Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Familiar with all those warmly glazed and intricately detailed art tiles that decorate historical Milwaukee Public Schools buildings? There are stories behind them, and Garland School art teacher Ben Tyjeski tells one that’s little known in a new book.
The book is “Carl Bergmans and the Continental Faience & Tile Co.,” about a Belgian immigrant and his South Milwaukee company that sent tiles to every state east of the Mississippi River and many, many tiles to Milwaukee Public Schools (and other school districts).
It’s the only book devoted to the prolific tile and pottery company, which opened in 1925. Since Continental’s heyday, knowledge of the company largely has been lost to the shrouds of time.
Deeply researched and illustrated with nearly 1,300 photographs, the coffee table book will be available at a launch party on Wednesday, December 6, from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. at the Bucyrus Club, 1919 12th Ave., South Milwaukee.
Continental tiles will be displayed for viewing at the book launch. Admission is free; the book is $60 and includes a bookmark. In addition to being sold at the launch party and through the website, continentalfaience.com, the book is available at Historic Milwaukee Inc.’s storefront at 235 E. Michigan St. and at the Urban Milwaukee store, 755 N. Milwaukee St.
Tyjeski collaborated on the book with co-authors Kelly Dudley and Kathy Roberts of Phoenix, longtime collectors of Continental tiles. Dudley and Roberts had been researching Bergmans since the 1990s.
The couple had secured interviews with former employees of Continental and also tracked down nearly 25 years of letters in Belgium between Bergmans and Belgian novelist Marie Gevers, as well as correspondence between Bergmans and architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Continental closed in 1943, after shifting from making tiles to making pottery. It had survived the Great Depression but was unable to make it through the worker shortage of World War II.
MPS was a big reason why Continental weathered the Depression of the 1930s.
“They hired Continental more than any other school district,” Tyjeski said. “They were one of the largest contracts for the company, so MPS has a lot of Continental tiles.”
It was an era when Milwaukee was booming and schools were built to last. “You want to afford the best things possible, so they could be permanent,” Tyjeski said. The school district also made an effort to support local businesses during the country’s worst economic downturn, he said.
Continental tile can be seen in the lobby at Milwaukee French Immersion School (the Revolutionary War tiles were designed by local artist Gertrude “Tula” Erskine and produced in South Milwaukee) and in the green tiles in the hallways and at the bubblers.
Continental’s work also can be found in MacDowell Montessori School, Rufus King International High School, Pulaski High School, Washington High School, and the now-vacant Emanuel Philipp School, in addition to many MPS elementary schools.
It took some detective work to determine which tiles are Continental’s. Many companies produced tile in the U.S. in the early 1900s, and MPS bought tiles from a number of them over the years.
“It helps to have a trained eye,” Tyjeski said. “You begin to see the Continental signatures.” Two distinctive characteristics of the company’s tiles include what he called “the melted butter glazes,” matte crystalline glaze that looks like browned butter.
A second signature found in the illustrated tiles is carved-out backgrounds, with textures carved into them.
Although Continental tile was widely sold in the eastern U.S., it’s primarily found in eastern Wisconsin, from Manitowoc to Kenosha.
“There’s Continental tiles all over the place,” Tyjeski said. “Any neighborhood built in the late ‘20s or ‘30s has Continental tile in it – it’s so widespread.”
The book contains photos of tilework in MPS buildings but also Continental tile installations from as far as Florida, Ohio, Minnesota, and Illinois.
Tyjeski wrote “Carl Bergmans and the Continental Faience & Tile Co.” not only because of his interest in the topic but to encourage the preservation and salvaging of the tile. It’s often removed and discarded when homes and other buildings are remodeled, he said.
“It’s such a loss,” Tyjeski said. Even though he and others craft tiles today, they’re not the same. “We can’t get this stuff back. It’s unique to another time.”
Tyjeski, who’s in his ninth year of teaching at Garland School, makes tiles by hand in his free time and sells them through his website, tyjeskitile.com. The Continental book is his fourth; he previously wrote books on tile and decorative terra cotta and has more books in the works.
“It’s more than a hobby; it’s a passion. It’s the artist in me. The stuff is so beautiful,” he said.
People can sign up to receive his free quarterly newsletter. Tyjeski also writes the Tile Town column for Urban Milwaukee, about tile in Milwaukee from the Arts and Crafts era of the early 1900s.