In just 12 days, my new self-published book will be available for purchase! Many prospective buyers eagerly waiting to see the book are probably wondering what it will look like inside. So I decided to write a little sample on the type of content you can expect.
One way that terra-cotta ornament can marvel the urban explorer is by discovering multiples. It is not uncommon to find similar, if not identical, terra cotta on different buildings. For Milwaukee-folks and Midwesteners, we commonly see this with stock units from Midland Terra Cotta Company of Chicago (1910-1939). Other manufacturers provided stock terra cotta as well. One example of multiples that is particularly fascinating for Milwaukee County is from the American Terra Cotta & Ceramic Company (1887-1966), also from Chicago, with their factory near Crystal Lake, Illinois. The buildings in this case include the West Milwaukee High School from 1927 and the Hotel Shorecrest addition from 1929.
Martin Tullgren & Sons was the architectural firm who designed these two buildings. This is of no surprise since the firm designed more buildings with terra cotta than any other architects of the Milwaukee area. Between 1915 and 1934, they designed at least 32 terra-cotta buildings in Shorewood, West Milwaukee, and Milwaukee. They designed notable terra-cotta landmarks such as the George Watts Store, the Bertelson Building, and the Herbert Tullgren Business Building (on 60th & North). Thank you Herbert and Martin!
The school building and hotel are also exemplary works from the firm. Upon close examination of the decorative details, you will find that both buildings share nearly identical units. On the school building entrance are four pilasters embellished with Italian Renaissance motifs. The shafts show typical subject matter: cherubs, urns, rosettes, grotesques, etc. The capitals, however, are ambiguous (see the picture below). As pairs of cherubs clutch on to acanthus leaves, a beast of some kind stands on the shoulders of a bird atop an urn.
The symbolism or meaning of this motif would be most wonderful to know. There is little I can say. However, the motif is revisited on the ground floor of the Hotel Shorecrest. The shafts of the pilasters are different and feature even more bizarre motifs. You would think that you are reading the pages of an illustrated bestiary from Foruntio Liceti or Giovanni Battista de'Cavalieri. On the other hand, the capitals are nearly identical and the details are rendered more boldly. Perhaps the firm thought that a clearer version was necessary? The motif is so strange, but also typical of the time.
While I would like to give credit to the architects Martin and Herbert, that might be misplaced. For starters, the American Terra Cotta & Ceramic Company manufactured this masonry. It is totally possible that the architects prepared generic drawings of what they needed and allowed the clay workers the artistic license to use their imagination. The Tullgren sons could have also provided detailed drafts of the ornament, but I cannot confirm that. The mystery makes me so curious due to the fact that there is more. In East St. Louis, Illinois, you can find the identical motif again.
On Collinsville Avenue in East St. Louis is the historic Majestic Theatre. Built in 1928, it now stands abandoned and derelict. Its polychromatic glazed surface is enticing. Additionally, the relief ornament is outstanding. On the façade you will find many of the motifs also installed on the West Milwaukee High School and Hotel Shorecrest, especially that capital. Initially I thought that this must be a Tullgren building near St. Louis. Once I identified the architect, I found out that is was the Boller Brothers. Due to this discovery, it just makes me wonder who had the imagination to design this peculiar motif?
If somebody finds these gorgeous motifs on another façade, please let me know!
Adventures and reflections on the ornament and craft of architectural terra cotta in the majestic Midwest by Ben Tyjeski.