Tag Archives: Condos

Cream City comeback: Milwaukee developers reveal old brick

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.”

From Warehouse district to arts district

It’s gallery night in the neighborhood, which means the galleries are open late, offering hors d’ oeuvres, live music and special exhibits. As shoppers wander through the galleries — housed in 19th-century brick warehouses — they might stop for a martini at Soho 7, grab some French food at Coquette Café or shop for vintage designer clothing at Lela Boutique.

This isn’t SoHo in New York or River North in Chicago. This is the Third Ward in Milwaukee, the city’s top destination for art and design.

Beer, bratwurst and baseball may be alive and well in this town, but so are the arts. Even the frigid winter weather isn’t enough to stop Milwaukee’s art enthusiasts from attending Gallery Night & Day, a two-day event held four times a year.

“No matter what the weather, gallery nights bring in so many people from around the area,” says Elaina Grinwald, gallery associate at Katie Gingrass, the oldest gallery in the Third Ward. “It really sparks an interest in collectors of all kinds. Milwaukee is starting to be a great place for art.”

According to Grinwald, the Third Ward, bordered by the Milwaukee River, Lake Michigan harbor and downtown Milwaukee, is a natural art destination.

“The old warehouse spaces are unique and attractive and they’re all a little different,” she says. “There’s a lot of character here that lends itself well to art.”

Not long ago, the Third Ward was an abandoned warehouse district, and no one was talking about art openings. “In the Eighties, the Third Ward fell into decline and a local alderman suggested it should become the red light district for the city of Milwaukee,” says Ronald San Felippo, chair of Milwaukee’s business improvement district number two and past president of the Historic Third Ward Association. “I think that galvanized owners to develop a business improvement district.”

In fact, the area has a history of reinventing itself. The Third Ward was originally settled by Irish immigrants, but after a fire wiped out about 16 square blocks in 1893, the community was reborn as an Italian working-class neighborhood. By the 1970s, the area had gone downhill, but some residents, like San Felippo, never forgot what it was like when it was vital.

“My father was born in the Historic Third Ward,” San Felippo says. “It was a place where you could live, work, play and shop all within the boundaries of the neighborhood.”

It took years of planning, but the Third Ward finally started taking off in 1993. After a $3.4 million streetscape project — which included unique light fixtures, street signs and gateway arches over the two main roads coming into the area — Milwaukee residents began to take notice. “The arches branded the neighborhood and started the turnaround,” says San Felippo, a developer who’s been involved in several successful residential and commercial projects in the Third Ward. “In the last decade or so, we have increased the assessed valuation of our area by nearly $500 million.”

From numerous designer clothing boutiques such as Lela, which closes off the street and puts on a fashion show every year, to hip eateries and wine bars such as Cuvee, which offers more than 100 varieties of sparkling wine, there are now enough restaurants and businesses in “The Ward” to make it a destination, San Felippo says. The Milwaukee Public Market on Water Street — a two-level space offering cheese, sausage, flowers, wine, fresh fish, freshly roasted coffee, soups, sushi and baked goods from independent retailers — is easily one of the neighborhood’s best assets.

Many of the arts organizations located in The Ward are beneficiaries of these amenities, says Matt Kemple, marketing manager for the Next Act Theater, one of several thriving theater companies in the area.

“For us, this is really a prime location,” Kemple says. “People can park their car, do some shopping, go out to eat and see a show. There’s a lot going on here — not just in the theater scene. The local businesses here all contribute to one another’s success.”

While the Third Ward is currently more of a commercial district, residential development is catching up, says San Felippo, who has lived in the area since 1998. “We have 1,500 residential units occupied now, and in the mid 1990s, there were none. We also have a fair number of additional units coming online in the next couple of months.”

Many of the existing residential units are condo/loft units located in rehabbed timber and brick warehouse buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But according to Bob Monnat, CFO of the Mandel Group, the neighborhood also features a fair amount of new construction loft-style infill construction, including Gaslight Lofts (139 luxury rental units built in 2003), Marine Terminal Lofts (83 condominium units, completed in 2007 and sold out), and Corcoran Lofts, a 76-unit rental building available this spring.

“There’s a healthy mix of rental and for-sale opportunities here that attracts a broad range of buyers and renters,” Monnat says.

While the Mandel Group has put one of its Third Ward projects on hold due to the economy — a 65-unit luxury condominium project located on the river — Monnat has no doubts this vibrant neighborhood will continue to thrive. “This is one of the few walk-able downtown neighborhoods,” he says.

For Kemple, the neighborhood was enough to inspire him to relocate from Ohio. “I was working in the theater scene in Columbus and found Milwaukee by accident,” he says. “I realized that the art scene here has really grown, and in the Third Ward especially. This is an exciting place to be right now.”