Tyjeski turns the focus to the stunning terra cotta in the Bertelson Building

Tyjeski turns the focus to the stunning terra cotta in the Bertelson Building

A few years ago, local artist and educator Ben Tejeski published a comprehensive look at architectural clay in Milwaukee.

This book – “Architectural Terra Cotta in Milwaukee County” – came as a real surprise to the sheer quantity and quality of decorative terra cotta adorning buildings all around us.

Tyjeski also published a look at art and history
“Animal Tile of the East High” in Wausau.

For his latest study, “The Bertelson Building: A Story in Terra Cotta,” he delved deeper into the beautiful East Side Bertelson Building, 2101-2111 N. Prospect Street.

In addition to tracing the story of the stunning building, Tyjeski — a tile maker and art teacher at MPS — describes the beautiful building, which some may remember as home to Avant Garde Coffee House and which now houses the Strange Town restaurant and other businesses.

We asked Tyjeski about the book, the building, and another important book he’s been working on that’s due out soon.

OnMilwaukee: You wrote a great overview of terra cotta in Milwaukee a few years ago, did you always plan to pull out a place and dive in?

Ben Tejeski: Thank you Bobby! A few years ago, this particular book about the Bertelson Building wasn’t on my project list. In fact, The Book of Milwaukee Terra Cotta was intended to be the first in a multi-volume collection on architectural terra cotta in Wisconsin.

This initial idea was a bit ambitious, and the challenge with this format is that it doesn’t allow for special attention to be paid to the stories I want to present in more detail.

Can we hope this is just the first of more to come?


Yes! Since the first book, many stories have been developed about terra cotta based in Milwaukee and throughout Wisconsin, as well as other stories about artistic faience tiles. Some focus on neighborhoods while others focus on specific architects.

One project I’ve been working on is about the Westown neighborhood in Milwaukee and how its adobe buildings were inspired by the Chicago World’s Fair.

It’s amazingly beautiful, of course, but why did you choose this one first? What makes the Bertelson Building so special?

The Bertilson Building was the first building in which I became aware of the art of terracotta architecture. My apartment was two blocks away, and my ceramics class was across the road in the Kenilworth Building at the University of Wisconsin. I walked past this building all the time during my college years.

My teacher, Chris Davis-Benavides, revealed to me that the building was not made of stone but of clay. This is not universal. I grew fond of his ceramic decorations, seeing how images, fantastic beasts and creatures were hand-sculpted in clay just like the sculpture I was creating in the classroom studio using plaster molds. It also taught me that buildings in Wisconsin were built with such beauty as well, and not just in far away places.

Although my story with terra cotta began with Bertelson, the reason this building appears in a book of its own is because of my friend, jeweler and jeweler Paloma Wilder. She opened her studio and shop for the Historic Milwaukee, Inc. event. Doors Open this year.

When she told me she was showcasing the Bertelson Building for this event, the idea for the book came about. I’m not sure this would have happened if it had been another location, but because this building was so important to my story as an artist and historian, the book was created at full speed.

Can you describe the building a little bit for people who may not yet realize they know it?

The Bertelson can be compared to The Pfister’s Watts Tea Store building, but it has its own unique facade. You’ll recognize the Spanish-style Mission/Revival, located on the corner of Prospect Avenue near UWM’s Kenilworth Building and Lafayette Towers.

The facade is completely clad in terracotta with rough-textured units imitating plaster. Its arched doors and windows are covered with terracotta designs of children playing with fruit baskets, squirrels, monsters, and many other creatures. Hopefully people will recognize these things, and if they don’t, they certainly will after seeing my book.


It has an interesting history too, doesn’t it, with the Avant Garde, etc.?

Many tenants have come and gone from Bertelson, including Avant Garde Coffee House, which could be a book of its own. But this book focuses on the building’s original owners, Helen Bertelson and her son Ben. They ran a photography business and were so successful that they were able to erect this expensive building with the fruits of their labor. The book tells the history of their business and also showcases the current tenants.

Bertelson is a particularly elaborate example, but at the time it was built, terra cotta decorations were really popular, right? Why do you think it was used so often?

Even for adobe buildings of the time, Bertelson’s intricate detailing was an exception. Realtors were looking for these types of buildings in the late 1920s. Many buildings made of clay demonstrated the creative potential of the material during this time.

The terra cotta industry has been around for nearly 60 years, has developed hundreds of types of glazes, colors, textures and finishes, and has been able to produce many different styles of decoration, including Art Deco. If I could live in any time period in the past, this would be the present; It must have been an amazing sight to watch these rainbow buildings being constructed.

So, I think the splendor of the material must have attracted other builders into the industry during the late 1920s, but terracotta’s rise to fame was because it provided a fire-resistant cladding for steel frame structures, and it was lighter and quicker to produce that cut and carved stone. Buildings can also be marked with custom terracotta plaques depicting the name of the company or building, as is the case with the Bertelson Hotel.

Why did this come to an end?

The decline of terracotta is a long topic that gets me thinking about the changes in culture, social beliefs and societal values ​​that have sadly affected our built environment to this day. The product was not perfect either, and although terra cotta evolved with modern architecture, demand for it declined due to the preference for concrete and innovations such as vinyl, vitrolite, and eventually glass engineering.

What the Bertelson Building represents is something missing in architecture today, a kind of building material that allows for human connection. Bertelson is a handcrafted building where we can see ourselves in the material of the structure. We can see how the wire tools were scratched into the clay, how the designers pressed their fingers to sculpt images and animals, and how the size of the units is small enough that you can imagine yourself picking them up and placing them between the mortar.

Contemporary building materials do not have the human touch, a quality that Bertelson has and for this reason, it will always catch our attention.


I know you’re working on another book that’s due out relatively soon. What can you tell us about that?

My next book is about something different: artistic faience tiles made in South Milwaukee. The title is “Carl Bergmans and the Continental Faience & Tile Co.” She wrote this book with co-authors, Kelly Dudley and Cathy Roberts.

There are many lavishly colored photographs in this book showing their products, operations, and factory, as well as their many courtyard installations across southeastern Wisconsin and the country. The book is also a biography of the company’s president and general manager, Karl Bergmans, and tells his fascinating story using quotes from letters he wrote to the Belgian writer Marie Jeffers, as well as other notable individuals such as Frank Lloyd Wright.

The work on compiling the content in this book began over 25 years ago when Kelly and Cathy began exploring the Continental factory grounds in south Milwaukee, so with my addition to the team six years ago, we’re all very excited to release this book and help bring this Arts and Crafts story to life. This mission.

The book launch will take place on December 6 from 4-7pm at the Bucyrus Club in South Milwaukee. Hope to see you there!

How can people buy Bertelson’s book?

Books can be purchased online at tyjeskitile.com/books for $15 plus tax and shipping, or can be purchased in person at the Paloma Wilder Boutique or Bert’s Hair Design Studio inside the Bertelson Building during business hours. It is a limited print so interested buyers may not want to wait long. The book is also available downtown at the Historic Milwaukee Inc. store. On Broadway and Michigan.

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