A blog about architectural tiles, terra cotta and other ceramic surfaces, architectural glass and ornamentation in and around New York.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Atlantic Terra Cotta Company and the Beginnings of Polychrome Terra Cotta Use

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The Atlantic Terra Cotta Company and the Beginnings of Polychrome Terra Cotta Use

On a rainy day in August 2016 I visited a narrow beach behind some large warehouse-type buildings in Tottenville, Staten Island. Strewn on the beach, across Arthur Kill from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, lay the detritus of the once-mighty Atlantic Terra Cotta Company’s Tottenville plant.

(Photo credit: Michael Padwee)

To be accurate, 101 Ellis Street was the site of only a part of Atlantic Terra Cotta. The main factory and kilns were located in Perth Amboy, but they, too, have succumbed to time and neglect.

A c. 1930 photo of Atlantic Terra Cotta Plant #3 in Rocky Hill, New Jersey, formerly the Excelsior Terra Cotta Company. (Photo credit: The Rocky Hill Community Group via Richard Veit, “Beyond the Factory Gates: The Industrial Archaeology of New Jersey’s Terra Cotta Industry”, IA: The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archaeology, Volume 25, Number 2, 1999, p. 15)

Atlantic Terra Cotta became one of the largest, if not the largest, terra cotta manufacturer in the United States as a result of mergers, which resulted in the elimination of competition from smaller terra cotta companies, as well as the increased use of its architectural products in the early years of the twentieth century. “The first [merger] occurred in 1906-07, when the Perth Amboy Terra Cotta Company, the Excelsior Terra Cotta Company, the Standard Terra Cotta Company, and the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company of Staten Island merged under the latter’s name.” (Richard Veit, “Beyond the Factory Gates: The Industrial Archaeology of New Jersey’s Terra Cotta Industry”, IA: The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archaeology, Volume 25, Number 2, 1999, p. 17)

The Atlantic Terra Cotta Company, Tottenville plant. (Photo credit: http://www.tottenvillehistory.com/History-Tottenville-Staten-Island-New-York/history-tottenville/All-Pages.html“The company’s smokestack was a familiar Tottenville landmark for 80 years until 1988 with the demolition of the 135 foot structure.” (“Stations of the Staten Island Railway, Part 6”, Forgotten New York; http://forgotten-ny.com/2007/03/stations-of-the-staten-island-railway-part-6/.  

“On Staten Island, terra cotta products were made in the late 1800s on a limited basis. In 1897, the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company formed becoming [...a] provider[...] of terra cotta for Manhattan's turn-of-the-century buildings. [Although Staten] Island clay was inferior for terra cotta[,...] New Jersey clay was famous for its perfect texture for making terra cotta.” (http://scripophily.net/attercotcom.htm)

Clay for an expanding ceramics industry in New Jersey was found in a large swath from the Perth Amboy area to the area around Trenton. This was partially responsible for the brick, tile, terra cotta and other ceramics manufacturing throughout the area.

(Credit: Richard Veit, “Beyond the Factory Gates: The Industrial Archaeology of New Jersey’s Terra Cotta Industry”, IA: The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archaeology, Volume 25, Number 2, 1999, p. 15)

A later view of the Tottenville plant of the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company. (Photo credit: the collection of the Staten Island Museum)

After 1907, the Standard Terra Cotta Company’s plant in Perth Amboy became the merged Atlantic Terra Cotta Company’s main manufacturing facility.

1907 photo. (Credit: Collection of the Friends of Terra Cotta)

Why Terra Cotta?

Part of a 1910 Atlanta Terra Cotta ad showing “New York City’s Terra Cotta Skyline”. At this time about 70% of New York’s high-rise buildings were constructed using terra cotta. (Photo credit: The Princeton Historical Society via Richard Veit, “Beyond the Factory Gates: The Industrial Archaeology of New Jersey’s Terra Cotta Industry”, IA: The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archaeology, Volume 25, Number 2, 1999, p. 17)

