20th and 21st Century Design American Art Collection Curatorial Modern

Lewandowski’s Mosaic Mural at the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center

Milwaukee County War Memorial Center. Image courtesy
Milwaukee County War Memorial Center. Image courtesy

Though the soaring wings of the dramatic Santiago Calatrava building sometimes steal the show, the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Quadracci Pavilion is just one of two internationally significant architectural gems here on the Museum campus.

The other is the bold Saarinen masterpiece 1957 Milwaukee County War Memorial Center.

Modernist architect Eero Saarinen (American, b. Finland 1910–1961) is known for dramatic design accomplishments like the St. Louis Gateway Arch (1965), JFK Airport’s TWA Flight Center terminal (1962), and the iconic “Tulip chair” (1955). He took over the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center commission at the death of his father, Eliel Saarinen (Finnish, 1873–1950). The designs called for an arts complex that would “Honor the Dead by Serving the Living,” including a museum, performing arts center, and veterans’ memorial.

On the western facade of Saarinen’s Modernist concrete, steel, and glass floating cruciform is a purple and blue tile mosaic. You probably see this mural best when driving toward the building on Mason Street.

I had been working in this stunning building for several years before I finally paused to ask: What is that mosaic? What do the letters mean? Who is the artist?

Eero Saarinen recommended Wisconsin artist Edmund D. Lewandowski (American, 1914–1998) to provide the ornamental mosaic mural for the city-facing side of the War Memorial Center. In 1957, the finished building was still awaiting the final artwork, its five panels blank, as you can see in the image below from the Saarinen architectural office archives at Yale University. (On the 1957 Veteran’s Day opening celebration of the Saarinen building, these panels were hung with patriotic bunting.)

Eero Saarinen collection, 1880-2004 (inclusive), 1938-1962 (bulk). Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University
Front and side views of the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center prior to the installation of the mural, 1957. Eero Saarinen collection, 1880-2004 (inclusive), 1938-1962 (bulk). Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University.

Lewandowski, a Milwaukee native, is recognized as an important second generation Precisionist artist. “Precisionism” is not so much a formal art movement, but rather a word used to describe the common look and theme of a group of American artists that emerged between World War I and World War II. (Lewandowski is “second generation” because he worked in the style about twenty years later.)  From the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art,  the Precisionists “began experimenting with a highly controlled approach to technique and form. They consistently reduced their compositions to simple shapes and underlying geometrical structures, with clear outlines, minimal detail, and smooth handling of surfaces.” Charles Sheeler and Joseph Stella are well known artists of the Precisionist style.

Often, as is the case with Lewandowski, Precisionist artworks celebrate industrial and agricultural history. Stella famously painted the Brooklyn Bridge; Lewandowski painted a Milwaukee brewery.

The Milwaukee Art Museum Collection includes ten Lewandowski artworks, including Wisconsin Ore Freighter painting of 1948 shown below. Wisconsin Ore Freighter is beautifully flat, has sharp detailed outlines, and celebrates the geometric and colorful beauty of the working cargo vessels that ship millions of tons of ore across the Great Lakes.

Edmund Lewandowski (American, 1914–1998) Wisconsin Ore Freighter, 1948 Oil on canvas 42 x 30 3/4 in. (106.68 x 78.11 cm) Gift of Gimbel Bros. M1959.29 Photo credit Larry Sanders © Estate of Edmund Lewandowski
Edmund Lewandowski (American, 1914–1998), Wisconsin Ore Freighter, 1948. Oil on canvas; 42 x 30 3/4 in. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Gimbel Bros. M1959.29. Photo credit Larry Sanders. © Estate of Edmund Lewandowski.

From 1931 to 1934, Lewandowski attended Milwaukee’s Layton School of Art (the predecessor of MIAD, Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design). In the late 1930s, he was a public school teacher and an artist with the Federal Art Project, and then served from 1942 to 1946 in the US Air Force, where he made maps and camouflage during World War II. Lewandowski returned to Layton as a teacher from 1947 to 1949, and was its director from 1954 to 1972.

Lewandowski working on installation of Allen Bradley Mosaic
Working on installation of Allen Bradley mosaic. Edmund Lewandowski Website, Flint Institute of Arts.

During the artist’s long career, Lewandowski experimented with a variety of media, including glass and tile in his mosaic murals, like the one on the War Memorial Center. He produced eight major mosaics between 1953 and 1979—including ones at Marquette University, the Allen-Bradley Company Building in Milwaukee, and the Flint Institute of Arts in Michigan.

You can see images of all three mosaics on a website created by the Flint Institute of Arts for their 2010 exhibition Edmund Lewandowski: Precisionism and Beyond.

Lewandowski’s mural here at the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center was unveiled to the public on Veteran’s Day in 1959, two years after the building’s 1957 completion.

