and floral designs was created. The manufacturer of these decorations is currently unidentified, but it would be really interesting to know who created this "knock-off" Midland ornament. All the while, no hard feelings should be placed on Midland, as their stock ornament was a knock-off of designs by Louis Sullivan and his following, such as George Elmslie.
In addition to the precast stone installation in Marshfield is a striking installation in Milwaukee. Little information is known about the building, and when city records are available again, I can update this blog with what I find. For now, its a mixed-use, two-story brick building with concrete trimmings and decorative faience tile. Notice how the installation takes inspiration from the magnifying glass design. Instead of a relief panel, it uses simplified, plain surfaces and colored-tile patterns to express intricacy. While the manufacturer of all the field tile cannot be said, decorative tiles from the Flint Faience & Tile Co. appear on the façade.
Why are these installations not in terra cotta? Did the builders not believe in the durability of terra cotta against the Midwest climate, or did they not understand the product? That is possible, but I am also a fan of speculating that builders had the creative license to do as they chose. Architects and contractors needed to manage a budget, satisfy a client's expectations for ornate design, and employ the superlative materials. In accomplishing these goals, creative outcomes emerged as we see in Marshfield and Milwaukee. Additionally, it's important to recognize Midland Terra Cotta's whole business plan was practically a knock-off of the brilliant, sophisticated designs of prairie architects Louis Sullivan and George Elmslie, among others. In essence, they were a creative problem solution to meeting demands of the building industry and providing a more affordable version of meaningful craft in a quicker time-frame. Thus, builders taking that service even further by using different materials for similar, ornamental patterns makes sense.
Finding these patterns in the built-environment are important because they show an aesthetic language. This is not an alternative phrase for style, but rather, it speaks to a deeper meaning that the shapes and motifs represent. Ornamentation can be more than a superficial embellishment. They can do more than dress up a plain brick building. Volutes, ovals, and triangles are more than geometry. Midland products help spread the designs created by prairie architects. These aesthetics were based on philosophy and a spiritual connection to their work and its meaning. As Schmitt opens up with in his book, Sullivanesque architecture, "successfully integrated 'high art' with functional construction ... The gap between the refined art of the originator and the 'low art' of the imitators was relatively narrow. The adoption of the Sullivanesque style generally improved the design caliber of the speculative building and the resulting urban fabric." This description Schmitt makes for Sullivanesque makes the aesthetic seem honorable for any building with such designs, even if they are merely "imitative." And such respect for its preservation is well placed since it represents a regional identity.
Such meditation on the significance, beauty, and potential of design and material seems to be abandoned by most contemporary architects and building suppliers. As demonstrated in this blog's simple reflection, even small-town architects in the early 20th century were able to dable into a sense of spirit and expression in utilitarian architecture. A reflection on new-builds from the last 5-10 years will lack any sense of regional spirit and connection. Few individuals such as "starchitects" are able to carry on that reflective practice. When someone's design for a corner bank meets a fraction of the caliber of Calatrava's Quadracci Pavilion, please let me know.
Schmitt, Ronald E. Sullivanesque: Urban Architecture and Ornament . Urbana and Chicago, IL: Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 2002.
Milwaukee Journal. Advertisement. June 18, 1926. 13.
Marshfield News-Herald. Approve Plans for Addition to Hotel. March 15, 1928. 7.
The buildings Herbert Tullgren designed significantly shape the experience of architectural ornament in Milwaukee. While his father, Martin, employed concrete for ornament, Herbert primarily used architectural terra cotta. Some of his most recognized works featured terra cotta and remain intact today. His major landmark downtown was a two-story shop for George Watts (1925). An addition he designed for the Hotel Shorecrest (1929) and a Modern/Art Deco apartment building known as the Hathaway (1930) added elegance to the lakefront skyline. And his most valued building of artistic expression and playful craft was the Bertelson (1927) on the East Side.