Terra cotta was a versatile product that was less expensive to produce than many other architectural construction materials. “[...Terra] cotta was produced as large blocks of hollow fired clay, sculpted and molded into all manner of shapes. Glazes in a full spectrum of colors decorated the finished product and made it weatherproof. These glazes also allowed terra cotta to imitate a variety of building materials including granite, marble, and even wood. It was less costly than real stone and could be designed by architects to fit the exact specifications of a project. [...Due] to its hollow nature, terra cotta was much lighter than stone and, therefore, easier to work with and set.” (Richard Veit, “Beyond the Factory Gates: The Industrial Archaeology of New Jersey’s Terra Cotta Industry”, IA: The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archaeology, Volume 25, Number 2, 1999, pp. 5-6)

A 1908 letter from Atlantic Terra Cotta's Northeast Manager, Frank Coombs, to potential customers echoes the advantages to using architectural terra cotta noted above, and discusses the use of polychrome glazed terra cotta. Coombs writes that "...many beautiful examples have recently been built, such as Dr. Parkhurst's Church [...on Madison Square in New York], St. Ambrose Church...and the Academy of Music, Brooklyn, N.Y., all of which were furnished by this company. Polychrome Glazed Terra Cotta, in all colors, costs only a little more than the standard material." (Letter from Frank E. Coombs to Wm. E. Evans dated March 11, 1908)

During the first three decades of the twentieth century, the "golden age" of architectural terra cotta, the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company clad many of New York's buildings in colorful architectural terra cotta facades and ornamentation. Some, like the Woolworth Building, with its more subtle exterior color scheme, completed in 1913, have already been described in this blog: https://tilesinnewyork.blogspot.com/ 2015/01/the-woolworth-building.html

(Color photos courtesy of Michael Padwee unless otherwise noted)

In the earlier years of the twentieth century colored terra cotta was used to emphasize architectural features, such as on the Woolworth Building. Much of the architecture of the 1910s that we think of as monochromatic did, in fact, use colored terra cotta. According to architectural historian Susan Tunick, "[t]he ornament on the Woolworth Building (1913) includes terra cotta blocks with blue, yellow, and green glazes. These colors, however, served primarily to articulate the building's architectural details, and they blended into the white Gothic cladding." (Susan Tunick, "Architectural Terra Cotta: 1900-1990", Studio Potterhttps://studiopotter.org/architectural-terra-cotta-1900-1990, p. 3)

The Madison Square Presbyterian Church in Manhattan (built 1906, demolished 1919), the Brooklyn Academy of Music (1908), the Brooklyn Masonic Temple (1909) and St. Ambrose Church (Brooklyn) were four early buildings where the use of polychrome terra cotta, made by the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company, illustrate the expanding use of color in architecture. According to one contemporary architectural critic the prevalent architectural view of the use of color was that there should be a "general uniformity of tone, and that that tone must be light enough in value to clearly define the light, shade and shadow of all the detailed forms, and maintain undiminished the sculpturesque quality universally associated with the greatest buildings." (J. Monroe Hewlett, "Polychrome Terra Cotta in Exterior Architecture", The Brickbuilder, Volume XX, No. 4, April 1911, p. 71) This view was soon to change.

The Madison Square Presbyterian Church was considered the "first notable example of the use of polychrome terra cotta throughout all portions of the exterior of an important building. [...In this building] the color has been applied with great reserve... . In this respect...this building is deserving of the highest praise... ." (Ibid., p. 71, emphasis added)

(Photo by Louis H. Dreyer. Cropped by Beyond My Ken, 19 November 2010 (UTC) - NYPL Digital Gallery, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12092485)

Polychrome terra cotta was initially used conservatively by architects who realized "the dangers of too extravagant a use of color." In the case of the Madison Square Church "the moderation [shown] seemed excessive. The colors were far from bold, very moderately used, partly obscured by modeling... . Nevertheless, the experiment was a marked success... . Other buildings in polychrome soon followed, and...colors were used with less conservatism." (A. Durand, "Architectural Terra Cotta", The Brickbuilder, Vol. XX, [unkn. number], 1911, p. 64)

The main colors of gold and green used on this church actually came about by accident. The original colors chosen by Stanford White were golden yellow and bright green, both of which were reliable in different kiln firings. In the firing of both glazes together, "it was found that only a slight indication of the yellow selected could be seen on the very high lights of the ornament, and that the shade deepened until almost brown at its meeting with the green. ...The change was due to vaporization of the green glaze in the burning, the gases affecting the yellow and altering the expected reaction. The...combination has since been used to advantage frequently, notably on the St. Ambrose Church in Brooklyn." (Herman A. Plusch, "The Ceramic Chemical Development of Architectural Terra Cotta", The Brickbuilder, Volume XX, No. 4, April 1911, pp. 84-85)

