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
The humble building at 700 East Kilbourn Avenue will soon meet its fate. Its façade, simple and elegant, will unfortunately never resurface to the public eye. Awaiting a new project, the Ascent, will soon replace this site with a 21-story timber framed residential tower.
There are many small details about this building that draw interest in its survival. Originally known as the site for Irving Benesch Real Estate and built in 1926. What is most striking on the exterior are the embellishments made of architectural terra cotta. The glazes that cover these units are pulsichrome, and feature a mottled effect of various hues, including light green, peach, rose, cranberry red, and buff. Even though the building is painted white, the layers of paint has slowly been peeling off. This is one reason why it is strongly advised not to paint terra cotta. Besides, the natural surface of fired terra cotta is handsome.
As depicted in the last four years, there has been no change at the site. However, several of the base units on the structure have also been crumbling. Much of this neglect has been recent. A black-and-white photograph documenting the façade in a better condition (in 1946) can be see on the Milwaukee Public Library Digital Collections.
As a bicyclist, working in Walker's Point and living in Riverwest, I often use Van Buren Avenue as a route. Therefore, I notice this building a lot. I have observed the peeling of the paint. I have wondered why does it appear vacant? Why does it seem that nobody maintains the site or improve its curb appeal? Such mystery has enticed me to wonder about the possibilities of what this space could become.
Now that the Ascent is coming, I guess the answer has been made. Unfortunately, the new apartment project leaves no room to imagine a space that appropriates the old building into a new space. I realize such a design challenge may be too clingy to the past. Most concerning is that a small commercial building with historic charm will soon no longer be available to the potential business owner, eager to start a new operation.
If the glazed surface of the terra-cotta units was not out of the ordinary, perhaps it would not be so interesting. However, it is the fact that the glazes are multi-colored pulsichrome that has given me the impression that this building is worth preserving. The old idea that "demolitions of grand structures should only occur if the newer building is better and grander" is likely the approach the developers of the Ascent are taking. Perhaps the renovation costs of the Benesch building are through the roof. At the very least, let it be that the polychromatic units are salvaged and reused in a dignified way (and not as garden ornaments).
One worthwhile idea could be a display in the lobby of a few carefully selected artifacts from the façade. These salvaged artifacts could serve as artwork in the new space as well as be symbols of the community and its local history. Despite the fact that the building will be gone, such a feature would communicate to its tenants and visitors that Milwaukee is a place that values its architecture and its past. It would also demonstrate that preservation in Milwaukee comes from a genuine place of love for the community.
Construction on this new building is slated for fall 2019. It is intended to be 238 feet in height and be the tallest mass timber building in the Western hemisphere. New Land Enterprises are the developer. Korb + Associates are the architects. Completion is expected in spring 2021.
Links to articles and notes on Benesch Building and the Ascent:
Old Milwaukee.net Building File
Tom Daykin article from Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Oct. 5, 2018
Jeramey Jannene article from Urban MKE, Oct. 6, 2018
Plan Development Submittal, Korb + Associates Architects
Official website for new building: https://www.ascentmke.com/
The historic commercial and business district at Five Points (where Keefe Avenue, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Port Washington Road, Atkinson Avenue, and Sixth Street meet) is drawing lots of interest. A once bustling and active intersection for the neighborhood known as Williamsburg Heights, new enterprise is returning.
All the attention is due to newly renovated building at 3300 North Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Originally the building was owner to Dr. H. P. Haushaulter. In recent years it has stood vacant. In 2016 Bader Philanthropies announced they were moving from the 233 North Water Street in the Historic Third Ward to the present location in 53212. Denise Wooten of the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service expressed her gratitude for a major foundation to make its headquarters in an impoverished area of the city. (Read Urban Milwaukee article here: https://urbanmilwaukee.com/2016/12/04/op-ed-foundations-move-to-central-city-is-admirable/)
The renovation has been complete for a few months now and the company is in full operation there. The choice for Bader Philanthropies to renovate a historic building makes historians like me thrilled. There are many properties with charm in this business district. Due to lack of investment in this area, for better or worse, the buildings stand true to their original condition. This new headquarters of Bader Philanthropies did not look so good before their arrived. Surely, someone could have demolished the site to build a new structure. Fortunately the building's foundation was in strong condition. Besides, there are plenty of vacant properties nearby (although sometimes it seems like developers are hungry for the demolitions).
