Updated: May 30
Throughout Whitewater’s historic buildings, one common element stands out, the use of cream colored bricks. Much of the downtown is constructed of these bricks and many of the city’s most historic houses are constructed of bricks. These bricks are often commonly and incorrectly called “cream city bricks,” named for the cream-colored bricks produced in Milwaukee, which was nicknamed the “cream city” because of their extensive use there. It is, perhaps, not as well known that Whitewater had a thriving brick industry, an industry that also produced cream colored bricks and that most of the Whitewater’s old brick buildings are constructed of this local “Whitewater brick.”
The reason historic bricks took on certain hues was because early brick makers used local clays. In south central and southeastern Wisconsin, there were significant concentrations of light clays that produced cream-colored bricks. In central and western Wisconsin, there were significant concentrations of clays that produced red bricks and communities in these areas of the state have large numbers of red brick buildings. During the early twentieth century, large brick making firms took over the business from local kilns and both the centralization of brick making and changing architectural tastes during that time resulted in the use of generic tan and red bricks for buildings throughout the state.
Whitewater had a thriving brick industry almost from the beginning of its founding. The area had fine light-colored clay that produced not only cream bricks, but fostered a thriving pottery industry during the mid-nineteenth century. The first brickyard in Whitewater was founded in 1841 by William Wood on the south side of town. A larger brickyard was started by George Dann on the northeast side of Whitewater in 1847. This brickyard was still operating into the late nineteenth century. Albert Kendall started a brickyard on the west side of Fremont Street in 1852. A. Y. Chamberlin started a brick and drain tile yard nearby in 1866 and operated until 1875. In 1879, Joseph Dann and Edward Roethe started a brickyard near George Dann’s old yard. Roethe dropped out of the firm, but Dann operated it until 1891, then sold it to Charles Martin, who only operated it for two years before closing. In 1903, the Whitewater Brick and Tile Company was established and produced brick and tile until the 1940s.
Whitewater’s local bricks were an important building material for both residential and commercial buildings during the nineteenth century. In fact, the use of Whitewater brick gave the community a distinctive appearance. Most of the prominent houses in Whitewater built during the mid to late nineteenth century used Whitewater brick. For example, the brick houses along Main Street, just west of downtown Whitewater, were all built from locally produced bricks. In the downtown, most of the commercial buildings were built with Whitewater brick. Many of these buildings have been painted, but historic photos show that their original appearance was one of cream bricks. Because Whitewater bricks were made in small, relatively low-heat kilns, they are very soft. In the downtown, the wear and tear of commercial use took a toll on the building fronts, so they were often painted to make their appearance more pleasing.
Most of the brick construction in Whitewater is seen in larger houses or commercial buildings, but brick was also used for some smaller houses. For example, there are a series of smaller brick houses along Janesville Street that were built during the nineteenth century. The use of Whitewater brick in these houses give them a more elegant and cohesive appearance that enhances the neighborhood. One of the most important nineteenth century buildings constructed of cream bricks was the old elementary/high school that was fondly known as the “Big Brick.” It was located in the aptly-named “Big Brick Park.”
In many small communities like Whitewater, the appearance of a brick house might be unusual, but due to the output of Whitewater’s historic brick makers, this city has a large concentration of brick buildings, giving it a distinctive historic appearance.
*If using this article, please cite, Carol Lohry Cartwright, “The Bricks that Built Whitewater,” 2012, Whitewater Historical Society website, Whitewater, WI.