The polychrome terra cotta pediment and two medallions on the Madison Square Presbyterian Church, made by the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company. ("Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. Annex, New York", Architecture and Building, Volume LIII, Number 11, November 1921, p. 85)

The pediment sculpture for this church was planned by the architect, Stanford White. The design and coloring was executed by the painter, H. Siddons Mowbray, and the sculptor, Adolph A. Weinman, made a model for the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company, which produced the finished work in the required colors. (A similar process was used by Atlantic Terra Cotta for the pediment sculpture on the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1927.) "In the centre of the tympanum appears an upright tabernacle..., bearing the cross and ball in gold on an orange panel... . The figures, etc., are of a glazed white, not too cold; the lyre and the lettering on the scroll, the halos..., the knight's sword hilt and the stars, are also gilded. The background is of a luminous blue... ." (William Walton, "Contemporary Architectural Sculpture in Color", Scribners Magazine, Vol. XLVIII, No. 2, September 1910, p. 382)

The facade of The Hartford Times building with salvaged parts of the Madison Square Church. (Photo credit: Citizen Mira - user on Flickr.com - http://www.flickr.com/photos/citizenhelder/2435276210/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4410989)

In 1919 this church was razed to make room for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Annex. The architect of The Hartford Times building in Hartford, Connecticut, Donn Barber, salvaged and used sections of the church in his design. Barber wrote that "[in] the design of the new 'Times' facade the original columns, pilasters and cornices are used: the steps, platforms and base courses all fitted together as they were originally with the exception of the change in position of the pilasters. In the back wall of the arcade are used all the principal openings in the church facades. ...It has been an inspiration and a most interesting experience to have been able to preserve and use these gorgeous materials... ." ("Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. Annex, New York", Architecture and Building, Volume LIII, Number 11, November 1921, p. 85)

St. Ambrose Catholic Church was designed by the architect George H. Streeton (b. 1864, Brooklyn), and was dedicated in 1907.  This church "was designed in an Italianate style with a facade copied from the Church of St. Prudentia in Rome. The interior features a ceiling that reproduces [...the ceiling] in the Cathedral of Pisa, with side decorations copied after those in the Cathedral of Ravenna." (St. Ambrose Catholic Church"; http://www.nycago.org/Organs/Bkln/html/StAmbroseRC.html)

The St. Ambrose Church complex consisted of the church proper (1907), a four-story convent (1910) on the corner of Tompkins and DeKalb Avenues, and a three-story school (1910) on DeKalb attached to the convent. There are "Boys" and "Girls" doors at the front of the church flanking the main entry. St. Ambrose is now the Pisgah Baptist Church.

The color scheme of the facade of St. Ambrose Church. ("Polychrome Terra Cotta in the Masonic Temple of Brooklyn", The Brickbuilder, Vol. XX, No. 4, April 1911, p. 81)

St. Ambrose was the closest in color values to the Madison Square Church, but its color scheme was more brilliant than that used on the latter church. Also, on both churches "...the background color on some features was in part lost, either because the shadow cast by the ornament was darker than the [background] color, or because the background space was too small to be noticeable." (Herman A. Plusch, "The Ceramic Chemical Development of Architectural Terra Cotta", The Brickbuilder, Volume XX, No. 4, April 1911, p. 85)  This can be seen, for instance, in some of the coloring around the doors and windows.

One of the front facade doors and a window over the main entrance.

A lunette in the style of Della Robbia, and a detailed view of the terra cotta around the door.

The roof line and pediment ornament; a detailed view of the ornamentation around and near the cornice; and a detailed view of a side balustrade and its cornice ornamentation.