In this case, the building was preserved, and in an excellent way. This building from 1927 is of interest to Tyjeski Terra Cotta Works because it features architectural terra cotta, likely from the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company. Furthermore, the glazed surfaces are pulsichrome.
Below, in my attempt to be Camilo José Vergara, depicted is the progress of the building between December 2016 to October 2018. In the first image, you can take note of the paneling covering the windows and doors, as well as the condition of the architectural terra cotta. On the pilasters was stained red paint. Metal spikes originally holding a metal signs were left to rust. Overall, the terra cotta was solid - but its surface was stained and lacked maintenance.
Today, all the original architectural terra cotta remains in place. And it has not looked this good for decades! The general contractor, JCP Construction, and the architects Uihlein Wilson Architects deserve an applause. It is better than I predicted when news came out in 2016. This renovation shall be a celebrated example of how a historic building with architectural terra cotta can be transformed into a new, contemporary space.
Other recent works in this area have included the Heart & Hope Apartments in 2010 and sculptures by Marina Lee. There are many historic buildings in this business district that could benefit from some investment. Hopefully builders can see the value of these buildings and how they have shaped the communities that call this place of Milwaukee home. All the while, there are vacant lots eager for new builds as well. This grand intersection is right off the interstate, making its location even more convenient for businesses. The diversity of properties is wide, hopefully, encouraging new businesses of different sizes to move to this area.
With a few corner-marts, a gas station, schools, apartments, a barbershop, a correctional institute, and now a non-profit philanthropy organization, the area could benefit from the development of restaurants, coffee shops, art galleries, and retail. The triangle park at the center of this intersection must really be activated to the neighborhood's advantage. On the north end of the area, a few new apartment buildings might increase demand and safety to the area as well.
Local terra-cotta buildings also include F. W. Woolworth 5 & 10 Cents store, an apartment building with Moravian tiles, and a mixed-use structure known as the Hollywood Building.
PAST ARTICLES ABOUT THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE HEADQUARTERS:
Tom Daykin and Bill Glauber, Journal Sentinel, August 3, 2016
Corrinne Hess, Biz Times, January 27, 2017
Bader Philanthropies, Press Release, UrbanMilwaukee, January 27, 2017
Edgar Mendez, Urban Milwaukee, February 1, 2017
Lauren Anderson, Biz Times, May 8, 2017
Daily Reporter, May 15, 2017
Sean Ryan, Milwaukee Business Journal, March 5, 2018
Sean Ryan, Milwaukee Business Journal, September 2, 2018
On Third Street and West Wisconsin Avenue in 1959 was the "Robinson Store" building. On its small store-building façade was architectural terra cotta manufactured by the American Terra Cotta and Ceramic Company (from Crystal Lake, Illinois). At this time architectural terra cotta was not experiencing the level of production it had in the 1920s, but the remaining companies were managing their business - barely. As for Milwaukee, this would be the last installation of such building material.
Since then, I have not been able to find any new installations. This excludes preservation work such as the installation of new terra cotta by Gladding McBean on the City Hall (finished in December 2014) and others.
However, now almost 60 years later, a new apartment building is being constructed with a product that works just like historic architectural terra cotta. Known as The Contour, it is located on the East Side of Milwaukee at 2214 North Prospect Avenue. The architects are Rinka Chung Architecture, whose offices are downtown on Mason and Milwaukee Streets. Let's give them an applause!
The terra-cotta product is unlike anything that is seen with historical architectural terra cotta. Traditionally units can be anywhere from four inches to over a foot deep. This new product is different. It is thin, longer, and lighter. It is known as "NeaCera terra-cotta cladding solutions." It is manufactured in Germany, but distributed by Avenere Cladding from Baltimore, Maryland. The architects had a preference for hiring as local as possible, but this product supported both their design needs and budget.
