Viva la Terra Cotta

Building façades were cheerfully ornamented with its natural clay color or glazed in yellow, green, blue, silver and gold. Even on the darkest days, tenement buildings had masonry façades full of ruffled glory. So many of New York’s boldface names have it: the Flatiron, the Woolworth, Louis Sullivan’s Bayard-Condict on Bleecker, Judson Memorial Church, and the Fred French building with madly colored beehives, griffins and a rising sun. A favorite is the green terra-cotta trim on the First Presbyterian Church chapter house at 12 West 12th Street, which always seemed to be a mysterious building in a Chinese garden, though it’s not Chinese at all. It was built in the late 1950’s by a Frank Lloyd Wright disciple, thus the horizontalness, but the particular shade of terra-cotta green makes it almost like jade.

Terra cotta was a little hero that could do no wrong. Its ornamental and fireproofing qualities and increased availability led to its use from the 1880’s through the 1920’s on building façades, rooflines and lobbies—and of course, inside Grand Central Terminal. Terra cotta was cheaper than stone. According to Ms. Tunick’s entry in The New York City Encyclopedia, after James Renwick in the 19th century engaged a sewer-pipe factory to manufacture cornices and window surrounds as a cheaper substitute for cut stone, stone cutters and masons got upset that terra cotta would endanger their livelihood. They helped keep it out of the city for years. The terra-cotta wars, one might say!

That was then.

The other day, architect John Cetra calmly stood in his 584 Broadway office stroking a 110-year-old scrolled pediment that had framed a brownstone on East 66th Street. “There is a depth to the material you don’t see in stone,” he said. “We just love the look of it. Look at those fissures. Of course, that comes from water that is trapped inside. New systems are using terra cotta very differently—it’s being designed so water will not be trapped.” Mr. Cetra and his wife and partner, Nancy Ruddy, recently used red terra cotta from Germany on the sides and at the setbacks of the glass-curtain wall of the Ariel East at 2628 Broadway. “We incorporated it into the glass,” he said. “It becomes a tracery to give the building some distinction, but also to relate it to the Metro Theater to the west.” Cetra/Ruddy also did a condominium conversion of the turn-of-the-century 141 Fifth Avenue, which has terra cotta on the cornice, over the entrance, everywhere. Developers believe people will pay more to live within the confines of madly swirling and curling terra cotta. Though 141 Fifth Avenue’s Core Group Marketing C.E.O., Shaun Osher, will never forget the penthouse of the Police Building on Centre Street that he sold with the 35-foot terra-cotta ceiling. “The woman covered it up,” he said.