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