I love terra cotta. And the stuff is plastered all over Chicago, “a great, glazed city,” according to sculptor Walter S. Arnold.
The largest producer of terra cotta in the city and for many years in the entire country was the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company, which had its headquarters in the Railway Exchange Building at Michigan and Jackson as the twentieth century began. That building, now known as the Santa Fe building, is a shining example of the beauty and versatility of glazed terra cotta.
According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago Northwestern Terra Cotta was started in 1878 and by the early 1890’s employed close to 500 men. The Beaux Arts style with its extensive decoration and the first generation of Chicago-inspired buildings with their many references to nature and iconographic symbolism brought about rapid growth and by 1910 the Northwestern plant at Clybourn and Wrightwood employed about 1,000 workers.
Business was so good that the company opened plants in St. Louis and Denver. Then, after World War I design styles changed over a decade. Extensive ornamentation was out and the streamlined, sleek look of what we now call Art Deco was in. The company’s last plant in Denver closed in 1965. The transparency of the mid-century modern style left no room for fancy gee-gaws made out of baked clay.
Anyway, here are a few of my favorite pieces. I’ll be adding more as the months go by. I’ve got plenty. Like I said . . . I love the stuff.
Krause Music Store – 4611 North Lincoln Avenue
Louis Sullivan’s final hurrah. The terra cotta “K” stands for William Krause who hired architect William Presto to design a music store with living quarters above it. The building was finished in 1922; two years later Sullivan was dead.
The Fisher Building – 343 South Dearborn
Some sort of crawling, serpent-dragon hybrid from Charles Atwood’s Fisher Building. Atwood, working for Daniel Burnham, designed the building for Lucius P. Fisher, a Chicago paper magnate. Atwood’s original building is awash with terra cotta ornamentation making reference to the developer’s last name. The building, finished in 1896, is the tallest of the original group of Chicago skyscrapers that is still standing.
680 North Lake Shore Drive
An eagle from the former American Furniture Mart, designed by Nimmons & Co. When the second section, including the tower, was competed in 1926, this was the largest building in the world. Lohan & Associates led the re-design of the building to condominiums and office space between 1979 and 1984.
350 North Clark Street
A great 1912 building designed by Alfred Alschuler. The “T” is the first initial of John R. Thompson’s last name. Thompson started out his career running a small grocery in rural Illinois and went on to oversee a national chain of groceries and 109 restaurants – 49 in Chicago and 11 in New York City.
Victor Falkenau House (Demolished) – 3400 South Wabash
Displayed in the Art Institue of Chicago
An angel from the third-story stringcourse of the Victor Falkenau House at 3420 South Wabash Avenue, designed by Louis Sullivan and the firm of Adler and Sullivan. Built between 1888 and 1889. Leveled in 1958. The fragment is displayed in the Art Institute of Chicago. Falkenau was a contractor and head of the Building Contractors’ Council in the city.