How Milwaukee's Cream City bricks became a 'badge of honor'
You may know about Milwaukee's historic nickname – Cream City – but what made those bricks cream-colored, and how did they become so ingrained in the city's identity?
History behind the brick
The city’s building blocks began to take shape in the 19th century when workers mined clay found in the Menomonee River Valley and along Lake Michigan.
Because the local clay was naturally higher in magnesium and calcium, the red iron found in the clay would become diluted when the brick was fired and instead reveal a pleasing cream color.
“In the 19th century, before the railroads were here, it just would have been really unfeasible to ship bricks,” says Andrew Stern, City of Milwaukee's senior planner of historic preservation and author of Cream City: The brick that made Milwaukee famous. “So that was our local product and we embraced it. We loved it.”
As the demand for the brick surged, Milwaukee’s brick-making industry grew with it. Stern says George Burnham and his brother, Jonathan, were prominent businessmen who led the industry and owned brickyards on the south side of the Menomonee River Valley that produced millions of cream bricks.
“[Cream City brick] really brought a lot of attention and renown to Milwaukee and helped us develop this identity,” Stern says. “People would come and visit and then write home about this beautiful yellow city, and it really kind of helped put Milwaukee on the map as the city was developing.”
Stern notes Milwaukee was the largest producer of the cream-colored bricks and later sent its popular bricks via railroad to East and West Coast cities to use as a “facing brick” for buildings. The industry lasted almost a century, and production ended in the late 1920s.
“Architectural trends had really changed by about the turn of the century, structures were starting to use marble and stone more prominently,” Stern says. “Also, it was easier to get red brick shipped via railroad… [and] a number of the clay deposits were just exhausted by about the turn of the century and the demand wasn't there for it as much anymore.”
The city’s ‘backbone’
Stern adds that a little-known fact about Milwaukee’s Cream City bricks is what some of the bricks are actually made of.
The Burnham brothers bought property on the south side of the Menomonee River Valley to build a brickyard in the 1860s. However, the property was on an old pioneer cemetery and Stern says supposedly all of the bodies were moved.
“Well, it turns out that not all of the bodies were moved,” Stern explains. “There are articles in the in the local papers of ‘Oh, workers at the Burnham brickyard discovered another bunch of bodies… and they're removing the larger bones they can get out of there, but the smaller ones, they're just grinding up to use as brick.”
Stern says people can take a closer look at a Cream City brick building and judge for themselves.
Check out the historic bricks
Although Milwaukee doesn’t have the same number of Cream City brick buildings as there were in the 19th century, people can still visit various structures today. Stern says Walker’s Point, Schlitz Park and the Pabst Brewery Complex are just a few examples that showcase numerous commercial and residential buildings made of cream brick.
Some cream-colored brick buildings might not glisten though – Cream City brick is known to easily pick up environmental damage if it hasn’t been cleaned over the years.
“Old St. Mary's Church downtown on Broadway is a great example of a building that hasn't been cleaned and it really wears its Cream City brick grittiness pretty well,” Stern says. “But then there are a number of buildings, especially over at the Pabst Brewery Complex that have recently been cleaned and look pretty shiny, almost as if they were put up within the past couple of years.”
Preserving the cream bricks
Mayor Cavaliear Johnson declared Sept. 8 as “Cream City Brick Day” in Milwaukee at a Cream City Brick symposium last month. The Brewhouse Inn & Suites, a hotel made of Cream City brick, was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places at the event.
Despite the two historic honors, Stern says there aren’t any current efforts to preserve the cream-colored buildings on a city-wide level.
“In order to have any sort of historic protection, a building would need to be locally designated at the city level,” Stern explains. “So just being placed on the National Register of Historic Places doesn't offer protection against demolition, but if a building or buildings are locally designated, then anytime demolition would be proposed, it would need to go to the historic preservation commission for review and discussion.”
Stern says it would be the responsibility of the private residential or commercial building owner of a Cream City brick building to care for it as they see fit.
“Cream City brick really put Milwaukee on the map,” Stern says, “It was sort of our badge of honor for a lot of the 19th century. It's important to celebrate that and work towards preserving those that are still here so that future generations can take a look and say, ‘Wow, that building's been here for 150 years, and it was part of our historic fabric,’ and just celebrate the architectural history and the industrial history of the city of Milwaukee.”