Tullgren was not shy about exploiting the advantages of terra cotta. He designed with architectural terra cotta more than any other architect in Wisconsin. In Milwaukee County he had over thirty buildings erected with the product, as well as significant structures in Madison, Waukesha, Manitowoc, and Duluth. While many of this graceful works are extant, unfortunately several have been lost to the wrecking ball. Hence, it is important to recognize Tullgren's buildings and his influence on the Milwaukee built-environment.
The business block likely built as an investment property for Mr. Tullgren is an essential building to give recognition. The colors and fanciful ornament may captivate your attention as you walk by, but there is history here that may not be apparent unless you know about it.
Passing by this busy intersection on the westside, the grand arches and elaborate parapet will strike you. Despite being tucked behind parked cars, a bus stop, and trees, the bright glazes and ornament continue to stand out.
The structure was erected in 1925. The American Terra Cotta and Ceramic Company of Crystal Lake, Illinois, manufactured the terra cotta. Their work order for the project was 3589 (according to the Statler Gilfillen index). Interestingly, the Milwaukee Sentinel stated on November 25, 1924, that bids were being taken for a five-story building in this location. What happened to those mystery "stories?"
Ornamental motifs make Tullgren's terra-cotta buildings so captivating. Common design elements by the architect, including floral medallions, urns, elaborate arches, and fantastic capitals such as the one depicted above appear on the façade. Who would imagine a lion battling two fire-breathing dragons over a basket of flowers? It cannot be said necessarily that it was Tullgren's imagination. It could have been the playful mind of a terra-cotta craftsman. Either way, it is here in Milwaukee and we can admire it on the street today.
While the motifs really make an adventure out of exploring Tullgren's facades, this building in particular stands out because of the range of glazes it features. In fact, no other building in Wisconsin features as many glazes as this one does. In total, there are 19 unique glazes on this facade. They include semi-transparent golden amber and yellow-orange glazes, opaque and glossy black glazes, satin blues, pinks, purples, beiges, greens and copper, as well as a pulsichrome surface with buff and copper hues.
The range of glazes on this building make its preservation even more important. Overall, the building remains intact and occupied. Like mentioned in a caption, the urns are missing from the parapets. And the condition of the surfaces are good too. There are some defects along the base units, including some chipping of the glaze and a crack. Unfortunately, the entire base units along the north elevation have been painted. This is really tragic and does not improve the building's appearance. There could have been a more careful, isolated application of paint such as seen on the Strong Building in Beloit. Thankfully, since these are vitrified glazed units, the paint can easily be removed with some scrubbing. Otherwise, the rest of the façade has been really well preserved. Below shows a detail of the base from 2014, which clearly shows surface damage and a crack. Another detail shows the two glazes with interesting colors and textures.
The variety of glazes represented on this façade makes the business block for Mr. Tullgren his glazed masterpiece. However, whether you live on the west, north, east, or south side of Milwaukee, you can find one his terra-cotta gems gracing the street. When libraries reopen, a full list of Tullgren's terra-cotta buildings are found in my book on Architectural Terra Cotta of Milwaukee County. In the meantime, you can use the University of Minnesota Anderson Library, Northwest Architectural Archives as a resource for exploring Tullgren. Click here to see the photographic collection, beginning with this building. You will see other, stunning, historic photographs of his work taken for the American Terra Cotta & Ceramic Company. Several of these structures, such as Royal Loop Hotel, Belmont Hotel, and the Bills Block, are no longer standing. You can also use the Wisconsin Historical Society to look up specific property records.
The architects Herbst & Kuenzli designed some of the most fascinating school buildings in the Milwaukee area. Between 1924 and 1929, they designed several schools in their offices on the top floor of the Bartlett Building. Marquette University High School (1924), St. Catherine School (1928), Messmer High School (1929), and Wauwatosa High School (1929) were a few. Each of these school buildings had facades made of architectural terra cotta and brick. Faience tile was also found in all of the interiors. In terms of design, they were some of the most prestigious in the 1920s.