As described on their website, NeaCera is a "solid wall terra-cotta rainscreen." They also note that they take the lead in the world for that product. The specific item Rinka Chung Architecture uses is a "flat standard panel." This panel is unlike traditional terra-cotta units or ashlar terra cotta that have a cellular, hollow design. These five-feet panels are solid and thin. All the while, they carry a low weight at under 50 pounds per panel, or about 7.5 pounds per square foot. This must be extremely great for builders, as handling these units is much less cumbersome than units made decades ago.
The surface of the panels are "Gloss Black" and is the first time this finish has been used in North America. That is the first time for this NeaCera product. Amazingly, the black-glazed terra cotta is a motif that has strong heritage here, especially in the East Side. Local and celebrated architect Herbert Tullgren was no stranger to this material and its creative potential.
Tullgren practiced under the name Martin Tullgren & Sons. It was his father's company. He worked alongside with his brother, Minard. Unfortunately his brother passed in 1928. He continued practicing architecture and designed many buildings with black-glazed terra cotta. These surfaces were opaque, semi gloss, and smooth. They can be found on the Viking Apartments (1931), the Milwaukee-Western Fuel Company Office Building (1933), the Hathaway Tower (1931), and the Armory Courts Building (1931). While the Armory Courts Building is in Shorewood, the other three are only blocks from the Contour.
Black-glazed terra cotta also commonly appeared at this time, and can be found on other buildings, including the Grand Warner Theater (1930), the Park Lane Apartments (1930), and the Annason Apartments (1930).
With this in mind, it is as if the architects from Rinka Chung are picking up where we left off when terra cotta was last common in Milwaukee's architecture. The design of the building is contemporary, and the use of the terra cotta is pretty utilitarian. Their choices of surface, all the while, make it relevant to the city and its beautiful history.
Now... if Rinka Chung designs an apartment building terra-cotta panels of wolves, dragons, or eagles... I may lose myself! However, seriously, this is an amazing event for the practice of architectural terra cotta in Milwaukee. Thank you Rinka Chung Architecture!
(ENDNOTE - I'd like to mention that Rinka Chung has used this terra-cotta cladding in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, however, with a "white" finish. Stay tuned for future posts!)
Every city has their grand landmarks and iconic structures. They most often posses a “magic charm” that gives people a sense of pride for where they belong. The preservation of these places sustains their integrity and value, all the while, allow future generations to experience the roots of a community and shape their identities.
In Racine, Wisconsin, the city streets are plentiful with historic buildings. “Cream brick celebrities” such as the Dr. Shoop Building trimmed with brownstone, and the Y.M.C.A. building trimmed with red terra cotta grace their corners with refined elegance. The modern concrete edifice of the Court House rises from the Earth with a sense of strength, solidity, and sovereignty. Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy of design also has a significant presence, with the Johnson Headquarters and Wingspread, just to start. These are only a footstep into discussing the attractive architecture that makes up Racine’s built-environment. They do not even touch the contemporary sites, such as the 2003 renovation of the Racine Art Museum, and cultural ones such as Yardarm’s.
Among all these splendid establishments is the Sixth Street Bridge. Like the places already mentioned, this bridge is a landmark that is simply unique and unequalled. Its condition, though, puts it in a state of compromising existence. Discussion on how to repair the bridge all the while preserve the extraordinary architectural features has challenged the community. With conversations going on for no less than two years, a resolution that provides a structurally secure bridge and an honest preservation of the ornament is absolute.
Also referred to as the “Concrete Arch Bridge,” it is located on Sixth Street just before it intersects with Kinzie Avenue. The opening of the bridge was on December 4, 1928. Charles Whitney was the architect. The Zandella Construction Company of Manitowoc, Wisconsin built the marvel at a cost of $90,000 to the city. It replaced a former iron bridge from 1888. The length of the concrete structure is 179 feet long and 56 feet wide. The span of the arch is 131 feet and 6 inches from pier to pier.