The Masonic Temple in Brooklyn (317 Clermont Avenue) was built in 1906 to help fund various Masonic charities, hospitals and institutions. This building was designed by the architectural firm of Lord and Hewlett in association with Pell & Corbett. " In style it is Grecian, divided, practically, into three vertical heights, which might be likened to the proportions of an ordinary pedestal covering the height of the auditorium, the die of the pedestal covering the two lodge room floors and the cap of the pedestal covering the room devoted to the uses of the commandery. The auditorium, the smaller lodge rooms on the second and third floors and the commandery room have been given their due prominence in the composition of the exterior." ("Fort Greene Historic District", New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, September 26, 1978, Designation List 110 LP-0973, p. 55)

(Photo: "Polychrome Terra Cotta in the Masonic Temple of Brooklyn", The Brickbuilder,  Vol. XX, No. 4, April 1911, special insert)

According to the architects, "[t]he Masonic Temple...exemplifies the possibilities of colored terra cotta as a building material, and Lord and Hewlett, in producing this design, have used this plastic material with...boldness and freedom... . The rich coloring is mainly concentrated in the frieze and cornice, toning down gradually to the white marble base." (Lord & Hewlett, "The Masonic Temple for the Brooklyn Masonic Guild", Architects' and Builders' Magazine, Vol. X, No. 11, August 1909, p. 435) "The plain marble base courses alternate with narrow courses of terra cotta..., sufficiently patent in their shades of cream and yellow to enliven the general tone and serve as a normal inception of the graduated [color] scheme." ("Polychrome Terra Cotta in the Masonic Temple of Brooklyn", The Brickbuilder,  Vol. XX, No. 4, April 1911, p. 79) 

The horizontally-laid base contrasts with the vertical lines of the superstructure. "The vertical lines [of the superstructure] are...emphasized by the fact that the flutes are in yellow to supplement the natural shadow and create a stronger contrast with the cream." (Ibid., p. 79)

"The architrave consists of a base course of solid cream white of sufficient height to define the recommencement of horizontal lines. ...The modeling of the panels is on a large scale so that the blue of the background and the yellow figure are easily distinguished, bringing out the full value of each color." (Ibid., p. 83)

According to the reviewer, it takes a special type of judgement to evenly graduate the colors of a building. The values of the colors are dependent on many factors: the area to be covered, contrasting elements such as metalwork and brick, etc. This is done very well in this building. (Ibid., p. 83)

A c. 1925 post card showing the original cornice, parapet and facade of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  (Collection of the Museum of the City of New York)

Atlantic Terra Cotta polychrome colors are used to good effect here to emphasize the architectural composition. This is also so for the Brooklyn Academy of Music (30 Lafayette Avenue) designed by Herts and Tallant in 1908 to take the place of the first BAM building in Brooklyn Heights which was destroyed by fire in 1903. "The land was sold, and a new academy building was constructed in Fort Greene. The choice of 30 Lafayette Ave. as the location for the new building was logical because of the site's proximity to Fulton Street, which at that time was 'the Broadway of Brooklyn,' with a multitude of theaters... ." (Lore Croghan, "A privileged peek into the Brooklyn Academy of Music's storied past", Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 25, 2016; http://www.brooklyneagle.com/articles/ 2016/4/25/privileged-peek-brooklyn-academy-musics-storied-past)

The St. Felix Street and Lafayette Avenue facades. "Of all the building decapitations committed in New York City after World War II, one of the most traumatic was the guillotining of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. A 280-ft.-long stretch of blue, yellow, red and ocher acroteria and lions’ heads originally crowned the 1908 cream terra-cotta shell, the U.S.’s oldest continuously operating performance hall. ...Herts & Tallant drew up plans for a  five-bay Italian Renaissance façade, in cream-colored terra-cotta bricks with high-relief polychrome trim. Pineapple-motif molding encircles the building’s base, and sculpted musical instruments and performing putti surround the seven entryways. The putti are portrayed reciting, singing or playing percussion. Amber stained glass in scrollwork patterns fills each doorway transom. A row of peach-marble diamond inlays runs below each window, and white porous-marble columns (currently protected by a coat of white paint) flank the side windows. In every spot that the brickwork seems plain, it’s actually embossed with tiny lyres or the names of famous composers." (Eve M. Kahn, "Terra-Cotta Symphony", Traditional Building, Vol. 18, No. 3, June 2005)

The Landmarks Preservation Commission described the building in its Landmarks Designation Report: "The main facade of the imposing Academy structure faces Lafayette Avenue. It is cream-colored brick punctuated by five entrance doors on the first floor and five corresponding double-height arched windows in the second floor. The Marquees were added over the entrance doors in 1912. An ornamental band of glazed terra-cotta surrounding the doors and windows helps to unify the facade. The building is divided horizontally into two main levels, by three decorative bandcourses. One bandcourse runs along the top of the granite base, while another runs continuously around the building between the first and second stories. The third bandcourse is at cornice level. The elaborate terra-cotta cornice was removed in the mid-20th century [and restored in 2004]." ("Brooklyn Academy of Music Historic District", New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, September 26, 1978, Designation List 118, LP-1003, p. 15)

