Lincoln Park: Café Brauer Cermanic Tile Murals
Designed by architect Dwight H. Perkins, the Lincoln Park South Pond Refectory is commonly known as Café Brauer. Completed in 1908, this iconic Prairie-style structure served as a boat house, warming shelter for skaters, and also as a party building. Its main dining room, the Great Hall, originally provided space for a restaurant operated by Paul and Caspar Brauer. The Great Hall features a series of a dozen tile murals set into the ornamental brick walls. Decorative tile borders also surround the original art-glass windows. The handcrafted tiles are faience, a type of matt (dull) glazed earthenware with a pale buff body. Eleven of the murals depict landscapes that recall the sweeping scenery of the Midwest. Trees, foliage, ponds, lakes, and gently rolling hills are expressed in demure shades of blue, gray, green, gold, and russet. In one of these panels, a muted red sky suggests a night scene, with the moon rising above clouds but still hanging under tree branches at the horizon. The twelfth and largest mural depicts an emblematic stretch of California coastline with dramatic cliffs, waves, and Monterey pines.
The November 1909 issue of the trade journal Clay-Worker attributes the tiles to Rookwood Pottery in Cincinnati, Ohio. Founded in 1880 by Maria Longworth Nichols Storer, the small company began by producing glazed tableware and vases. Rookwood remained committed to handcraftsmanship even as their designs expanded in 1902 to include architectural elements such as tile murals installed around fireplaces and in subway stations. Rookwood’s site-specific faience designs were often executed with the squeeze-bag technique, in which a piping bag is used to lay down thin contour lines of liquid clay. These raised ridges help delineate the design and keep different glaze colors separate during both their application and kiln firing. The Café Brauer tiles are distinctive in that they feature both white and black contour lines in their designs.
Many Rookwood site-specific tile installations were designed by the company’s in-house staff. Occasionally, architects would submit designs by outside artists that would then be executed by Rookwood’s craftsmen. The Café Brauer murals are not signed. Some scholars haveattributed them to either architect Marion Mahony Griffin (Perkins's cousin) or Lucy Fitch Perkins (a successful children's book author/illustrator and Perkins's wife). A recently published an article in the Journal of the American Art Pottery Association by decorative arts expert Richard D. Mohr suggests that artist Jessie Arms (1883–1971) most likely designed Café Brauer's series of murals.
A Chicago native and student at the School of the Art Institute, Jessie Arms was known for her bold, decorative depictions of natural motifs and for her mural designs, including Masque of Youth (1918) in Ida Noyes Hall at the University of Chicago. The catalogue for the 1907 Chicago Architecture Club Exhibition reproduces a decorative frieze by Arms that depicts a moon rising up out of clouds but still hanging under branches at the horizon. The gesture is so unusual that is serves as a signature. The design is printed on the same page as a perspective drawing of the Garfield Park Refectory. As Mohr has pointed out, architect Dwight Perkins, a sponsor of the 1907 CAC Exhibition, would have had the pairing of Arms and the Garfield Park Refectory vividly before his mind while designing Café Brauer.
Café Brauer remained open to the public until 1941, at which point the building was closed and used for park storage. In 1987, the Chicago Park District and the Lincoln Park Zoological Society began an extensive restoration project to return the building to its original condition. Café Brauer reopened in 1990, and in February 2003 it became an official City of Chicago Landmark. Today, the Great Hall is available as a venue for weddings and other special events.