Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Conference Touts Milwaukee’s Cream City Brick, How To Preserve It

The brick that made Milwaukee famous requires special care when attempting to maintain or restore it.

By - Sep 8th, 2023 05:08 pm


Several dozen architects, developers, preservation consultants and history enthusiasts gathered Friday at Best Place at The Historic Pabst Brewery to celebrate the bricks that made Milwaukee famous, and discuss how to preserve it.

Mayor Cavalier Johnson even showed up, proclaiming the day Cream City Brick Day throughout Milwaukee.

The event was the first Cream City Brick Symposium, an event from the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance and AIA Milwaukee.

The cream-colored bricks clad many of the city’s 19th-century buildings. Made with Menomonee Valley clay, the distinctive brick became a defining architectural feature for the city and served as a regional export for decades. But you won’t find any new Cream City brick being made today, a result of a shift to mass production and easier-to-produce competitors.

“When you pick it up and hold, they’re not perfect. Every one is unique,” said Stephen Mar-Pohlpresident of InSite Consulting Architects, in a joint presentation with John Padberg of Berglund Construction. “It was relatively good material for the brick layers of the day to work with… It was relatively inexpensive.”

Using their different projects as case studies, Mar-Pohl and Padberg walked the audience through the dos and don’ts of repairing Cream City brick buildings.

“It sucks up water pretty good, but it also gets rid of it pretty well,” said Mar-Pohl. But that breaks down when you paint Cream City brick. Water gets trapped in. Padberg showed an image of a building with pealing paint and a failing facade, resulting in some members of the audience audibly gasping.

Mar-Pohl walked the audience through how to replace the mortar using a center cut technique and hand tools. “You typically don’t want to see Portland cement in these walls,” he said of a material that doesn’t work well with the porous bricks.

Padberg detailed different cleaning techniques. “Acid can destroy brick and mortar, or at least weaken it,” said Padberg. “On historic buildings, you can use alkaline with light afterwash.” But the two have a preferred solution: “the first best option is to simply leave it alone.”

That’s not what happened with the former Washington County Jailhouse in West Bend, now The Tower Heritage Center. “In the 1970s, they wanted to freshen up the jailhouse, so they power washed it,” said facility executive director Steve Stuckey. “The jailhouse, if you get up close to it, you would shed a tear.” He’s now leading an effort to preserve more of the building in accordance with its 1886 design.

Other presentations include Historic Preservation Commission senior planner Andrew Stern explaining the brick’s role in the city’s history.

Jim Haertel, owner of Best Place, led a tour of the complex in the afternoon.

The day concluded with a 10th-anniversary plaque presentation to the neighboring Brewhouse Inn & Suites, 1215 N. 10th St., one of several neighboring Cream City brick Pabst buildings saved after Joseph Zilber unveiled a plan in 2006 to turn the abandoned brewery into a mixed-use neighborhood.


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