The balustrade and restored cornice. "On the Academy of Music and the Masonic Temple..., broad fields were allowed for the color so that the distance from the ground would not destroy the polychromatic effect." (Herman A. Plusch, "The Ceramic Chemical Development of Architectural Terra Cotta", The Brickbuilder, Volume XX, No. 4, April 1911, pp. 84-85)

"At the base the terra-cotta is two shades of cream, and it becomes darker and richer on the upper portions of the facade. The windows are framed in deep green and yellow. Originally the cornice, set with 22 full-sized lion's heads complete with manes used blue, yellow, red and sienna to produce a warm brown-colored effect. Cherub figures alternating with representative ancient musical instruments surround the entrance doors. The strip of ornamentation which surrounds each window has a green background set with cream and yellow flowers and buds." (Ibid., p. 15)

The doors are bordered with alternating, very high relief, Della Robbia-style roundels containing cherubs and high relief panels of musical instruments. All have a yellow or sienna-colored background. Terra cotta ornamentation also surrounds the windows. Old gold and green appear throughout the facade.

The entire exterior underwent restoration that was completed in late 2004. A team consisting of the architectural firm of Hardy, Holzmann and Pfieffer Associates along with Building Conservation Associates, conservation and restoration consultants, Robert Silman Associates, structural engineers, and Graciano Corporation, specialists in historic masonry and concrete restoration, worked "to restore the façade of the structure back to its original glory. After 10 decades of exposure to the elements, the [main building] required extensive masonry and stone rehabilitation, terra cotta repair and replacement, cornice, parapet and balustrade replacement and repairs to the building’s flashing systems and supporting structures. [...]Boston Valley Terra Cotta [...created] new bricks to match the building’s original rough-finished, hand-made materials. They also relied on the company to reproduce damaged and missing terra cotta elements. Restoration of some highly detailed ornamentation, such as cherubs and musical instruments, required the skills of Graciano’s Gino Marchese, superintendent at the site, as well as other crafts-men." ("Work On Brooklyn Academy of Music Comes To An Impressive End", The Milestone Report, Fourth Quarter, 2004, pp. 3, 8; http://www.graciano.com/pdf/Milestones_2004.pdf)

Now, "[close] up, the riotous color palette is complex and subtle. 'The layering, the translucency of the glazes is extraordinary,' [Jonathan] Strauss[, architectural project manager for H³ Hardy] explains. 'Most terra-cotta buildings of the time...are basically monochrome. On BAM, under every glaze there’s even a green or gold or red wash. ...The ornament looks deeper than it is. It lights up when the sun hits it, and it’s incredibly bright at night.'” (Eve M. Kahn, "Terra-Cotta Symphony", Traditional Building, Vol. 18, No. 3, June 2005)

A revolution in architectural polychromy began, slowly and conservatively, with these and other early twentieth century buildings in the United States. It was only in "...the late 1910s and early 1920s [...that] this understated role of color was gradually replaced by a bolder palette, permitting color to be used for its own decorative value.
This attitude toward color -- that it should stand out and attract the viewer's attention--became widespread. Colored terra cotta was introduced as an emphatic element in entryways, street-level facades, cornices, and lobbies. An enormous range of glazes, including metallic lusters, vivid yellows, cobalt blues, or fashionable 'deco' shades such as lime green, lavender, and ebony, was developed." (Susan Tunick, "Architectural Terra Cotta: 1900-1990", Studio Potterhttps://studiopotter.org/architectural-terra-cotta-1900-1990p. 3) 


My thanks to Eve Kahn for alerting me to the existence of the terra cotta beach. For the past eight years Eve wrote the "Antiques" column for The New York Times, and her scholarship will be greatly missed by many of us. I would also like to thank Susan Tunick, a founder of Friends of Terra Cotta, for her help and permission to use the photo of the Standard Terra Cotta plant. Susan's article in Studio Potter, "Architectural Terra Cotta: 1900-1990" is an excellent introduction to everything architectural terra cotta.



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