They also designed a pair of elementary schools for Wauwatosa Public Schools in 1929; Roosevelt Elementary on 73rd & Wright St and McKinley Elementary on 89th & Meinecke Ave. Not only are they twin schools, but they also share design motifs with Wauwatosa High School, now East High. Both buildings are stunning examples of academic architecture. Many schools built after World War II did not plan for such beautiful facilities. Unfortunately, one of them is about to be demolished soon.
McKinley Elementary is one of four school replacements in Wauwatosa that is a part of the $124.9 million redevelopment referendum. By Fall 2021, Underwood, McKinley, Lincoln, and and Wilson will all be replaced with completely new buildings. While the upgrades will make the schools better learning environments, each of these historic buildings feature precious, handmade architectural details. Such craft may make learning in these schools seem like a privilege. McKinley is by far one of the neatest and most beautiful elementary schools in the state. Few schools can compare to the quantity of artistic features installed in the building. And, while Roosevelt Elementary is a twin school, McKinley has just a little bit more.
Despite the loss of historic design, it must be acknowledged that this development is exciting and crucial for the students, staff, and school communities. The new facilities will be more proactive toward the needs of their communities and learners. Much of the rationale for new buildings was covered by Darryl Enriquez in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. While the new school buildings will be tremendous for Wauwatosa, hopefully they will not lose the unique historic features that made learning in these schools so incredible.
Gorgeous tiles, like the ones pictured above, are abundant at McKinley. In the article by Enriquez he posted a photograph of a bubbler with faience tiles from the Mosaic Tile Company of Zanesville, Ohio. He cautioned that, "McKinley Elementary School and three other elementary school have interior and exterior architectural artifacts that would be retained or incorporated in new construction and renovations" as long as the referendum was approved. This was back in October 2018, which, it was voted by 61 percent in favor of the referendum. Read more here.
While this comment made by Enriquez provides a brief sigh of relief, what really will happen to all these tiles? Since last winter I have visited many Wauwatosa Public Schools to document their architectural tiles. While speaking with staff members at those schools, they expressed appreciation for them and hope to see them in their new school buildings.
McKinley Elementary, in particular, has tons of tiles. The Art teacher, Jenny Leigh, helped me around the building to discover their stunning collection. All the bathrooms and several stairways feature unglazed tiles. Numerous bubbler backgrounds appear on all three floors. Most extraordinary is a fireplace in the kindergarten room.
These tiles are of historic significance and they contribute to the culture of education. Some of the tile is simply functional, such as the floor tile in the bathrooms and the coping found on many windowsills. However, much of the tiles are works of art. They were designed to make schoolchildren feel welcome at school, to enjoy the learning environment, and to feel at home. They were meant to capture student's imaginations, nurture their creativity, and foster their appreciation for art. Nowadays, these tiles can still teach students craft, beauty, and how to imagine creative ways to use wall spaces.
Kindergarten teacher, Susan Zeimet, admits that she loves having the coolest room in the school building. She has been teaching in the room with the fireplace for 19 years. During this time she has learned many stories about the showpiece in her classroom. She understands there is history in her room and appreciates the importance of those tiles. She suggests that the fireplace should be installed in the library of the new school building.
Will this happen? As of now, many staff hope so. In the meantime, I will continue to investigate the story of what is happening to these tiles. Hopefully, these tiles remain with the kids. The kids should be able to see these tiles when they go to the drinking fountain for water, or sit in front of the fireplace for story time. Whether it is a new school building tomorrow or a hundred years from now, those tiles are for the kids and the school community.
Handmade tiles were commonly found in buildings of all kinds in Wisconsin in the 1920s and 1930s. Schools, churches and homes frequently featured floor and wall tiles made by various tile manufacturers in the United States. If you grew up in the Milwaukee area in the 1940s or later it is very likely that you have seen tile installations in these buildings but you may not be aware that much of that tile was manufactured locally in South Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Ironically, tile installations by this local company are almost always misidentified as being the product of other manufacturers.
