By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Nov 06, 2023 at 9:02 AM

A few years ago local artist and teacher Ben Tyjeski published a comprehensive look at Milwaukee's architectural terra-cotta.

That book – "Architectural Terra Cotta of Milwaukee County" – was a real eye-opener to the sheer quantity and quality of ornamental terra cotta adorning buildings all around us.

Tyjeski also published a look into the artistry and history of
"The Animal Tiles at East High" in Wausau.

For his latest monograph, "The Bertelson Building: A Story in Terra Cotta," he takes a deeper dive into the beautiful East Side Bertelson Building, 2101-2111 N. Prospect Ave.

In addition to tracing the story of the stunning building, Tyjeski – a tilemaker and MPS art teacher – describes the beautiful building, which some may remember as home to the Avant Garde Coffee House and which now houses 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 such a great overview of terra cotta in Milwaukee a few years ago, did you always plan to pull out one of the places and go deeper on it?

Ben Tyjeski: Thank you Bobby!  A few years ago, this specific book on the Bertelson building was not on my project list.  In fact, the Milwaukee terra cotta book was intended to be the first in a multi-volume set on architectural terra cotta in Wisconsin. 

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

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

Yes!  Since the first book, several stories about terra cotta have developed based on Milwaukee and throughout the state of Wisconsin, as well as others about faience art tiles. Some are focused on neighborhoods while others are on specific architects.  

One project I have been working on is about Milwaukee’s Westown neighborhood and how its terra-cotta buildings were inspired by the Chicago World Fair.  

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

The Bertelson Building was the first building where I became aware of architectural terra cotta.  My apartment was located two blocks away, and my ceramics classroom was located on the other side of the trail at UWM’s Kenilworth Building. I walked past this building all the time during my college years. 

My professor, Chris Davis-Benavides, revealed to me that the building was not made of stone but rather terra cotta.  This changed my world. I grew a fondness for its ceramic decorations, seeing how the portraits, the fantastic beasts, and critters were sculpted by hand in clay much like the sculpture I was creating in the classroom studio with plaster molds. It also taught me that buildings in Wisconsin were made with such beauty as well, not just in places far away.

Although my story with terra cotta began with the Bertelson, the reason why this building was featured in a book of its own was due to my friend, jewelry maker and goldsmith Paloma Wilder.  She opened her studio and shop for the Historic Milwaukee, Inc. Doors Open event this year. 

When she told me that she was featuring the Bertelson Building for the event, the idea of the book transpired. I’m not sure this would have happened if it were another site, but since this building was so important to my story as an artist and historian, the creation of the book happened at full speed.

Can you describe the building a bit for folks who maybe don't realize yet that they know it?

The Bertelson is comparable to the Watts Tea Store Building by The Pfister Hotel, but it has its own, unique façade.  You would recognize its Mission/Spanish Revival style, situated on the corner on Prospect Avenue near UWM’s Kenilworth Building and the Lafayette Towers.  

The façade is completely clad in terra cotta with rough textured units that imitate stucco.  Its arched doors and windows are encrusted with terra-cotta designs of portraits, children playing with baskets of fruit, squirrels, beasts, and many other creatures.  Hopefully people will recognize those, and if they haven't, they certainly will after looking at my book.

It's got an interesting history, too, doesn't it, with the Avant Garde, etc.?

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

The Bertelson is an especially elaborate example, but at the time it was built, terra cotta decoration had really become popular, hadn't it? Why do you think it was used to so often?

Even for a terra-cotta building of its time, the intricate details on the Bertelson were an exception. Property owners were looking for these types of buildings in the late 1920s. And many terra-cotta buildings were demonstrating the creative potential of the material during this time. 

The terra cotta industry had been around for approximately 60 years then, and had developed hundreds of glazes, colors, textures and finishes, and were capable of producing various styles of ornament, including Art Deco.  If I could live in any time period of the past, it would have been this time; it must have been a spectacle watching these rainbow buildings being erected. 

So, I think the marvel of the material must have attracted other builders in the industry during the late 1920s, but this rise to fame for terra cotta was that it provided fireproof cladding for steel-frame structures, and was lighter weight and quicker to produce that cut and chiseled stone. Buildings could also be branded with custom terra-cotta plaques depicting the name of a company or building, as is the case with the Bertelson.  

Why did that come to an end?

The decline of terra cotta is a long subject that stirs me up thinking of changes in culture, social beliefs and society values that affected our built-environment, unfortunately to this day.  The product was not perfect either, and even though terra cotta evolved with Modern architecture, its demand decreased due to a preference for concrete and innovations such as vinyl and vitrolite, and eventually, glass architecture. 

What the Bertelson Building represents is something that is lost in architecture today, a type of building material that allows for human connection. The Bertelson is a handmade building where we can see ourselves in the material of the structure. We can see how wire tools were scratched into the clay, how modelers pressed their fingers to sculpt the portraits and animals, and how the scale of the units are small enough so you can imagine yourself picking them up and positioning them between mortar.

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

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

My next book is about something different: faience art tiles made in South Milwaukee.  The title is "Carl Bergmans and the Continental Faience & Tile Co.," and I did this book with two co-authors, Kelly Dudley and Kathy Roberts. 

There are many lavishly colored photographs in this book that show their products, process and factory, as well as many installations with their tiles through southeast Wisconsin and the country. The book is also a biography about the company’s President and General Manager Carl Bergmans, and tells his fascinating story using quotes from letters he wrote to Belgian author Marie Gevers, as well as other notable individuals such as Frank Lloyd Wright. 

The work to compile the content in this book began over 25 years ago when Kelly and Kathy began exploring the Continental factory grounds in South Milwaukee, so with my addition to the team six years ago, we are all very excited to release this book and help give attention to this important Arts & Crafts story. 

The book will be released Dec. 6 from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Bucyrus Club in South Milwaukee.  I hope to see you there!

How can people buy the Bertelson book? 

Books can be purchased online at for $15 plus tax & shipping, or they can be purchased in-person at Paloma Wilder's shop or Bert's Hair Design Studio inside the Bertelson Building during their open 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. shop on Broadway and Michigan.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.