Author Chronicles Milwaukee’s Beautiful Terra Cotta
Distinctive building ornamentation exhaustively documented by Ben Tyjeski in new book.
Ben Tyjeski wears a lot of hats. He’s a Milwaukee Public Schools art teacher, ceramics sculptor, architectural history tour guide, and now a published author.
Thursday evening, Tyjeski will release his 226-page examination of terra cotta in Milwaukee at a special event at Var Gallery (643 S. 2nd St., 5-7 p.m.). The incredibly thorough book, which includes over 300 color photographs and 195 written capsules on buildings, chronicles the history of the clay-based building material that adorns many of Milwaukee’s historic structures.
The book, Architectural Terra Cotta of Milwaukee County, documents the 480 Milwaukee County structures that have architectural terra cotta, 340 of which are still standing. Some have been stripped of much of their ornament, including the Wells Building, others like Milwaukee City Hall have recently undergone extensive renovation.
Tyjeski has been working on the book since 2013, having traveled across the Midwest to scour corporate records and worked around his full-time job at MPS. “This book is as much for Chicagoans as it is for Milwaukeeans,” jokes Tyjeski, noting that much of the terra cotta was created by firms based in Chicago and other midwestern cities. His research was based on exploring corporate records at the Chicago History Museum, examining building permits on file with the City of Milwaukee, searching a past national terra cotta survey at the University of Minnesota and countless hours spent reading old newspapers.
He hopes readers of the book come to better appreciate the built environment. “I hope that they take away that buildings used to be built by hand,” says Tyjeski. He notes builders used to construct buildings to be beautiful for future generations, and that the same can be true today. “Terra cotta’s never out of fashion, it can be formed into anything,” the sculptor states, while citing a new building in Washington D.C. that combines terra cotta with an ultra-modern glass facade. Locally, The Contour, an apartment building being constructed on N. Prospect Ave. is slated to include terra cotta in its facade.
Yet, although the material is finding a home in modern architecture, it’s not made by hand anymore. The made-by-hand nature of terra cotta gave way to a push to mechanize America following The Great Depression according to Tyjeski. New buildings built out of simpler materials were not only cheaper, but also served to symbolize the power of machines and American power.
The young author didn’t invent an entirely new form to write his book. He’s well versed in those that came before him, including treating H. Russell Zimmermann‘s Heritage Guidebook as a “benchmark” on how to put together a quality survey.
A Wisconsin Rapids native, Tjyeski graduated from UW-Milwaukee in 2012 with a degree in ceramics and art education. He gained a growing appreciation for the work by walking and biking around the city.
Outside of writing the book and teaching art to Milwaukee children, the terra-cotta enthusiast is honing his own skills with the material. He rents studio space at Var Gallery, operating under the aptly named Tyjeski Terra Cotta Works. His recent pieces, which are low fire terra cotta not designed for outdoor installation, include animals found in the wild in Wisconsin, including a striking mallard. Still, just like the sculptors whose work he admires, Tyjeski admits he likes molding a dragon or two from time to time. “I can’t help it,” he jokes.
Tyjeski doesn’t intend this book to be his last. He’s already working on another book covering the work of the Continental Faience and Tile Company of South Milwaukee.
643 S. 2nd St.
Milwaukee, WI 53204
5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Book price: $59.95
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