The Continental Faience and Tile Company manufactured tile and later, pottery, from 1925 to 1943 in the building that originally housed the Lawson Airplane Company. Carl Bergmans, the man behind the company, was a Belgian immigrant who learned the tile business in Brussels, and in his mid-20s, brought those skills with him when he came to America to work for first the Mosaic Tile Company and then the American Encaustic Tile Company in Zanesville, Ohio. Bergmans studied at the Royal Academy of Arts and was not only trained in art and design, but also possessed the technical ceramic engineering knowledge necessary to create quality clays and glazes.
By 1921 Bergmans was ready to be his own boss and moved to Flint, Michigan to start the Flint Faience and Tile Company, an opportunity that is said to have been the result of Bergmans meeting Albert Champion, the French founder of the AC Spark Plug Company who was looking for ways to use his kilns when they were not producing spark plugs. After just a few years in Flint, Bergmans came to South Milwaukee formed the Continental Faience and Tile Company at 9th and Menomonee Avenues.
Continental is responsible for tile installations in hundreds of buildings all across Wisconsin, and was used by architects such as Eschweiler, Russell Barr Willliamson, George Zagel, and even Frank Lloyd Wright. Continental’s major product was unglazed mosaic tile that was flashed by the fire in the kiln to produce warm earth tones in orange and buff hues. These tiles were commonly used in foyers and fireplace hearths, sometimes creating patterns and borders in which decorative glazed insert tiles were featured. For years these Continental tiles have been mistakenly identified as being made by the Batchelder Tile Company, a well-known California tile maker.
This fascinating history of how the tile company came into being and transformed Wisconsin tile-making is the feature of my new book: Continental Faience & Tile Company. I am creating the book with two experts, Kelly Dudley and Kathy Roberts. Together we are writing, documenting, and designing a book that will be the definitive reference book on Continental Faience and Tile Company.
Our collaboration began in the summer of 2018. While working on my book on architectural terra cotta I began to notice tile installations and began to dig into the subject. I quickly discovered Kelly Dudley and Kathy Roberts, a Phoenix, Arizona couple who have been collecting and researching Continental since the mid-1990s. Their passion for tiles and Continental have led them around the US and to Belgium, although it began in South Milwaukee on a visit to Kathy’s family. On that trip Kathy was astounded to discover that the empty warehouse building at the end of her block of Menomonee Avenue was at one time the factory and show room of a tile company, something she was unaware of while growing up. Whitney Gould wrote a fantastic article for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in 2005, featuring the factory building and the kaleidoscope of tiles inside.
We have now located approximately 250 sites containing Continental tile, from Wisconsin to Florida. The search continues, with the hope of locating Continental tile in all 50 states. Installations include schools, churches, homes, storefronts, theaters, and municipal buildings. While most of these sites feature floor tile, others include fireplaces, fountains, pools, and wainscotings with compelling, decorative appeal. Most surprising about these sites is that many of them were built in the 1930s, during the Great Depression that saw many other tile manufacturers go out of business. Documenting these sites has been a privilege. Having a mental library of all their work really makes you believe in the influence and impact of art tile. However, these sites that make you appreciate local culture and community may not last, especially if the public is not educated about them.
In 2008 the factory site was tragically demolished to make room for a townhouse development. Photographs of the interior showrooms and site were documented and entire pieces of the floors and walls were salvaged and stored by the City of South Milwaukee. When I try to make sense of it, I think that the City must have viewed this decision as a compromise, allowing progress to happen while keeping the past. However, the artistic and cultural value of the front part of the factory, which housed offices and a showroom, was extraordinary. It was huge! Not many residents of the area were pleased with the demolition, and tile historians and lovers have been devastated.
Since then, other sites have been demolished or remodeled and in the process, removed their handmade, faience tile. Some include the St. Stephen Church / Rectory on Howell Ave, the South Milwaukee Middle School and the Milwaukee County Airport Terminal Building. And as the buildings with these tiles are reaching 90 years of age, the challenge of preservation is becoming increasingly critical.