An article from the Journal Times on December 3, 1928 gives credit to the various companies involved in construction. Of most interest here is the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company. Their work includes the glazed, relief panels and gargoyles. Eagles, bison, schooners, cornucopias, and cattle are just some of the motifs depicted in the terra cotta. The glazed surfaces feature light tones, including blue, green, yellow, brown, and white. Their application was also done with a pulsichrometer, or a pneumatic pump with attachments for several hoses to spray multiple glazes simultaneously. This is impressive, especially in multi-colored units such as the eagle and the bison. “ Masques” or coverings would have been used to block glazes from one another.
Furthermore, there are tiles that embellish the railings of the bridge (next to the sidewalks). The figures and motifs are geometric and brightly colored. Various glazes are used, including types with blue, green, turquoise, brown, red, and orange hues. Many of the colored glazes are opaque, with some translucent, and even crystalline such as with the turquoise. These gorgeous tiles are most likely from the Continental Faience and Tile Company of South Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Although there is no written confirmation of this, the exposed clay body from chipped tiles, the types of glazes, and even style of designs are all consistent with other Continental tile installations.
The Journal Times acknowledged that its terra cotta and tile, “add a distinctive appearance to the bridge which spans the river in a graceful arch.” Its distinctiveness truly is what makes it so extraordinary. Its features would make even the most uninterested passerby stop for a glance. In other words, if the bridge was not enhanced with terra cotta and tile, it would not be important or worth saving.
As one crosses its sidewalk or passes under its arch rowing in a kayak on the Root River, the terra cotta and tile ornament can be appreciated. When carefully viewing the work, a charm erupts that is no different than a child captivated by a fictional story about magnificent beasts and warriors. The artistic narrative of the bridge ignites the imagination in all of us.
Furthermore, much ornament on buildings in the early Modern era aspired to express the ideals of America and what is American. The clay ornament on this bridge is no exception. Symbols were chosen, such as the eagles, bison, cow, and cornucopias, to express American values of independence, power, freedom, and abundance. Note there are also schooners, plows, and bundles of wheat representing the importance of the lake and agriculture. All the while, they are playful and fun (especially the grotesque dolphinesque figures).
Despite it being an enduring work of excellence and a symbol of Racine's values, the condition of the bridge demands repairs. To what extent the actual state of the bridge cannot support its intended use is a subject to be further explored and investigated. (EDIT: bridge condition is POOR, according to bridgehunter.com - see comment below).
The Sixth Street Bridge, much like Wingspread and the Racine Art Museum, forms the identities of the people living there. It is not only a landmark or a symbol of the West Sixth Street community, but it is their understanding of what a bridge is, and how a bridge can look, a reference for using imagination to create one’s built-environment, and a part of their community heritage. If this important structure were to be demolished, it would literally be demolishing their heritage and a part of the story of their neighborhood.
The proposed design provided by Ayers Associates (from 2016) aims to preserve units from the original bridge and reintroduce them into the new one. These efforts, though, would be miraculous. If the Boston Valley Terra Cotta Company could be hired to uninstall the units and reproduce them at their factory, perhaps then the city of Racine could achieve a new bridge with exact replicas of the original. The originals then could be appropriated in a local park, or housed at Racine Art Museum, or both? The design Ayers Associates planned, though, would exclude much of the original terra cotta and tile. It would not be the same bridge, but a salvaged version of the original.
Reshaping our environments is important, and necessary, for the inevitable growth of our cities. However, some places are to be preserved with a treasure-like passion. There are many factors to determine which sites they are, but perhaps the most powerful is the emotional.
Fortunately there are many voices, particularly from Preservation Racine, Inc., that stress the importance of this gem in Racine. Any updates on the project and its progress would be appreciated. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have more information to provide. Thank you.
Also, feel welcome to share the article and ask for permission if you would like to reuse the photographs.
BY: Ben Tyjeski
August 17, 2018
Not many bridges exist like this one around America. Hope Memorial Bridge in Cleveland, Ohio, is another Art Deco bridge with sculptural features. The winged “guardians of traffic” figures and the ornament are breathtaking. This bridge, however, features cast-stone instead of terra cotta.
