Walkabout: Terra-Cotta Revisited, Part 2

Read Part 1 of this story.

Tuesday’s look at terra-cotta ornament dealt with natural, brick colored terra-cotta. That’s what most of us think of when we hear the term. But in addition to that more familiar medium, terra-cotta also can also be glazed in any color imaginable, as well as white. We may not realize it, but we see other kinds of terra-cotta every day.

By 1900, New York City was beginning to become the skyscraper filled towering city we know today. That iconic look would have been impossible without terra-cotta.

Some of the early 20th century icons of Manhattan architecture; the Woolworth Building, the Flatiron Building, the Bayard Building, and many others, especially in lower Manhattan, were built with terra-cotta sheathing and ornament.

Terra Cotta in Brooklyn

The process from an architect’s design through the model making process, through figuring out the composition of the clay from an engineering prospective, through production, and finally shipping, is fascinating, and involved many skilled and unskilled workers, all working to provide tons of finished product.

The Queens-based Atlantic Terra-Cotta Company and the Perth Amboy Terra-Cotta Company, in New Jersey, as well as the other New Jersey companies, were busy day and night, with materials coming in and shipments going out by barge continuously.

After seeing what was possible in natural, and white glazed terra-cotta, it was natural to wonder about color. After all, pottery was fired in all kinds of glazes, why not ornamental architectural terra-cotta?

Terra Cotta in Brooklyn

By the late 1890’s the Perth Amboy T-C Co. had several colors of glaze, and polychrome terra-cotta began to be experimented with by architects, often with great degrees of success.

In Brooklyn, two of the most spectacular of these early efforts are the Brooklyn Academy of Music, built by Herts and Tallent in 1908, and the Brooklyn Masonic Temple in Fort Greene, built in 1908-9, by Lord and Hewlett, and Pell and Corbett.

Both projects utilized polychrome terra-cotta from the Atlantic Terra Cotta Co. The rich and varied polychrome ornament on both buildings still is impressive, and showed the variety of style and color available to the architect and customer.

Terra Cotta in Brooklyn

A piece in the NY Times in 1911 read Color Spreads Glories on City’s Architecture. Color began to show up on buildings, on tiles in subways, and as ornament inside public areas of hotels and other commercial buildings, often in concert with brilliant white glazed terra-cotta.

Some other early 20th century Brooklyn examples include the white glazed Prospect Park Boathouse by Frank Helmle, in 1904, the Thompson Meter Company on Bridge St, in DUMBO, and the Public Bath No. 7, on 4th Avenue.

Churches, such as St. Ambrose in Bed Stuy, now Mt. Pisgah Baptist, and St. Gregory’s in Crown Heights North, are beautifully ornamented in glazed terra-cotta.

Terra Cotta in Brooklyn

By the late 1920’s, into the 1930’s, the Art Deco Movement had taken architecture to places unknown, with shapes and motifs so unlike that of the previous century. Polychrome terra-cotta ornament was a big part of this movement, as was the use of cement colored terra-cotta.

In spite of this interest in polychrome ornament at this time, it still remained rare compared to the use of terra-cotta in stone finishes.

I confess, I was surprised to learn that much of what I thought was carved stone in early to mid 20th century buildings is actually terra-cotta, and it is extremely hard to tell the difference between the two.

Terra Cotta in Brooklyn

In Brooklyn, from this time period we have the Griffin Apartments in Fort Greene, Child’s Restaurant in Coney Island, the Studebaker Building in Crown Heights, and many other smaller storefronts and commercial venues. Movie theatres were often highly decorated in terra-cotta, as shown in two Crown Heights theaters.

The Depression halted a lot of building projects, but many WPA projects executed in the city utilized terra-cotta as murals and reliefs on buildings, and Robert Moses’ parks projects commissioned thousands of glazed terra-cotta signs for restrooms and other public venues.

But by the end of World War II, the terra-cotta business had trickled away to next to nothing. Ornament in modern architecture was anathema, and there just wasn’t enough business to keep the larger factories going, as glass and steel replaced brick and terra-cotta.

Terra Cotta in Brooklyn

Today, the only thing remaining of the 5 acre waterfront Atlantic Terra-Cotta Company is the building once housing the office.

The massive row of kilns and the factory buildings are long gone. Today, only two major manufacturers remain the Boston Valley Terra-Cotta Company in Orchard Park, NY, and Gladding, McBean and Co. in California. They both manufacture new product, and restore historic buildings.

We can still find glazed and polychrome terra-cotta in unexpected places, especially in buildings built in the early 20th century. Take a look around. Maybe clean a brick or some ornament with your sleeve and see the sheen of a ceramic glaze.

It’s there. See my Flickr page for more fine examples.

Terra Cotta in Brooklyn

For more information and great photographs of terra-cotta in New York City, please see Susan Tunik’s excellent book Terra-Cotta Skyline, and for more information on terra-cotta and preserving our t-c buildings, see the Friends of Terra-Cotta website.

Terra Cotta in Brooklyn

Terra Cotta in Brooklyn

Terra Cotta in Brooklyn

[Photos by Suzanne Spellen]

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