This summer the former office for the Chancery of Rockford Diocese in Rockford, Illinois was demolished. Inside was floor tile with artistic, decorative inserts from the tile company. Also this summer in Shorewood the Charles and Laura Albright residence was demolished. The owner of the property, Chris Abele, and his partner salvaged the tile fountain and said they were going to donate it to the village historical society. Soon but not yet gone is the Concrete Arch Bridge in Racine, Wisconsin. The features on it are handsome, but it is crumbling, the tiles are falling off, and will most likely hit the wrecking ball next year (if not earlier). Also in Racine is the Capitol Theater (named later changed to Park Theater) that could become a future demolition target.
Also, in Wauwatosa Public Schools there are many school renovations happening. One school of concern is the McKinley Elementary School, built in 1929. The tile installations in this school are impressive. I mean REALLY impressive. Some of the bubblers and fireplaces are from Continental, but there are tiles from other companies too. According to their plans, the school will be demolished - including all the tile work. Through talking with only a few Tosa residents, I have learned that the tile will be preserved and reinstalled in the new school building - but that is something I need more information on.
While the splendid craft of the products from the Continental Faience and Tile Company make their feature in a book worthy-enough, the aging of the buildings that feature their tiles make the book even more pressing. From what I have experienced, many people that own buildings with these tiles are aware they have something special, but know little or anything about it. Part of keeping these tiles special is that the public is educated about them and that they are preserved properly.
These are reasons is why Dudley, Roberts and I are working on this book. When finished, the book will be a company history and portfolio, including detailed product images and many installations sites, an explanation of how their products were crafted, a biography on the company owner Bergmans, as well as a guide on how to preserve the tiles. The public needs a reference on how to identify these tiles, appreciate them, talk about them, and preserve them.
Currently Dudley, Roberts and I are still researching, however, we have a draft manuscript in place and are continually working on the book design. We will soon need to determine the publisher.
In the meantime, to learn more about the Continental Faience & Tile Company, please come to my presentation on Thursday, October 10 at the City Hall in South Milwaukee. The lecture will last about an hour and it is free! I will have some tile replicas for sale for $10 a piece.
Also, please send me an email if you would like to share information or if offer a tour of your home or building. I have visited many sites and found some of the best tile from people offering to share. Thank you!
Beetles and all sorts of insects are all around during the summer in the Midwest. Whether you are digging your hands in the dirt, enjoying a nature path, or relaxing in the shade, these miniature and active creatures make their appearance. If spotted, the vibrant and lustrous colors of their exoskeletons can be really captivating. Beetles have fascinated humankind so much that they can even be found on buildings, crafted by artists.
The scarab is perhaps one of the most intriguing beetles in the arts. They have come to symbolize many ideas, including rebirth and regeneration. They are also known as the "dung beetle" because frankly, they play with manure. The dung beetle impressively rolls feces into a ball so it can feed on its liquid nutrients. The ancient Egyptians observed this behavior and compared it to their sun deity, Khepri, who rolled the sun across the sky. This comparison exalted the dung beetle as one of the most important symbols in their arts and architecture.
In the early 1920s, the adoration of the dung beetle in Egyptian civilization was re-appreciated by craftsmen, artists, and architects in the United States. The scarab, similar to Mayan hieroglyphs or Greek ornament, was another example of how creatives appropriated symbols from cultures of that past. Many buildings erected in the "Egyptian Revival" style featured the scarab. Some of these structures were built with stone or concrete, however, a handful featured the intricate and colorful detail of architectural terra cotta.
The Northwestern Terra Cotta Company of Chicago, Illinois created Egyptian-style ornament for a few buildings in the Midwest. One of them was the Masonic Temple in Racine, Wisconsin. The structure was an addition built in 1922 with designs from local architect and member of the temple Edmund B. Funston. On the frieze one can observe a winged scarab represented in opaque, matte glazes. The designs stretches across five units at approximately nine-in-a-half feet. In the center one can notice tan, dark brown, orange, blue, and green glazes on a single unit. The superior craft of the terra-cotta scarab has the power to captivate any passerby.
