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.
Adventures and reflections on the ornament and craft of architectural terra cotta in the majestic Midwest!