I’ve always been a little awed by the terra cotta lion’s head in the front yard of a house on the West Side, knowing that it had for many decades adorned City Hall.
Seeing it up close, one gets a real sense of just how big these “little” details are when you see them nose to nose.
Another bit from the 1895 Henry C. Koch-designed Milwaukee landmark has been for sale in Facebook’s marketplace for a few months now.
City Hall was renovated over the course of a couple years, beginning in 2006, and a large part of the $60 million job was a complete, in-depth renovation of the bell tower. About 4,000 pieces of terra cotta were replaced as part of the work.
“There was a public auction several years ago,” says Department of Public Works spokesman Brian DeNeve, of the objects. “I’ve been told there is other material in storage we would like to make available again at some point.”
Carlen Hatala of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission says that she was told that in some cases, contractors sold pieces to the public, too.
“People were coming by and seeing the terra cotta pieces that had been removed,” she says. “They asked to purchase pieces and the crew obliged. In a typical demolition contract, contractors generally do claim any parts they want when taking down a building.”
This is how some people ended up with bits of the 1920 frieze from the facade of the former Journal Building in their gardens and living rooms, too.
She adds that there was also talk of saving some objects.
“We had an internal discussion about this and ... we thought pieces that were removed should be preserved. Some were indeed preserved, (including) one complete terra cotta gable end, and stored by DPW.”
The finial is from the building’s soaring tower and there are two on each side, just above and to the left and right of each clock face, flanking the gable above.
According to terra cotta expert Ben Tyjeski, the terra cotta details were made by St. Louis’ Winkle Terra Cotta Company.
“Sculptural ornament representing creatures of the fairy-tale realm enchant the building’s exterior,” he wrote in his encyclopedic book, “Architectural Terra Cotta of Milwaukee County.”
“Grotesques screeching and smiling with their tongues out adorn imposts and the parapet. A frieze of dragons show their chests puffed, necks curled back and jaws opened wide as if they are about to breathe fire. Portraits of growling jackals overlook the skyline. Lion heads decorate the cornices and various spandrels.
“The tower and its entire bestiary, was the tallest in the nation when completed in 1895. At this time, few other buildings had featured terra-cotta masonry at such an elevation.”
The replacement terra cotta, says Tyjeski, were made by Gladding McBean.
According to the Facebook marketplace post, the finial – which we tend to think of as a delicate little decorative object – that's currently for sale is 6 feet tall and weighs 800 pounds. Even though it comes in three separate pieces, the seller says a forklift is required to move it.
Asking price is $1,800 and you can find it here. The seller confirmed today that the object is still available.
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 OnMilwaukee.com 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 can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.