I’ve accepted the idea that art and architecture are one and the same…anything you call separately as art, whether it be sculpture, or painting, or mosaic, or any other form of expression, it must be an integrated part of the whole. Therefore, it must begin to show up in the Architect’s thinking.
Karel Yasko, Wisconsin State Architect, 1960-1963
How did Milwaukee, in the middle of the country, in the middle of the 20th-century, come to have some of the nation’s most inspiring and monumental mosaic murals? How is it that many churches, libraries, schools, government buildings and public spaces across Wisconsin have mural-sized mosaics fully integrated into the architectural surroundings?
Monumental mosaics are a critical part of architecture, and they convey an important public message on the role of art in expressing shared values. A close look at four mosaics commissioned in Milwaukee at a time when modern art and architecture were capturing a new spirit of innovation and civic pride, reveals different approaches to using mosaic as an architectural art form and presents a unique perspective on the history of arts in Wisconsin.
In historic preservation terms, a monumental mosaic is both large enough and striking enough to be considered a "character defining feature" of the building. Mosaics have traditionally been made by hand-setting small pieces of stone, ceramic, or glass (known as tesserae) in a decorative pattern onto a mortar base. Among the many techniques of working mosaic are Opus musivum (associated with the glass mosaic for walls) and lithostrotum (mosaic used for floors).
For thousands of years, mosaics have played a critical role in cultural storytelling by illustrating religious, political, and mythological traditions throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Near East. At the turn of the 20th-century in the United States, a large Italian immigrant population arrived from Europe, which included skilled craftsmen and artist entrepreneurs. The mosaic and terrazzo workers from Northern Italy were regarded as ‘the aristocracy of the Italian work force’ because their work was so highly specialized. The aesthetic value of the works done by these craftsmen satisfied the American desire for architectural embellishment using mosaics, from Beaux Arts projects at the turn of the century through the Art Deco period of the 1920s.
During the Depression, between 1930 to 1942, the Works Progress Administration hired American artists, who were often trained by Italian craftsmen, to execute hundreds of murals, in both fresco and mosaic around the country. Many American soldiers who fought in the European theater and artists who traveled to Italy after the war became enchanted with traditional Italian art forms. The post-war American mindset was infused with romantic notions of Italy that percolated into public consciousness through television, film, music, food, and fashion. As trade restrictions eased between Italy and the U.S., commercial activity took a significant step forward with the 1959 opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway which connected trade routes in the Great Lakes region to Europe and other parts of the world. For Milwaukee, the new seaway brought crates of mosaic fabricated in Italy directly into the city’s port.
Another significant initiative occurred in 1962 when President John F. Kennedy signed a directive titled “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture.” The three-point policy laid out a vision for the finest architectural thought, the elimination of an ‘official style’ with encouragement of professional creative competitions, and the integration of landscape into site-specific development. Karel Yasko, former Wisconsin State Architect, was responsible for commissioning both emerging and established artists on behalf of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) through the Commission of Fine Arts. The GSA directed the largest building program in the Federal government, one which assigned a half-percent of any construction budget over $200,000 to be reserved for fine arts. Murals, sculpture, stained glass, and fountains were commissioned by architects as character-defining features of new public buildings receiving federal funding. Commercial builders followed suit. Soon shopping malls, grocery stores, banks, libraries, universities, as well as Federal buildings and many other public and civic buildings, integrated public artworks that were considered as essential to the construction as plumbing or air conditioning. Mid-century artists and architects reintroduced mosaic art, known for its visual effectiveness at monumental scales, as a striking new feature of the American built environment.
Allen-Bradley Company Headquarters
American industrial prowess emerged as an important public theme in the post-war years and businesses like the AllenBradley Company in Milwaukee had important stories to tell. In 1955, Harry Bradley, one of the founding family members of the Allen-Bradley Company (now Rockwell Automation), along with architect Fitzhugh Scott, and Vice-President Robert Whitmore, wanted to create a mural in celebration of the company’s long history of engineering innovation.