During 1928 appeared the medallion depicted below on the Scarab Club in Detroit, Michigan. It is only a block away from the Detroit Institute of Arts. The architect, Lancelot Sukert, positioned the scarab-seal on the third story of the brick facade above the front door. The richly-glazed tile was created by the Pewabic Tile Company of the same city. Its carefully applied surfaces featured a variety of seven glazes.
As mentioned on a historical marker next to the building, the winged scarab, "an Egyptian symbol of rebirth, represents the club's commitment to the perpetual renewal of the arts in Detroit." The site was built as an art center and continues to be one today. The clubhouse has hosted many of the world's most important artists, including John Sloan, Diego Rivera, Marcel Duchamp, and Norman Rockwell.
Outside of the Midwest are also two more buildings with ceramic scarabs in Utah. The more extraordinary of the two is the Peery's Egyptian Theater in the city of Ogden. Notice in the picture below the diverse palette of glazes represented on the terra-cotta facade, including greens, pinks, yellows, blues, and purples. There are four scarabs that embellish the ornate frieze. The architects were Leslie S. Hodgson & Myrl A. McClenahan.
Also in Utah is the Salt Lake Masonic Temple, built in 1926. Its imposing facade is built with buff pulsichrome terra cotta. Above the side entrance, as shown here on Reddit, is a scarab. The architect was Carl W. Scott.
Much can be learned from the portrayal of the scarab on these Egyptian revival buildings. While they were not built as funerary architecture for the sacred or elite, the craftsmen and architects were so dedicated to the detail that even the pharaohs could approve of their work. The scarab demonstrated that these facades were not merely superficial. The symbol carried new meanings on these building that were spiritual and philosophical.
It must also be acknowledged that clayworkers and builders from this day were having fun in their creations. A theater or warehouse in the heart of the American prairie with ancient Egyptian symbols on it must have seemed out-of-place or even inappropriate to some people. Nowadays the erection of a Marcus Theater with such ornamentation would likely stir controversy. The 1920s was a different time. There were hundreds of craftsmen in the country that were able to model and sculpt clay by hand for architecture. The erection of a building was a form of artistic expression. Many architects and developers knew this and believed that their buildings would mean something for future generations, whether it was inspiration, admiration, or that the quality of their work is a priceless value. Buildings from this time were also an adventure, or at least an invitation to explore - and some accomplished the experience so well that it could happen just upon seeing them on the street.
Scarab Club Detroit
Masonic Temple, Racine
Peery's Egyptian Theater, Ogden, Utah
Reebie's Storage Warehouse, Chicago
Masonic Temple, Salt Lake City
Renting a studio in a building where other artists are working can be a life-changing experience. It is not for every artist and it can depend on what point an artist is in their career too. Four years ago I began renting at Var Gallery & Studios in the downtown neighborhood of Walker's Point in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The availability of a Var studio at this time was critical. There were few options available, each had their own hurdles, and I was really eager to create my own work. Since I was able to pursue my art career at Var, I was able to grow. Now, I am excited to announce that this summer I am building my own studio with the help of family and friends.
Before sharing the details on my new space, I'd like to reflect on this experience of renting first. Perhaps this will be helpful for other Milwaukee-artists or prospective-tenants for an art space. When I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2012, the Walker's Point Center for the Arts were generous to allow me to setup a space in their storage basement. That was a lifesaver to my art career.
Then about a year later, after many cold days and nights, I tried working at a shared-studio space for potters. That had everything I needed, ceramics-wise, but my own personal space to do whatever I wanted. I decided to move into my Riverwest flat and use the kilns at the U.W.M. Studio Arts and Craft Centre to fire my work. That helped reaffirm my bonds with a place I worked at for 4 years, but driving work back and forth grew old quick.
