Milwaukee is known for a lot of architectural gems — cream city brick, the Calatrava, Frank Lloyd Wright designed homes, and on a smaller scale, its bungalows. This style of house can be found all over the Milwaukee area and typically have one, or more, classic stained glass window incorporated into its design.
The windows leave their mark on those living in the bungalows — especially on Kirsten Boeh. She recently reached out to Bubbler Talk with questions:
"What’s the story with the ubiquitous stained glass in classic MKE Bungalows? Who designed them, are there repeats, any meaning in them?"
This topic hits very close to home for me. I grew up in a Milwaukee bungalow with stained glass and two of my sisters and I have matching tattoos of the design. It’s a piece of home anywhere we go, whether we still live in Milwaukee or in California. So naturally, I had to help answer this question for Kirsten.
Most bungalows in Milwaukee were built from the early 1900s to the 1940s.
"One of the concepts that was developing in the teens and into the '20s was the one-stop shop that you could contract with this company to get your lot, build a house," explains Carlen Hatala, senior planner in historic preservation with the city of Milwaukee.
Since many bungalows were built on the spot through a contractor, she says there's a lot of repetition in design and layout — and lots of elements came together to create a kind of bungalow boom.
"I think there's so many things that coincided together: The population boom in the early 20th century, the need for housing, the concentration of talented immigrants who could work in the millwork companies producing the beautiful woodwork in the houses — stained glass that accompanied that," Carlen explains. "And it was something that people desired.”
The living and dining rooms are the showcase rooms in bungalows. They're filled with great woodwork, arches dividing the rooms, built-in buffets or china cabinets, swinging butler doors, piano windows, and more. Typically the buffets and butler doors incorporated a stained glass theme found in the front window(s).
"[The windows] create a barrier. But again, it's the sense of artistry that's in there [that] was very pleasing to people," says Carlen. "And they that's what they wanted for a long, you know, a number of decades at least ... I'm just amazed at what was produced here.”
Elements like woodwork and brick laying would be done on-site. But all stained glass windows were ordered by contractors from stained glass studios, where frame sizes tended to be a little more standardized, according to Andrew Paremski. He's the CEO and lead craftsman of Enterprise Art Glass Works, Inc. in Hales Corners. The company has been in business since 1903.
"Milwaukee had a ton of stained glass studios. Honestly, there was 30, 40 producing stained glass studios in Milwaukee in the downtown area and surrounding area. It was massive," says Andrew. "From stained glass, clear, leaded glass, beveled glass, storefront prisms to church windows – there was a need for everything."
Clear and colored glass was ordered from large manufacturing companies throughout the country. The raw elements were put together by window companies in Milwaukee according to catalog or custom designs. There are hundreds of beautiful designs featured in stained glass catalogs.
One of the primary companies producing stained glass was Kokomo Opalescent Glass out of Kokomo, Ind., Andrew says. During the 1890s there were three art glass companies located in Milwaukee. Then just prior to World War I, six downtown firms were listed in Milwaukee's city directory, Carlen adds.
These companies included Milwaukee Mirror and Art Glass Works, Columbia Stained Glass and Decorating Company, and Niedecken-Walbridge Company — best known for in-house cabinet making and founder George Niedecken's collaboration with Frank Lloyd Wright and other Prairie School architects.
By the 1970s, Carlen notes that only Columbia Stained Glass Company remained in business. Today, there are no major manufacturers of art glass in Milwaukee, although small craftsmen shops remain.
The stained glass was relevant to the arts and crafts period of the time, then on into the Prairie style, says Andrew. He thinks people's connection to stained glass historically came into play largely because of religion.
"I think the beauty and the calmness that stained glass provides to a home would be reminiscent to how they felt when they were at church," he says. "It just gives a certain ambiance to a home that you can't get from anything else ... it's just a beautiful thing."
But after World War II, housing construction became faster and cheaper. On-site woodwork and ornate windows just weren't a financial or visual priority anymore, Carlen explains.
"There was such a demand for housing after the war because of the Depression that had preceded it. It's get them out as fast as you can crank them out. All these people want to start families and just boom, everything just exploded," she says.
This led to the creation of suburbs and construction companies investing in prefabricated homes nationwide.
Kirsten Boeh says her home was completed in the spring of 1920. When she and her husband Henry were house hunting, their bungalow had all the historical elements they were looking for to make them feel at home, especially the stained glass windows.
"I really liked the kind of floral motif and then we also realize that it sort of looked like ... The flowers in Super Mario Brothers … so it kind of matched us perfectly," she says. "You kind of knew it was meant to be."
Milwaukee bungalows are something special that have stood the test of time. So whether you're in a home that's been taken care of for over 100 years, or lovingly restoring one — if the stained glass windows remain, you have a piece of colorful history.
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