“Permanent. Beautiful. Profitable,” extols a 1920s advertisement in The Architect and Engineer for the wondrous new product: Terra Cotta.
Terra Cotta (fired earth) as a building material found its inception in Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871 when interest in fireproof materials exploded. Chicago School functional architecture was in full swing, and William LeBaron Jenny had installed the first steel frame sky scraper; an innovation that allowed for the use of new exterior cladding materials as walls were no longer load-bearing. Enter Terra Cotta: a lightweight, plastic, fire-resistant material that was easy to mass produce. The terra cotta facade connected to the steel frame with S-shaped hooks, literally hung on the frame; a precursor to glass curtain construction of the International Style. The material is still used extensively today for tiles, roofing, and pottery.
Burnham and Root, H.H. Richardson, Louis Sullivan, and McKim, Mead & White were among the early adopters of terra cotta as a building material. The Reliance Building at 32 N. St. was one of the first buildings to utilize terra cotta cladding. The initial plan by Charles Atwood specified the use of terra cotta to promote a “self-cleaning” building; the theory was that the glazed surface would stand up to the smog of the city. Additionally, it is thought that Atwood’s choice may have been influenced by the Beaux-Arts exteriors of the “White City” and ability of the white glazed terra cotta to imitate expensive stone construction. Other notable buildings in Chicago with terra cotta cladding include the Wrigley Building, the Sullivan Center (Carson Pirie Scott), and the Carbon and Carbide Building. The Railway Exchange Building in Chicago by Burnham and Root, demolished in 1990, was faced entirely with light cream enamel terracotta (first image below).
If you walk the streets of Chicago this summer, take a minute to glance up at the elaborate detail of these architectural gems or view the fragments on display at the Art Institute with your FREE ADMISSION (just show student ID!)!