At the end of 2014 I was telling everyone I needed a space. A new ceramic-shop in West Allis was opening up at the time and it would have been an amazing setup. Unfortunately it would have been a long bike-ride from Riverwest. At the same time, three friends from different social groups all told me about Var and this mysterious guy named Josh Hintz. Eventually I called him and set up a studio visit. There was one spot left. I took it immediately.
When I began renting at Var, I started in a 16'x12' space shared with another artist. It felt tiny, but it was more than I was able to get anywhere else. The space was under $200 and included 24/7 access, wood shop, kitchenette, regular gallery exhibition opportunities, air conditioning, internet, free admission to events, and the electrical setup and technical maintenance for the kilns. This was a phenomenal deal! Again, I was earning little money at the time so this studio arrangement was impressive. I never went to graduate school either, so having this opportunity seemed unbelievable.
I approached this opportunity very professionally. I came into the studio nearly every day, kept quiet and did not listen to any music, recorded my hours in a log, and cleaned up when I was done (including washing the floors). Eventually, though, I loosened up and became more amicable.
The availability of other artists was a quality that made Var so worthwhile. Many artists were in a similar situation as me with a recently-earned BFA from U.W.M. or MIAD. Being able to consult with them and hang out was supportive and helped grow my confidence. It is important to note that while there were other artists working in the same building, we each had our own spaces.
I was also fortunate to be sharing a studio with a beatnik artist who had decades of knowledge and experience in the art and design field. Even though I recognized his talent and expertise right away, there was a little tension at first. We both had TONS of supplies and work in a tight space. I also had dust! In short time, however, we became best of friends. And, I learned a lot from him that I would not have been able to gain on my own.
By the time four years passed, I was renting a full-studio, operating under an LLC, self-published a book, developing a new portfolio, and working on commissions. I was able to grow and challenge myself in a safe environment. There were plenty of struggles and mistakes I made, pieces I threw out, hours wasted on a failure, but the support-structure at Var helped me overcome those hurdles and continue pursuing my bliss.
Now four years later I am moving out of Var and building my own studio. This is a tremendous step forward that I am able to take because of the incubator-space-like-quality that Var is. Any recent graduate from U.W.M. or MIAD would be at a a loss not taking into consideration Var as an option to pursue their art career. Whether it is to connect with other artists, focus on a portfolio, enter more art exhibitions, have a site to conduct business, or whatever artsy thing you need, Var is an ideal community to give yourself the needed room to grow.
Last but not least, in addition to all the amazing minds working on their art just steps away from each other, the guidance from owner Josh Hintz is invaluable.
Now I have moved from Walker's Point and into a new Milwaukee neighborhood, Hawthorn Glen. It is a tiny neighborhood mostly taken up by a nature-reserve owned by Milwaukee Public Schools. To the north is Washington Heights. As depicted, the studio is currently a 2.5 stall garage. With the help of family (primarily my dad!) and friends, the garage will be transformed into a winter-proof, kiln-safe, ceramic studio this summer. So yes, the garage door has got to go!
I cannot imagine the journey it would have been to get to this step without all the support from family, friends, and institutions such as UWM SACC, W.P.C.A., and Var (and many others!) Now the magic is just beginning. Certainly there will be obstacles, mistakes, and hurdles, but all the experience I have gained in shared studio spaces and renting from Var will make this possible.
For regular updates on the transformation, please stayed tuned on my bimonthly newsletter.
An hour is left before the sun sets. The temperature is just warm enough to walk outside with a sweater and cap, but you can still see your breath. The air is crisp. Despite the heavy traffic after work hours, the timing could not be better for witnessing the Legacy Lofts. On the southern elevation is the grand façade. Ornamental textures struck by the sunlight produce bold shadows. While the warehouse structure converted into an apartment-loft building may appear beautiful at all times, it is this time of day that it is "in the spotlight."
"What are you taking a picture of that building?" says a curious pedestrian. "It's just a building. What are you going to do with a picture of a building? Why take a picture?"
I calmly wait until the kind stranger is finished. "At this time of day the sun strikes the building and creates these gorgeous shadows."
