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The Blatz Condos are one of many Cream City Brick buildings still standing. (PHOTO: bricksalvage.com)

Cream City Brick: Building blocks of Milwaukee


It's often said that Milwaukee was built by immigrants. In the first half of the 20th century, waves of German, Polish, Irish and others looking to find a better life laid the foundation for the Milwaukee of 2008.

And to build the city, those immigrants used Cream City Brick.

The yellow brick is found in buildings all over Milwaukee: Downtown; in the Third and Fifth Wards; even out in the suburbs. The building blocks of Milwaukee are still standing strong and doing their job. The bricks are as synonymous with Milwaukee history as beer, socialism and Summerfest ... and in many ways, have outlasted many of the city's institutions.

The bricks were so connected with Milwaukee that the city's fist major league baseball team bore their name. The Milwaukee Cream Citys lasted just one season (1878) in the National League, posting a 15-45 record.

A majority of the buildings constructed in Milwaukee during the later part of the 19th century used the bricks, giving the early Milwaukee skyline a light-yellow shine that led to the "Cream City" nickname.

The brick-making boom hit its pinnacle between 1840 and 1870. Brickyards popped up all over the area. The city's proximity to the lake made shipping easy and convenient. Area harbors, especially the one in South Milwaukee, sent many boats loaded with the bricks to places around the Great Lakes. The growth of the railroads also made it possible for buildings in New York and Chicago to utilize the construction material. There are even buildings in Hamburg, Germany, made with the bricks.

As the turn of the century passed, advances in construction methods and improved materials -- like concrete and steel -- brought an end to Milwaukee's brick-making heyday.

The geology of the Milwaukee area made the bricks a matter of convenience. There was an abundant supply of the clay used to make the bricks in the Menomonee River Valley and along the Lake Michigan Shore.

The Red Lacustrine clay contains high amounts of lime and sulfur. When the bricks were put into a furnace to be fired and dried, they take on the creamy yellow color.

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Talkbacks

arks00 | Jan. 23, 2008 at 11:22 a.m. (report)

great article Andrew. I am in the middle of designing a project that involves Milwaukee and the Cream City bricks were the first thing I thought of when thinking of a color scheme. Thanks for the further knowledge on the topic, it solidifies the direction I am taking the project and now adds a nice historical perspective on it.

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hardgeminiguy | Jan. 22, 2008 at 12:45 p.m. (report)

the cream city bricks turned black from coal furnace burning. the bricks absorbed the smoke in the air. painted bricks did not get black. and paint is easy to clean off compared to the coal smoke in the bricks. coal dirt is nearly impossible to fully clean with chemicals and water blasting. yes--a huge mistake to sand blast cream city brick as the protective outer coat is removed, allowing water entering and freezing in winter with the bricks starting to crumble. i live in a 1881 cream city house in brewers' hill--my house was painted when it was built, thankfully. so no black brick. i chemically/water blasted the houses front brick. it looks original now. also, cream city brick making stopped at the turn of 20th century, i am told, do to all of the good clay being used up in the memononie valley. and there was a similiar vain in the whitewater area. that is why one sees cream city brick buildings there. jerry johnson thank-you.

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