It’s in swanky new condos and historic old buildings, and it’s a focal point in new construction and renovation: Milwaukee’s once-forgotten signature, Cream City brick, has made a comeback.
“Oh, yeah, it’s everywhere,” Tony Torre said, pointing out downtown buildings made of the clean, golden-yellow bricks that stand out from common reds nearby.
“It’s a cool look to it, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
Torre has worked in Milwaukee for decades and remembers when its Cream City brick buildings were largely neglected, blackened by pollution or torn down with little regard. Today, prompted by developers inclined to work with old materials, Cream City brick is a prized find.
“There’s been a crescendo of interest in urban living,” historian John Gurda said. It’s led to a “rebirth of interest in older parts of town. The rebirth of interest in Cream City brick goes along with that hand in glove.”
Rows and rows of beat-up, yellowish bricks sit on pallets near downtown in a gutted, old brewery. They’ll be spiffed up and featured prominently in a massive renovation that will turn the old Pabst bottling plant into dorms.
The bricks have been recovered from crumbling hulks too rundown to save. They’ll be used for interior accents and highlights and exterior patches in the building, which Zilber Ltd. plans to restore to look much like it did in its heyday about 100 years ago.
Developers who want to use cream bricks turn to salvaged materials, in part, because “nobody in their right mind would make Cream City bricks for use today,” Zilber spokesman Mike Mervis said.
University Wisconsin-Milwaukee architecture professor Matt Jarosz agreed. “You can make a beige brick, but it won’t be a true Cream City brick,” he said.
“The industry has moved on from the process,” he added, explaining the history of what he calls “the specific building material of Milwaukee.”
In the early to mid-1800s, it was too expensive to import brick, so people made it themselves in small factories. These brickworks used clay soil from the Milwaukee River, and discovered it produced light-colored bricks, Jarosz said.
The soil was high in dolomite, a form of limestone, and magnesium, which gives the bricks their signature hue, Gurda said. It initially was a source of embarrassment, but it quickly turned to a point of pride.
By the late 1800s, the brick was all over Milwaukee — “the whole city, the whole fabric was this” cream brick, Jarosz said — giving rise to the nickname “Cream City.”
“Everybody thinks ‘Cream City’ refers to America’s dairyland,” Gurda said, referring to Wisconsin’s status as “The Dairy State.” “No, it’s the brick.”
He also mentioned Milwaukee’s reputation as the “Beer Capital of the World,” saying the city’s first brickyard went up in 1836, four years before the first brewery.
But as quickly as Milwaukee gained a reputation for beautifully constructed cream buildings, it was gone. Industrial coal burning left the city in a constant haze of black soot. The bricks, which turned out to be very porous, absorbed the pollution, leaving them filthy.
“In the shortest amount of time, Milwaukee went from this beautiful beige city to this black polluted place,” Jarosz said.
It would take decades for the preservation movement to gain traction, and Jarosz says the overwhelming majority of Cream City bricks have been lost through demolition.
Remaining old bricks are increasingly on display as developers seek to use old materials to reduce waste and tie new projects in with the past.
Firms such as Continuum Architects and Planners have been working on building projects that include cleaning dingy old bricks with a chemical process that’s less corrosive than sandblasting.
“As old buildings get renovated,” Ursula Twombly, of Continnum, said, “what used to be a black brick is revealed as a Cream City.”