Wisconsin has several bridges that were built with architectural terra cotta. In Menasha there is the Tayco Street Bridge. In Green Bay there is the Dousman Street Bridge Gatehouse. In Milwaukee there is also the Arch Bridge in Lake Park from 1892. All these bridges are gorgeous, but none of them compare to the integrity that the terra cotta expresses in form, surface, and symbolism as does the Racine arch bridge.
Further Reading and Sources:
Racine West Sixth Street Over Root River Bridge Replacement, Ayers Associate
"Preservation urged in Sixth Street bridge replacement" The Journal Times, Racine, Wisconsin. Cara Spoto. January 27, 2016.
"Some Facts about the City's Handsomest Concrete Bridge" The Journal Times, Racine, Wisconsin. December 3, 1928. Page 13.
All across the urban glory of Milwaukee and its neighbors are brick buildings from the 1920s embellished with mosaics. There are all kinds of tile designs, and among them, there are many made up of shards. Trencadís, a Catalan term meaning "broken tile mosaics," was a style of design that appeared on many brick buildings here. "Pique assiette" and "bits and pieces" are other terms meaning the same thing.(1)
The practice of trencadís occurred primarily between 1925 to 1931. The buildings may not be like Gaudí's Casa Battló, but the mosaics they feature add color and beauty to otherwise plain facades. While I have much exploring in the metropolis to do yet, I have located fifty buildings with this design (as of 7/9/2018). Of all these buildings, I have only been able to find one newspaper article listing a company for the installation of these "bits and pieces" tiles.
The Palace Apartments, located at 2061 W Atkinson St, features two arch insets with these mosaics. They are located inside balconets. One of them has lost the tile shards, but the western one remains intact. Once upon a time, I believe the space above the second-story windows in the center had trencadís as well. The architects were George Zagel & Bro. The tile work was done by the Midwest Tile Art Company.(2)
The office and showroom of the Midwest Tile Art Company were located at 1624 W Fond Du Lac Ave (later 1646). J. R. Kessenich was most likely the owner. The company was a tile contractor. They did not manufacture tiles. However, there were times the newspapers indicated who they hired to produce tiles.(3)
Unfortunately, the building they operated in is now demolished. There is very little published about this company in the Milwaukee Journal or the the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.(4) So far in my research, if their name is listed in an article for a new building, the tile work is for the interior.
Pictured below are several more buildings with trecadís. Are all these tile installations the work of the Midwest Tile Art Company? That cannot be said. With only one confirmed example, it is not enough to say. There were many other companies in Milwaukee that installed tile too, and they all could have practiced trencadís. Therefore, if anyone has information on the Midwest Tile Art Co., or information on this type of mosaic in Milwaukee, please respond in a comment. You can also email me (email@example.com).
(1) Jacobsen, Reham Aarti. Mosaics for the First Time. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2005, Page 18
(2) "Palace Apartments," Milwaukee Journal, March 23, 1930, Page 47
(3) "Model Rooms at Home Show," Milwaukee Journal, February 22, 1931, Page 43
(4) Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, September 3, 1926, Page 79
Dolphins can be found in the decorative details on many buildings in Milwaukee. Often there is much ambiguity with their form. This confusion is partly what compels so much interest. What is certain is that this legacy of form dates back centuries. (Click here to read Donna Zuckerberg's article on dolphins in art history).
In architectural terra cotta, dolphins are often rendered in volutes with their heads peaking out of foliage. Fins appear occasionally and time to time there are even fish scales. Sometimes, the playful work of modeling clay by hand makes the shape of their bottlenose mouths beak-like.
When spotting a dolphin on a building in Milwaukee, it is fair to question yourself. Is it a dragon, an eagle, a basilisk, or simply a duck? These are questions that I explore on terra-cotta journeys through the city.
In 1891 the red castle on Wells Street, originally home to George J. Schuster, depicts three chimneys with decorative dolphins. There are two versions: one with the skinny bottlenose and the other is more grotesque. These red terra-cotta units are most likely from the American Terra Cotta and Ceramic Company since the supplier of these materials is Ricketson & Schwarz.
