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.
Adventures and reflections on the ornament and craft of architectural terra cotta in the majestic Midwest by Ben Tyjeski.