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 email@example.com 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
(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.
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!