By: William Pitonyak
September 24, 2020
When most people think of terra cotta as a façade material, the most common building type/style to come to mind in the New York City area might be large pre-war buildings on the Upper East or Upper West Side of Manhattan. While these buildings were built during terra cotta’s heyday in the United States, the material went out of style and favor for decades, it is now making a comeback, mostly along higher end new buildings continually dotting New York City’s landscape. The story of this building material started as utilitarian, transitioned into an alternative product to other materials, and has now staked its claim as an effective, beautiful, and versatile building material.
The words “terra cotta” originate literally from the Italian translation “baked earth”, since it is mostly clay that is pressed into molds and “baked” or fired in a kiln. While terra cotta was originally utilized in making pottery and sculptures, it was also found to be utilized as a building material in ancient Middle Eastern sites. The material started being utilized as a building material in the United States in the mid-1800s, mainly for fireproofing and roof tiles, gaining even more popularity after the famous Chicago fire in 1871. As it made its way onto exterior facades in the late-1800s, it was viewed as a more cost effective and lighter alternative to stone. Since stone was still viewed as a superior material, many architects still utilized stone along the bottom three or four floors of larger buildings, while utilizing terra cotta along the upper floors for architectural details such as window surrounds, windowsills, water tables, balconettes, and cornices to mimic the look of carved stone. Since terra cotta utilizes molds to create the segments, it is much easier to produce repetitive segments than carving actual stone. In addition, since the segments are not solid (they generally consist of walls that are approximately 1.5” thick with air spaces), they are lighter, and therefore much more cost effective to ship. Glazing of the segments made it possible for them to come in nearly any color. Many of the fashionable architectural features for buildings during its heyday could be purchased out of catalogs, since they were mass produced.
Two of the more well-known larger buildings in New York City that are clad in terra cotta are the Flatiron Building (circa 1902) and the Woolworth Building (circa 1913). These two exemplify the period where terra cotta was most widely used along the exteriors of major New York City buildings, from the 1890s through the 1930s; an early example of terra cotta as an exterior building material is Carnegie Hall (circa 1891). Starting in the early 1940s, the terra cotta industry started seeing a decline in its use along the exteriors of buildings; newer mass-produced materials such as glass, metal, and cement block became more favored. In addition, newer, more minimalist architectural styles did not exhibit as much ornamentation and therefore did not support the industry as it had in the previous decades.
By the 1950s and 60s, various terra cotta façade elements started failing, since many of these were 50 or 60 years old by that time. Failures are caused by a range of issues, such as poor installation, subpar manufacturing, and harsh freeze/thaw cycles; however, the most common cause of failure is the corrosion of underlying steel anchors expanding and creating cracks or spalls. Prior to the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965, many terra cotta cornices and other decorative elements were removed from buildings in an effort to rid the buildings of any dangerous elements. As previously mentioned, ornate features had fallen out of style by this time anyway, but there were also no good alternative building materials to replace the architectural features.
There are numerous buildings from the pre-war era that have terra cotta architectural features; many of these terra cotta elements have since gone into failure, thus causing the buildings to be classified with an unsafe status under the New York City Façade Inspection Safety Program (FISP; formerly Local Law 11/98). As recently as December 2019, there was a terra cotta ornament that suddenly fell multiple stories and tragically took the life of a pedestrian in the Times Square area. Many of these older buildings with terra cotta features are in the spotlight because the aged elements are quite vulnerable to weathering and can pose unsafe conditions to the general public. The Department of Buildings is paying very close attention to how Engineers and Architects are analyzing the decorative terra cotta during FISP (LL 11/98) inspections, making sure that all areas are properly observed and/or sounded out. Many older buildings in the city have extensive terra cotta features that will continue to be a focal point for robust maintenance and restoration programs for decades to come. Currently, if compromised terra cotta is often not replaced in kind, alternate materials such as cast stone, glass fiber reinforced concrete, or fiberglass are commonly utilized, particularly at upper floors that are not only more vulnerable to harsh weather, but are also less likely to have visual differences observed from the street below.
Sometimes what’s old is new again; in recent years, the use of terra cotta cladding has seen a resurgence in new buildings, particularly high end residential and commercial buildings as a feature because of its rich colors, versatility in shapes, and beautiful weathering. The new systems differ from the old installations mainly by their anchoring, as well as better waterproofing systems and glazing systems. These enhancements in terra cotta technology may help extend the lifespan of the material and systems. Many new systems are mortar-less rain screen type installations consisting of an aluminum framing system anchored to the primary wall and consist of back up waterproofing. Some new buildings designed to reflect an earlier architectural style utilize stainless steel anchors; a great example of this is The Fitzroy, located at 514 West 24th Street and completed in late 2019. One Vanderbilt, set to be the third tallest building in New York City when complete later this year, utilizes terra cotta details built into the mostly glass curtain wall panels. 111 West 57th Street, set to be the second tallest building in New York City by roof height when completed this year, utilizes an impressive terra cotta panel system with aluminum anchoring along the entire east and west elevations. With One Vanderbilt and 111 West 57th Street set to be the second and third tallest buildings in New York, these will put dramatic uses of terra cotta back on display as a modern building material. With the vast movement toward better energy efficiency and green building design, some buildings have incorporated terra cotta sunshades or louvers strategically positioned to block the sun from coming into the building during certain times of the day.
Most of the new buildings utilizing terra cotta have hints of Art Deco architecture, which happens to be popular, currently; however, terra cotta has proven itself to be versatile with various styles. Only time will tell to see how long the resurgence of this material sticks around. If we can learn anything about the former era of terra cotta systems that still remain on the generation of pre-war buildings, it is that proactive maintenance and repair programs will help ensure that a new generation of buildings with terra cotta may endure well into this 21st century.