By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Jan 22, 2008 at 5:23 AM

It's often said that Milwaukee was built by immigrants. In the first half of the 20th century, waves of German, Polish, Irish and others looking to find a better life laid the foundation for the Milwaukee of 2008.

And to build the city, those immigrants used Cream City Brick.

The yellow brick is found in buildings all over Milwaukee: Downtown; in the Third and Fifth Wards; even out in the suburbs. The building blocks of Milwaukee are still standing strong and doing their job. The bricks are as synonymous with Milwaukee history as beer, socialism and Summerfest ... and in many ways, have outlasted many of the city's institutions.

The bricks were so connected with Milwaukee that the city's fist major league baseball team bore their name. The Milwaukee Cream Citys lasted just one season (1878) in the National League, posting a 15-45 record.

A majority of the buildings constructed in Milwaukee during the later part of the 19th century used the bricks, giving the early Milwaukee skyline a light-yellow shine that led to the "Cream City" nickname.

The brick-making boom hit its pinnacle between 1840 and 1870. Brickyards popped up all over the area. The city's proximity to the lake made shipping easy and convenient. Area harbors, especially the one in South Milwaukee, sent many boats loaded with the bricks to places around the Great Lakes. The growth of the railroads also made it possible for buildings in New York and Chicago to utilize the construction material. There are even buildings in Hamburg, Germany, made with the bricks.

As the turn of the century passed, advances in construction methods and improved materials -- like concrete and steel -- brought an end to Milwaukee's brick-making heyday.

The geology of the Milwaukee area made the bricks a matter of convenience. There was an abundant supply of the clay used to make the bricks in the Menomonee River Valley and along the Lake Michigan Shore.

The Red Lacustrine clay contains high amounts of lime and sulfur. When the bricks were put into a furnace to be fired and dried, they take on the creamy yellow color.

The bricks were attractive in color and also a diversion from the more commonly-found red brick. They maintained great strength and durability over time and were weather-resistant, making them a top export for the young economy.

By the 1850s, the bricks had achieved a reputation throughout the Midwest, partially because of their color, but also because they were well-known for their durability, strength and ability to stand up to the unpredictable and often harsh nature of the Midwest climate.

Because of that, a number of Lake Michigan lighthouses were built with the bricks. The Lighthouse Depot was based in Milwaukee and responsible for the construction of some of the more remote facilities on the lake, which also added to the bricks' popularity. The Depot hired local masons, which purchased from local suppliers.

The Kenosha Southport Lighthouse, the White River Lighthouse in Whitehall, Mich., and Door County's Eagle Bluff Lighthouse, built in 1868, are among those that remain standing. In addition, a number of communities along the lake both in Wisconsin and Michigan still have buildings made with brick made in Milwaukee.

The M.S. Scott, which is listed as one of the first ships to ever leave Milwaukee for a foreign port, is said to have carried a load of the bricks when it left the harbor in 1859.

The porous nature of the bricks means that they absorb dirt and other pollutants. Over time, the yellow and cream colors of the bricks gave way to a darker, dirtier look.

This posed a problem in the 1970s, as restoration projects needed to find ways to clean the bricks. Sandblasting was a futile effort; it simply chipped away at the bricks and damaged them. Today, chemical treatments have been the most effective method of repair and cleaning. While it is an expensive undertaking, it has become the most accepted practice.

The restoration efforts and associated costs are paying off in the long run.

Today, Cream City Brick is just as much of a status symbol as it is a link to the city's heritage. The growth in popularity of Downtown, Third Ward and Fifth Ward apartments, lofts, condominiums and office space has also turned the brick into a selling point; an icon of Downtown living.

Diane Dietz-Artmann, a realtor with Shorewest, deals with many Downtown and East Side properties. She says that the bricks are a selling-point for those looking to move into those neighborhoods.

"It is very popular," Dietz-Artmann says. "Buyers love the exposed beams and exposed brick in the warehouse condo conversions."

Many of the first-generation apartments and condos that popped up Downtown had brick that was covered up by paint or other walls. It was around that time that builders and developers started to realize the bricks' popularity.

"In hindsight, it was a huge mistake," Dietz-Artmann says. "The majority of buyers comment 'That's too bad the brick is painted. What a shame.'"

Other companies have used the bricks to restore buildings for other uses. This is a common practice, especially when redeveloping old industrial and commercial properties for residential, retail and office uses.

Notable Milwaukee-area buildings with Cream City Brick

  • St. Hedwig's Church, 1716 N. Humboldt St.
  • Trinity Lutheran Church, 1046 N. 9th St.
  • Trimborn Farmhouse, 8881 W. Grange Ave., Greendale
  • Turner Hall, 1034 N. 4th St.
  • The Spice House, 1029 N. Old World Third St.
  • MSOE Humphrey House, 1200 N. Broadway
  • Blatz Condominums, 1101 N. Broadway
  • German-English Academy Building, 1020 N. Broadway