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