A Study in Terra-Cotta Contrasts

Article appeared in Shapes of Clay, Volume 11, Number 11, December 1926.

There is a twofold plasticity in terra-cotta. It is first of all plastic in the hands of the ceramic chemist, of the modeler, and of the kiln-master. This is a material fact about terra-cotta that has many diversified implications. But in a larger sense terra-cotta is plastic in the hands of the architect. It rises with his imagination to any height. No matter how daring his dream, no matter how revolutionary his design, terra-cotta is at his command – a fluent and all-resourceful interpreter.

To appreciate something of this wide-ranging adaptability, this inexhaustible plasticity, let us consider two buildings in the city of Los Angeles for which terra-cotta has yielded up its full measure of propriety and grave.

The Edwards & Wildey Building and the Fine Arts Building are part of the distinguished contribution to Los Angeles architecture of the firm of Walker & Eisen, architects and engineers. For both structures Edwards, Wildey & Dixon, of Los Angeles, were the general contractors.

The Edwards & Wildey Building is a height-limit store and office building of thirteen stories. It is of class-A rank, and its steel frame is entirely clothed in terra-cotta and enameled brick, both from the Los Angeles Pressed Brick Company kilns of Gladding, McBean & Co. The terra-cotta invests the two facdes, while the enameled brick was applied to the light court. The Fine Arts Building is also a height-limit structure, rising twelve stories, class-A, done in steel, with terra-cotta facing from the same kilns.

In visualizing first the Edwards & Wildey Building and later the Fine Arts, Messrs. Walker & Eisen saw two very different compositions. The first building was to fit the needs of ordinary business and professional tenants. No matter how discriminating the architectural treatment, this structure had nevertheless to conform to the conventions of its commercial purpose. But not so the Fine Arts Building as the architects conceived it. Here was a building with a specialized idea behind it. As its name indicates, it is to be given over to creative workers. Here will be the studios of painters, sculptors, musicians; here the workshops of men and women cunning in gems and jewelry, skilled in the turning of woods and metals; here too the showrooms of dealers in precious fabrics, in glass, in antique furniture, in rare books. It is a building for artists and artisans, for the molders of taste, for the craftsmen and middlemen of culture. And so imagination could wander afield, permit itself more dreams, in shaping this building.

The result is that these two down-town buildings of Los Angeles supply us with a delightful study in contrasts. Out of their divergent purposes have come two kinds of architectural delight. And the mind takes particular joy in the result upon realizing that the same style of architecture – the Romanesque – underlies them both. It is a case of architecture yielding to him who pauses to analyze, a very real intellectual pleasure.

In discussing the Edwards & Wildey Building, Mr. A. R. Walker very generously indicates the source from which his partner, Mr. P.A. Eisen, and himself derived the hint that helped their structure to take form.

“To my mind,” says Mr. Walker, “the Bowery National Bank of New York, on Forty-second Street opposite the Commodore Hotel, is the loveliest example of commercial architecture in the United States. It is a beautiful utilization of Romanesque forms for commercial requirements. Its architects, Mssrs. York & Sawyer, seem to me to have achieved a finer and more intelligent use of these forms for such a purpose than is to be found elsewhere. And so, when we conceived the Edwards & Wildey Building in terms of Romanesque as applied to present-day requirements, that bank was our prototype. We architects do not hesitate to give credit to the ancients who aid us – why not also to the moderns? Unlike York & Sawyer, we were dealing with a corner lot. This called for a different composition of our masses. The inspiration remains and is acknowledged, but the location was a special factor in our problem, and brought an individual solution.”

“The Fine Arts Building,” continued Mr. Walker, “was the outgrowth of our own imagination. It is done in the same style, Romanesque, but with strong emphasis on decoration. On the Edwards & Wildey Building the terra-cotta detail is orthodox, more academic. The handling embodies more dignity. On the Fine Arts the note is playfulness.

“Mr. Edwards, who is one of the owners, was ambitious to create the most expressive building possible for its character and uses. He and I made an extensive trip through the East, looking for buildings of similar intention. We found that nearly all studio buildings were old loft structures remodeled, in now wise expressive of their uses.

“It was Mr. Edwards’ underlying though to call upon the kind of artists and artisans who would be tenants of the building, and who would hold within its walls exhibitions of their work, to contribute to its decoration. And so this commercial building for the fine and applied arts embodies in its exterior and interior ornament the finest work the finest work of craftsmen in bronze and iron, in ceramics, in furnishings, and in terra-cotta. As it stands, it is a great exhibition hall of the work of those who will occupy it.

“It was originally conceived in stone, but we saw an opportunity to out-stone stone with a texture material having diversity of color in its individual blocks and giving crispness of ornament. This material is terra-cotta. Terra-cotta gives a wonderful play of variegated color. We sought that variegation very specially, and we got it from the Gladding, McBean & Co. kilns. Terra-cotta has this added advantage, that it can be kept clean, and so it maintains at all times that beautifully variegated coloring to which I attach so much importance.

“We designed a doorway characteristically Romanesque in all its ornamental belt courses, decorative inserts, column shafts and capitals. Such a design takes on all the tremendous imaginative possibilities of the Romanesque style during the ‘basilica’ period, when the Romanesque in all its free and fanciful forms was used for the ornament of churches and palaces. But to achieve such a result in terra-cotta demands the most intelligent co-operation from modelers and kiln-workers. It calls for very faithful interpretation of original work in an unusual vein. There is probably no more playful style in the world than this kind of Romanesque. But to succeed you must get into the spirit of it. And most assuredly the terra-cotta craftsmen of Gladding, McBean & Co. did get into the spirit of it. The perforated screen of the entranceway is a most unusual achievement in terra-cotta. It embodies a world of detail. It takes hours to study it thoroughly. And in the grotesques which we have used as bosses there is an amazing diversity of subjects. All this called for innumerable models, with months of concentrated effort.”

In this Fine Arts Building, says Mr. Walker, built as it is on an inside lot, the aim was to achieve “an architectural mass that would afford a broken sky-line without those deep setbacks that mean a loss in rentable area. At the third story we used a basilica-like mass carrying through to the top of the building, with offsetting and receding planes that terminate in a Romanesque pediment surmounted by finials. This gave use a recessed gallery on the twelfth floor, and in its broken-up detail permitted a richness of window openings. The shallow recesses afford plenty of play for light and shadow on the terra-cotta. And all this saves floor area.”

Rentability, the sine qua non of a commercial building, also dictated the treatment of the light-court in the Edwards & Wildey building. “We used enameled brick,” he says, “because it is easy to clean, and reflects light into offices that would otherwise be somber and difficult to rent.”

This enameled brick of the Edwards & Wildey light-court is of a very attractive ivory color. The terra-cotta is gray granitex. For the Fine Arts Building the terra-cotta is of standard finish, a warm gray with that wide variation which the architects regard with such favor. The ashlar surfaces were laid with a subtle irregularity in the courses that is very pleasing. For this building Gladding, McBean & Co., through the Los Angeles Pressed Brick Company, also supplied the hollow-tile partitions.

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