West of Marquette University is the celebrated residence of Captain Frederick Pabst completed in 1892. Along its cornice is a curious fellow that is actually a gargoyle. The square unit is just the portrait of a dolphin, but there is excellent quality in the rendering of details. Between the heavy eyebrows are spiky fins. Spirals and foliage stem from the nose and mouth. It is lavish! The architects Ferry & Clas hired the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company to manufacture this contender to the Muppet family.
Following the turn of the century, the use of Renaissance motifs disappeared until the 1920s. I suppose the Beaux-Arts fashion was not so interested in dolphins... and instead favored lions and eagles. When 1924 came around, there was no stopping the 248 pairs appearing on the five-story addition to the Plankinton Arcade Building. The dolphins are the work of the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company. They are just as foliated as their predecessors, but have a camel-like face and whiskers.
Around the corner on Third Street is the Century Building. The Advance Terra Cotta Company in Chicago Heights manufactured this terra cotta in 1925. On its entrance are two S-shaped dolphins that are slender and quite grotesque. Their bodies have scales and are covered in foliage. Two shapes sprout from the body much like limbs. Dangling from its beak-like mouth is an elongated tongue. One wonders, is this a basilisk?
Waldheim’s Furniture Store built an elegant building on 12th and Mitchell Street. The architects, Herbst & Kuenzli, designed the façade with a frieze of dolphins. Their appearance is not very mammal-like, and more so like a fish. The creatures have pectoral, pelvic, and caudal fins, as well as spikes along their spine. Some, however, only have the tail fin. The more prominent fish, as seen above, appear to be gasping for oxygen as they are pulled out of the water by a mighty trident. Also, did you notice the cattails?
Dolphins appear in the tympanum of a doorway on the Hollywood Building also built in 1929. These gals though have much more “beak-like” mouths and have flowers at the end of their volute-shape bodies.
The Morrison Apartments in Shorewood features a collection of dolphins with dagger-teeth and rattlesnake-like tails. These fierce creatures also appeared on the Elms Apartments (built 1928) near Marquette University. These units, modeled by the American Terra Cotta & Ceramic Company, may have been stock designs since Martin Tullgren & Sons was the architectural firm of the Shorewood building and Backes & Uthus was the later.
Almost last is a miniature dolphin, maybe only six inches in height, that appears as a charge on a shield. Its s-shape gives the impression of a seahorse (we wish, but those are on the Empire Building) but what is unique is that there are no leaves! It’s pronounced forehead and bottlenose are consistent with other dolphins, but the foliated tail was not visited in this tiny design. This darling is on the façade of the Morris Schneider Building on South 13th Street near Dakota (built 1929).
An identical shield occurs at 7028-7036 West Greenfield Avenue in West Allis. The decorative work is a stock unit from the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company. On this piece the manufacturer used a pulsichromatic glaze that matches the brick. It was built in 1927.
Since 1929 there has not been any more of these wonderful beasts in terra cotta. In 1931 the Buckingham Apartments of Franklin Place featured some fierce water-dragon type creatures, but definitely not dolphins. Otherwise, according to my bike-ride findings, this is what we got here in Milwaukee County.
At 118 West Wisconsin Avenue is a two-story commercial building in Neenah from 1888. On the cream and rose brick façade are a collection of three ornamental insets. They total 95. In this case, the round heads appear somewhat ape-like. The body is made up of so many volutes, leaves, and other decorative details, that it barely reads as a dolphin.
The Northwestern Terra Cotta Company in 1928 manufactured these units on the Sixth Street Bridge in Racine. These amazing dolphin heads appear 28 times on the concrete bridge designed by Charles Smith Whitney. Their characteristics are fish-like, with webbed wings, large gills, and literally a fish-like mouth. For some reason, they appear to be similar to something that one would find in a science-fiction book. Or perhaps even Sea Demon from Scooby Doo?
On a serious note, the bridge is in for some repairs. Thankfully, the amazing organization of Preservation Racine is working hard to make sure the terra-cotta units from the Chicago firm and the tiles from the Continental Faience and Tile Company are not damaged. If the bridge must be totally re-done, hopefully ALL these units are preserved and safely incorporated in the new design.
Hopefully there are more "dolphins" on terra-cotta buildings in the cities of Wisconsin, but for now this is what I can present.