Cyril Colnik was born in Trieben, Austria in 1871. His father was the veterinarian to the King of Austria (think, "Lippizaner") and Cyril grew up in that world. There was a blacksmith shop on the grounds of his childhood home and he took an interest in blacksmithing at a young age. He was also a talented artist, and surviving drawings show an aptitude for art such that Colnik could have had a career as an artist. As it turns out, he combined his talent for art with skill in blacksmithing to become a true artisan in iron.
He came to the 1893 Chicago Exposition, the White City, to aid Reinhold Kirsch with the German ironwork exhibits.
He had knowledge of the "German Athens" in Wisconsin, and there is some question as to how this young man, speaking only German, wound up in Milwaukee. Some think he was lured by Captain Frederick Pabst, the beer baron, accepting commissions for the Pabst Mansion and his fabulous Pabst Theater. Colnik also accepted commissions from Herman Uihlein of the Schlitz Brewing Company and other successful German immigrants in Milwaukee.
Colnik opened a shop on N. 8th Street (demolished) and hired more blacksmiths to help create his ornamental ironwork. He was prolific and a true artisan, but except for one work of art, Colnik never signed his work. To this day, it's a lead pipe cinch that any ornamental ironwork in the Milwaukee area was probably the work of Colnik and his artisans. However, unless there is an architectural record, it cannot be proven if ironwork is his or from some other shop. Many architectural drawings simply state, "Ornamental ironwork design by Colnik."
Some of Colnik's most prolific works appear in Milwaukee's City Hall. There are 15 floors, and those that face the open atrium have railings with inserts and newells by Cyril Colnik, featuring his "dancing dragon" design.
His daughter, Gretchen Colnik, became a Milwaukee celebrity in her own right, known for her glorious hats. She kept a private collection of her father's works, and willed the collection to the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, where the collection is now on permanent display. The museum is located in the Lloyd R. Smith House in Milwaukee's Water Tower Historic District.
Several structures that utilize known works of Colnik's iron art are listed on this website.
~J.R. Manning, September 2016