Our city’s building blocks are having a moment.
Like the road to Oz, much of Milwaukee is made of yellow brick – Cream City brick, to be precise. But how, exactly, did it end up here? And why is it such a source of local pride?
“The appeal of Cream City brick derives from the fact that it’s our material,” says Robert Lynch, professor of interior architecture and design at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. “Because it’s from here, and has been utilized so extensively, it serves to establish for us a sense of what here is.” And as society continues to globalize, Cream Citizens will likely come to place even more value on the pale yellow brick that built so much of this city.
It wasn’t always revered. When brick makers first pulled the bricks from their kilns, they thought they were worthless, says Kevin Abing, an archivist at the Milwaukee County Historical Society. “But they quickly realized that they were more durable than your average red bricks.”
Clay found along Milwaukee’s river banks was naturally high in magnesia and lime, giving the brick its unique color and durability, according to Andrew Charles Stern, author of Cream City: The Brick That Made Milwaukee Famous.
Its popularity extended well beyond Wauwatosa. Local manufacturers shipped Cream City bricks to clients around the United States and as far away as Europe, until production ceased in the 1920s, when the clay supply was depleted and builders began to favor stone and marble, Abing says.
Today, though, Cream City brick is enjoying a comeback as architectural firms and conservationists work to preserve the building material that put Milwaukee on the map more than 150 years ago.
Milwaukee-based Continuum Architects + Planners has restored brick facades and interiors at the Commission Row buildings in the Third Ward and at a former manufacturing facility located at 32nd and Center streets. The firm also used salvaged Cream City brick on the exterior of the Clock Shadow Building in Walker’s Point.
One pitfall of this material is its porosity. Over time, smoke and pollution have discolored the bricks of numerous local buildings. But gently washing them with water typically brings the cream color back to the surface, says Falamak Nourzad, firm principal and co-founder of Continuum. Today, cleaned up Cream City brick buildings impart architectural interest and connect us to the city’s history. The Southwest has its adobe, and New England has its cedar-shake siding. We’ve got Cream City brick. ◆