Lasting Legacy of Beautiful Tile: Celebrating a Lost Community Treasure on Oct. 17 at City Hall

“South Milwaukee influenced the built environment of this area as much as anyone in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.”

Ben Tyjeski shared that sentiment with me at a lunch recently, and he was referring to the beautiful tile that came from Continental Faience and Tile Co., which was located near 9th and Menomonee Avenue until it was razed more than a decade ago. The building also made history as home to the Lawson Airline Co., where one of the nation’s first airliners was built.

Ben’s love is tile, and this local artist, author and historian is presenting on the legacy of Continental Faience and Tile at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 17, at City Hall. Mark your calendars and join us for this detailed look at what was made in South Milwaukee, and where you can still that tile today.

(Note the date change; the event was originally set a week earlier.)

Ben, a Milwaukee Public Schools art teacher when he is not immersing himself in this topic, is finishing a book now on the subject.

More details here. From the description …

Continental is responsible for tile installations in hundreds of buildings all across Wisconsin, and was used by architects such as Eschweiler, Russell Barr Willliamson, George Zagel, and even Frank Lloyd Wright. Continental’s major product was unglazed mosaic tile that was flashed by the fire in the kiln to produce warm earth tones in orange and buff hues. These tiles were commonly used in foyers and fireplace hearths, sometimes creating patterns and borders in which decorative glazed insert tiles were featured.

This fascinating history of how the tile company came into being and transformed Wisconsin tile-making is the feature of my new book: Continental Faience & Tile Company.  I am creating the book with two experts, Kelly Dudley and Kathy Roberts.  Together we are writing, documenting, and designing a book that will be the definitive reference book on Continental Faience and Tile Company.

Our collaboration began in the summer of 2018. While working on my book on architectural terra cotta I began to notice tile installations and began to dig into the subject. I quickly discovered Kelly Dudley and Kathy Roberts, a Phoenix, Arizona couple who have been collecting and researching Continental since the mid-1990s. Their passion for tiles and Continental have led them around the US and to Belgium, although it began in South Milwaukee on a visit to Kathy’s family.  On that trip Kathy was astounded to discover that the empty warehouse building at the end of her block of Menomonee Avenue was at one time the factory and show room of a tile company, something she was unaware of while growing up. Whitney Gould wrote a fantastic article for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in 2005, featuring the factory building and the kaleidoscope of tiles inside.

We have now located approximately 250 sites containing Continental tile, from Wisconsin to Florida. The search continues, with the hope of locating Continental tile in all 50 states. Installations include schools, churches, homes, storefronts, theaters, and municipal buildings. While most of these sites feature floor tile, others include fireplaces, fountains, pools, and wainscotings with compelling, decorative appeal. Most surprising about these sites is that many of them were built in the 1930s, during the Great Depression that saw many other tile manufacturers go out of business. Documenting these sites has been a privilege.  Having a mental library of all their work really makes you believe in the influence and impact of art tile.  However, these sites that make you appreciate local culture and community may not last, especially if the public is not educated about them.  

You can get that education on October 17. See you there!

5 Comments

Filed under South Milwaukee

5 responses to “Lasting Legacy of Beautiful Tile: Celebrating a Lost Community Treasure on Oct. 17 at City Hall

  1. DHH

    That building should NEVER have been razed. The City Council members of the time should be ashamed of themselves! Then, to add insult to injury, the condo builders have the audacity to call their complex “Heritage Preserve.” They could have easily left the historic building alone. The land is just a weed infested eyesore now and was not, and is not needed, for the condos.

    • Mary C Nelson

      DHH—This is exactly what is happening to the Lagoon right now. The Lagoon and Dam were created for the purpose of developing what became eventually South Milwaukee. No foresight by our City’s leaders.

      • I’d offer that (finally) planning for the long-term investment necessary in the Oak Creek watershed is the opposite of “no foresight.” It’s what will lead to its rebirth. But it will take time, and millions of dollars.

  2. Frank Gratke

    The South Eastern Wisconsin Planing Commission Oak Creek Watershed study is due for a public update. Generally,Oak Creek City Hall or South Milwaukee City Hall is the location. I very much urge people to come on out to the meeting. This is where I believe, the key issues will be discussed. The more people the more credence the discussion is given.

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