"Ah yeah.. I see that." says another pedestrian. Intrigued, she asks, "Are you an Art student?"
"Actually I am an Art teacher! Pictures are my side-gig."
"That is so cool!" expresses the pedestrian.
This dialogue is just a snapshot of the wonderful interactions I experience on the street while documenting architectural terra cotta and faience in the Midwest. While it's often preferrable to take pictures at times when there is little to no traffic, the interactions with other people on the busy streets can make the mission of my work all the more purposeful. The people I met on the sidewalk perhaps had no idea that the building was worthy of a photograph. Maybe they did know, but just wanted to discover what I was up too. This happens to me a lot. And I am always thrilled to present how meaningful these buildings are to our Milwaukee community. (or in any community!)
The Legacy Lofts in the former Bloomer Ice Cream Company warehouse building is just one the latest building projects in Milwaukee. This one, however, is special because there is a new building integrated with the renovation of a historic one. In Milwaukee, we are witnessing this at several sites. The Bader Philanthropies Headquarters at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Fifth Street was also completed in 2018, renovating the old Green Bay Building. Garfield Avenue School on Vel R. Phillips Avenue also was renovated and converted in apartments in 2018. Immediately next to it was also the construction of the Griot Apartments and a new home for America's Black Holocaust Museum. Fatima Laster remodeled the Johnson-Goolsby Funeral Home into the Five Points Art Gallery last year. Furthermore, the P. H. Gaubatz Building on Center Street and Dr. M.L.K. Jr. Drive was renovated in 2015. And the Fortress, a former Mayer Boot Company Building, on West Pleasant Avenue is also currently being renovated.
What is wonderful about all these sites is that the are all on the North Side, many are integrating historic structures with new ones, and they are respecting cultural institutions. The North Side of Milwaukee is filled with architectural gems. Many of these buildings are constructed with gorgeous craftsmanship and artistic details. These trades do not exist in the capacity that they did when these sites were originally built. It is important to recognize these places because they emphasize the value of these neighborhoods and the worthwhile investment in preserving them.
The Legacy Lofts is an excellent example of historic charm and something contemporary. What makes this apartment complex extraordinary is the architectural terra cotta on the façade. The glazed surface is ivory pulsichrome. On the parapet is a handsome cartouche. Inside a former entryway is also a vestibule with faience tile from the Flint Faience Company in Michigan. (Here is a picture from Jeramey Jannene, now visible from sidewalk). The tiles were installed by the Midwest Tile Art Company, located at 1624 W Fond Du Lac Ave. These tiles and exterior façade treatments are all hand-made, ceramic units. Their forms, colors, and patterns give a sense of beauty to the building.
Since it is located deep in the city, away from nature, these decorative features play an important role in offering something to admire. If the Bloomer Ice Cream building would have been demolished, the experience of walking down North Avenue would not be as pleasant. Once you cross the interstate from the East, it is pretty much the only significant building with ornament until you reach Fond Du Lac Avenue (about a mile). After that intersection, it takes over another mile until Thirty-Fifth Street to reach more ornamental buildings. If the clay units on the Bloomer building were removed, they would have not been replaced. It would have been a terrible loss. Fortunately, this is not the case.
The Legacy Lofts re-use of the Bloomer building respects the handmade quality of the 1927 structure. People who experience that area on a regular basis are shaped by the design of this building project. It will inspire their appreciation for history and willingness to be creative. Its quality will also allow people to better enjoy walking on the street. All the while its attractive architecture encourages more, similar development in places nearby.
More reading on the Legacy Lofts:
Tom Daykin, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Nov. 23 2018
Jeramey Jannene, Urban Milwaukee, July 27 2018
Jeramey Jannene, Urban Milwaukee, Nov. 9 2017
Bobby Tanzilo, OnMilwaukee, Nov. 8 2017
The Milwaukee Journal, Verner H. Esser, June 26, 1927
Adventures and reflections on the ornament and craft of architectural terra cotta in the majestic Midwest!