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Design Feature

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Considered part of the Beaux-Arts movement, terracotta was first used in England during the 1860s. It was a popular design finishing feature in the United States until the 1930s.



The use of terracotta as a design feature dates back to 1824. The St Stephen and All Martyrs' Church in Bolton Germany is the first known structure to incorporate terracotta into its design. Terracotta began to be more commonly used in Britain in the 1860s and later in the United States in the 1870s.

The use of terracotta would decline after the 1930s and its use would ultimately reach its demise in 1966 with the closure of The American Terracotta Corporation. Founded in 1881, this company fabricated terracotta for 8000 buildings throughout North America. [1]

Use In Building Construction

Terracotta provided plenty of places for birds to nest and plants to grow
The sculpting of terracotta in 1914

During its time, terracotta was a relatively inexpensive means of incorporating design features onto buildings. Terracotta itself is cast from molded clay. These ornaments are hollow with a steel mesh webbing as a means to support the design features. This enables the ornamentation to be much lighter than it appears. To preserve the detailed artwork, the terracotta was glazed before being fired in a kiln to ensure its longevity.

Terracotta was seen as an inexpensive alternative to stonework with a fraction of the weight. It was also easier and faster to install. Terracotta also did not require paint and could be restored to its original grandeur by simply washing it.

Despite appearing to be handmade, this type of design feature could be mass produced through the reuse of molds.

The use of terracotta did not come without its disadvantages. Due to its high elevation on buildings, these features are not easy to clean. The nooks and crevices incorporated into the design are also a haven for bird nests and plant life.

Types of Terracotta

Glazed architectural terracotta
  • Brownstone: the earliest type of terracotta, colored brown to imitate brick or sandstone.
  • Fireproof: produced to cater to the burgeoning high rises that began to take shape in North America. Cheap, light and fireproof, they were well suited to decorate I-beam members in wall and ceiling construction.
  • Veneer: developed in the 1930s, resembling tile more than traditional hollow terracotta, these ornaments made from glazed ceramics are anchored to the building by metal ties.
  • Glazed architectural terracotta: the most complex of the four, these hollow units were hand cast in molds or carved in clay and heavily glazed, then fired.

Repair and Restoration

Terracotta replacement is a work of fine art as replacement pieces cannot be cast from a mold of the original. After the ceramic material is fired in a kiln, the material shrinks. Each replacement piece must then be created individually using mock-ups that are larger than the replaced pieces.

Despite not being used on structures for the last half century, there is still a need to repair terracotta on existing structures. For instance, the severe seismic event of the World Trade Towers collapsing beside the Liberty Tower in New York City, caused the entire building to shake and created unusual stress to its terracotta blocks, some of which cracked and others were loosened. This damage eventually let water in and caused the steel underneath to rust.

As the steel rusted, it expanded and began to enlarge the cracks, threatening to dislodge the blocks from the facade and into the streets below. The building's board voted unanimously in favor of a complete exterior restoration rather than a less costly reparation. An insurance settlement of only $460,000 fell short of the $5 million required, so residents took up the slack and absorbed costs of around $54,000 per apartment.

Some of the project highlights include the repair and replacement of approximately 3,000 white terracotta stones individually fired and others re-glazed. Gargoyles and other ornamental figures on the building’s façade were either replaced or restored.

Examples of Condominiums Using Terracotta

150 Nassau Street - 150 Nassau Street, New York, NY

The facade of 150 Nassau Street

150 Nassau Street was built in 1894-5 by architect R.H. Robertson. It is a steel-framed skyscraper with twenty full stories plus a cellar, basement, and a three story tower. It's principal facades are on Nassau Street and Spruce Street. There is a five story base made of rusticated gray granite and a main shaft clad in gray Roman brick and buff-colored terracotta. Above the fifth story, the building has curtain-wall construction and a U-shaped plan, due to an exterior light court to the south.

Liberty Tower - 55 Liberty Street, New York City, NY

A terracotta alligator making its way up Liberty Tower

Liberty Tower was built at a time when skyscraper technology was still in its infancy. As such, the tower was overbuilt with a foundation of steel anchored firmly into the bedrock five stories below. The sturdiness of Liberty Tower was tested on September 11, 2001, withstanding the collapse of the two World Trade Towers a mere 220 yards away. The impact of the collapsing towers registered as a 3.3 magnitude seismic event and caused only minimal damage to Liberty Tower.

The Gothic Revival style tower is topped with ornamental spires and an angular roof. Cream colored terracotta blocks form the facade and are anchored to the steel skeleton with metal fasteners.

It celebrated its one hundredth year with the completion of a $5 million repair to its exterior, or a 'façade-lift', if you prefer.

Trump Park Avenue 502 Park Avenue, New York City, NY

Built in the late 1920s, the 32 story art deco Trump Park Avenue sits atop a three story pedestal of limestone. The upper building consists of hand-laid brown brick with ivory colored terracotta trim topped with a pitched roof of red tile.

The impeccable views from Trump Park Avenue are preserved due to the purchase of the air rights of the former Pepsi-Cola and Olivetti building at 500 Park Avenue.

Conversion to condominium apartments began in 2004 overseen by JT Magen & Company, who's painstaking renovation included adding 12,000 square feet of living space and converting some terraces to glass greenhouses. Apartments were fitted with modern technology and luxurious finishes.

Private elevators open to the twentieth floor where full floor apartments begin. Changes to the tower's north and west sides removed some glass cladding which did not follow the context of the original building.

Eastern Columbia Lofts 849 South Broadway, Los Angeles, CA

Built of steel-reinforced concrete, the Eastern Columbia Lofts stands at 13 stories high. The exterior of the building exudes its history dating back to 1930 with glossy turqoise terracotta trimmed with deep blue and gold details. The art deco building has a vertical emphasis that is accentuated by recessed bands of windows and spandrels with copper panels.

The facade reveals a variety of patterns including motif sunbursts, geometric shapes, animals, and plants. The top of the building is capped by the neon Eastern clock tower. The sidewalks that surround the building are multicolored terrazzo laid in a pattern of zigzags and chevrons. At the central main entrance, one finds a recessed two story vestibule with a blue and gold terracotta sunburst.

During its conversion in 2006, the building's redesign was completed by internationally acclaimed interior designer Kelly Wearstler Interior Design.[2]


  1. Wikipedia terracotta
  2. Wikipedia Eastern Columbia Lofts

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