Cream City Brick artwork by Dan Atkinson. Photo by Erin Bayliss.

Cream City Brick artwork by Dan Atkinson as seen at the Newaukee Night Market. Photo by Erin Bayliss.

While beer made the Brew City famous, the literal foundation of those breweries and many historic buildings was much more solid: Cream City Bricks. It’s easy to find these warmly-colored building blocks while out around Milwaukee, most of Wisconsin, and the even throughout the Midwest.

Buildings in Ripon, WI built with Cream City Bricks (as seen on our Great Wisconsin Brewery Tour at Knuth Brewing).

Buildings in Ripon, WI built with Cream City Bricks (as seen on our Great Wisconsin Brewery Tour at Knuth Brewing).

Even before Schlitz, Pabst, Blatz, and Miller started sending their beer across the country, Milwaukee’s own Cream City Bricks were being used far and wide. Starting in the 1830s, the young and growing Milwaukee began utilizing the easily-accessible red lacustrine clay found in the Menomonee River Valley to build homes and business. The high lime and sulfur content of the clay, unusual properties not found elsewhere, turned the bricks a golden hue once fired in a kiln.

The Menomonee River Valley today. Photo by Aaron Volkening.

The Menomonee River Valley today. Photo by Aaron Volkening.

As a cheap, easy building material, Cream City Bricks were mined heavily until around 1900 when concrete became cheaper and more prevalent. However, the brick buildings still prevail in Milwaukee not simply because many have historic significance, but more so because of the properties of the bricks.

Miller beer is still brewed in mostly Cream City Brick buildings. Photo by Joe Powell.

Miller beer is still brewed in Cream City Brick buildings. Photo by Joe Powell.

They’re heartier than most bricks, standing up to the elements and maintaining their color and strength. Their one, and certainly most-visible downside, is their porosity, which allows the bricks to easily attract a thick coat of soot and dirt. Most old, dirty-looking buildings in Milwaukee are really beautifully-vibrant under that layer of grime.

Dirty Cream City Brick warehouses in a Walker's Point alley. Photo by Rob Gustafson Photography.

Dirty Cream City Brick warehouses in a Walker’s Point alley. Photo by Rob Gustafson Photography.

Though difficult to clean, there are now chemical processes commercially available that are bringing back the luster of many Milwaukee landmarks. The Cream City is demanding more of that original, historic color, and businesses and realtors are taking notice. You can tell how trendy a new part of town is by looking at the amount of Cream City Brick being restored; from the Third Ward to Walker’s Point, Brewer’s Hill to East Town.

Sanger House Gardens in Brewer's Hill. Photo by Joe Powell.

Sanger House Gardens in Brewer’s Hill. Photo by Joe Powell.

They don’t make original Cream City Bricks anymore, but as old buildings are torn down these bricks are both easy to repurpose and highly-sought. I got mine from the old Schlitz Brewhouse during deconstruction.

In honor of my grandfather's years of brewing service. Photo by Joe Powell. Bricks totally not stolen, I swear.

In honor of my grandfather’s years of brewing service. Photo by Joe Powell. Bricks totally not stolen, I swear.

Although better known as Brew City, Milwaukee will always hold the name Cream City thanks to these pearly building blocks.

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One thought on “Tell Me More: Cream City Brick

  1. Hey nephew,
    I really enjoy reading your blog. I wanted to let you know that the basement on Jackson st. Is Cream city brick and the garage which was built by your Greatgrandfather is entirely built with Cream city brick he carried home on the bus one brick at a time from work where they were demolishing buildings.

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