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Architectural terra-cotta tells the story of Chicago's past

Written by
Ross Patrick Robinson

Neighborhood apartments, commercial buildings and even some downtown office structures have glazed terra-cotta—one of the most prominent features of turn-of-the-century Chicago architecture. Passing by the Wrigley Building on Michigan Avenue, the Reliance Building on State Street or those white corner-lot buildings at the intersection of Lincoln, Halsted and Fullerton in Lincoln Park, you’ve probably wondered about their luster. Their facades are largely intact, even after 100 years.

While wildly different in scale, each building is striking in its architectural sumptuousness. They're part of what makes Chicago one of the best cities for architecture, with details that are rarely executed today, including terra-cotta exteriors. 

In the latter half of the 19th century, catastrophic fires in many American cities coincided with technological developments to propel the once niche use of baked earth into mainstream urban design. After the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, it was found that many cast iron structural supports failed in the brutal heat of fire, while stone and brick components often cracked. In response, engineers made a concerted effort to develop more fire-resistant materials to protect structural components and maintain the façade's integrity. In the search for something stronger, terra-cotta turned out to be flame resistant and adequately protect structural metal beams and other vulnerable areas.

With high-rise architecture, skyscrapers and steel-framed buildings came a higher demand for resilient exterior materials that were also light and customizable. Designers wanted to find a more productive way to make architectural ornaments, too, rather than continue with traditional stone carving techniques. Terra-cotta pieces could be made hollow, sculpted to custom specifications and be assembled much more easily, and the use of terra-cotta as a building material flourished from 1880 through the 1930s.

Terra-cotta was prominently used throughout the golden period of the Chicago School of Architecture, applied by the likes of Louis Sullivan, Daniel Hudson Burnham, John Root and William Le Baron Jenney. The famed Rookery Building on LaSalle Street features a delicate tracery work only possible in the medium of terra-cotta, for example. With the material’s esteemed use in countless landmark buildings in large-scale projects in city centers, pre-designed terra-cotta architectural accents became available commercially—meaning you no longer needed an expensive custom contract with a producer—and, as a result, terra-cotta became a staple for construction in and around Chicago.

Ordinances promoting fireproof and more modern construction methods drove widespread adoption further. To meet demand, massive manufacturing companies popped up near cities where its use was common. One of Chicago’s own, Northwestern Terra Cotta Company, employed American and European craftsmen to produce some of the most ornate works in the nation. The Wrigley Building and other major Chicago constructions used components produced by the prestigious firm.

In most Chicago neighborhoods, you can easily see white or tan shining architectural insets in older structures, and many are terra-cotta. In courtyard apartment blocks drawing from the Chicago School or historical revival styles, many columns, capitals, parapets and Sullivan-esque tracery panels are made of terra-cotta, while many commercial structures and movie palaces have ornate front façades composed entirely of the medium. Although rare, many Art Deco buildings make use of polychrome terra-cotta—including the Belle Shore Apartment Hotel in Edgewater, featuring Egyptian-style ornament in golden rod and green.

So the next time you’re walking through a Chicago neighborhood, watch out for that familiar glean; in the terra-cotta lies the story of the Great Fire, of the city’s rebirth and of its engineering and architectural heritage.

Interested in blogging for Time Out? Contact us here.

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