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