The War Memorial Center mosaic uses more than one million pieces of glass and marble. The slightly-abstracted Roman numerals, in shades of purple, blue, and rich black, are the beginning and ending dates of the U.S. involvement in the Second World War and the Korean War. MCMXLI (1941) through MCMXLV (1945) refers to World War II, and MCML (1950) through MCMLIII (1953) refers to the Korean War.

Lewandowski mosaic mural on War Memorial Center. Image from flickr user chicagogeek.
Lewandowski mosaic mural on War Memorial Center. Image from flickr user chicagogeek.

The way to read the mural’s depiction of the dates is this, from left:

Panel 1, 2, and 3) M, C, and M, for the first three roman numerals for all four dates. MCM is 1900.

Panel 4) XLI for 41, and the L for 50. These represent the two starting dates, 1941 and 1950 of the United States involvement in WWII and the Korean War.

Panel 5) V for 5 and III for 3 (referring back to panel 4 for the XL to make XLV and using previous L for LIII). This gives you the two ending dates, 1945 and 1953 for the end of the two wars.

When constructed, this artwork was not only the largest public art commission in Wisconsin’s history, but it was also the largest outdoor mosaic sculpture in America.

In addition to this high-profile 1,800 square foot piece, Lewandowski was later commissioned for the 20th anniversary of the building in 1977. These two mosaic tiles, installed above the reflecting pool in the inner courtyard of the War Memorial on the second floor, symbolize the signs for the five branches of the armed forces–Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard all blended together.

Lewandowski 1977 mosaics at War Memorial Center. Photo by the author.
Lewandowski 1977 mosaics at War Memorial Center. Photo by the author.

By the way, an additional bit of Lewandowski information can be found here at Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel arts critic Mary Louise Schumacher’s “Art City” blog. She wrote about the artist when Lewandowski’s well-known Three Kings painting was selected to run on the cover of the newspaper on Christmas Day in 2010.

Front view of the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center with mural.Eero Saarinen collection, 1880-2004 (inclusive), 1938-1962 (bulk). Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University
Front view of the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center with mural. Eero Saarinen collection, 1880-2004 (inclusive), 1938-1962 (bulk). Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University.

Mel Buchanan was the Assistant Curator of 20th-century Design. Mel’s curatorial responsibility included interpreting, displaying, and building the Museum’s collection of craft, design, and decorative objects.

8 replies on “Lewandowski’s Mosaic Mural at the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center”

Really wonderful article on an important mid-century American mosaic artist. A question: Did Lewandowski construct all of the mosaics himself, or did he work with artisans? I will be sharing this with readers on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks for your comment and for sharing, Nancie. Lewandowski did work with other artisans on his large-scale commissions. For the War Memorial mosaic, it was completed over the course of 2 years in a New York mosaic studio by Lewandowski himself and mosaic craftsmen. Looking at some of the coverage provided at the time by the Milwaukee Journal (article dated Nov 8, 1959) we see the names of Milwaukee workman Eugene Schloemilch and LeRoy Kurkowski from photo captions. A Carlo Rett from New York is pictured.

we were very fortunate to be friends, and caregivers for over 30 years for both Ed and Dolores Lewandowski…….Dolores is still alive and doing quite well at 95 years of age, living near her niece in New Jersey for the last couple of years. We have always been proud of Ed in this University town of Rock Hill, S.C. where he spent the last 36 years of his life, and has been honored for his work with Winthrop University and the art forums in this city. Thank you for this latest in remarks and accolades in his long and storied career. Betty and Bill Robinson, Rock Hill, S.C.

Mel, would you consider allowing to reprint this article or a version of it? There is a great deal of interest in mid-century American mosaics. Would love to hear from you – Nancie Mills Pipgras Editor,

In 1957, the War Memorial Center was dedicated “To Honor the Dead by Serving the Living.” The western face of the building features a memorial mural by Wisconsin artist Edmund Lewandowski, a mosaic of 1.4 million pieces of marble and glass. The original Museum had a dramatic entryway from the central courtyard, with stairs down to three large exhibition galleries. A 1975 addition designed by David Kahler greatly expanded the Museum’s gallery space.

[…] And then it’s the opening exhibition for the art museum in its new gallery space! An Inaugural Exhibition, which opened on September 12th, 1957, contained works from the Museum’s Collection, including Picasso’s The Cock of the Liberation, as well as pieces by Goya, El Greco, Cezanne and Van Gogh. The camera hops into the back seat of a vehicle that traverses the old Mason Street Bridge; it passes the new building and its façade, which will soon bear the memorial mosaic by renowned Wisconsin artist Edmund Lewandowski. […]

wow! these are typically my two favorite places for a mosaic, on pools and outdoor! this outdoor mosaic is amazing, you look a it and see the great choice of color mixture as well as the time and effort put into it! i would have never guessed it was a mosaic from the picture, very clean cuts and work! Lewandowski is definitely a name we will be keeping in mind next time we reproduce a famous artist mosaic like these:

My Father James Hucke was one of the people that put this together each piece of tile was hand placed. My father being a World war !! veteren took great pride in working on this project and makes me smile every time I see it

Leave a Reply