Northwestern Terra Cotta Company
Northwestern Terra Cotta Company 1701-1711 W. Terra Cotta Place
Founded in Chicago in 1878 by a group of investors including John R. True, this company became a major producer of terra cotta trimmings used by the construction industry. By the early 1890s, when Northwestern Terra Cotta employed approximately 500 men, annual sales approached $600,000. By 1910, its large plant at Clybourn and Wrightwood Avenues had about 1,000 workers. The popularity of placing terra cotta moldings on building facades peaked in the 1920s, and Northwestern Terra Cotta led the way, in Chicago and around the country. Around this time, the company opened plants in St. Louis and Denver. Beginning with Louis Henry Sullivan earlier in the century, prominent Chicago architects like Frank Lloyd Wright had extensive contracts with the company. Included among the many Chicago Landmark buildings for which Northwestern supplied extensive decorative moldings were the Civic Opera House, the Chicago Theater, the Wrigley Building, and the Randolph Tower. Northwestern's operations in Chicago declined alongside the construction industry during Great Depression and never returned to their 1920s levels. In 1965, Northwestern Terra Cotta Co.'s only remaining plant, in Denver, closed.
This is all about one of the largest manufacturing companies in old Lake View that had its beginnings in Lake View Township (1854-87), then the City of Lake View (1887-89) and finally District of Lake View (1889-1930). After the establishment of official neighborhoods by 1930 the location of this national, if not internationally, respected "terracotta" company was in the neighborhood of North Central near the North Chicago River on Clybourn Avenue & Wrightwood Avenue.
The company was called the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, architectural terracotta was firmly established as America's premier material for detailing commercial structures, especially the new, steel-framed skyscrapers then rising in Chicago and New York City. After the devastating Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the fireproof qualities of this ancient, baked-clay form propelled its acceptance as a less expensive and lightweight alternative stone. Terracotta's popularity peaked in the 1920s, before being eclipsed by modernist curtain walls of glass, exposed steel, and concrete.
One of the nation's pioneering manufacturers was the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company (1877–1956), headquartered in Chicago. To direct both production and installation, the studio’s draftsmen transformed architectural blueprints into comprehensive "shop drawings" that identified exactly where and how each puzzle-like piece would be secured to its supporting structure. Favored by such international architectural luminaries as Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and Albert Kahn, the company ultimately contributed to thousands of buildings across the country in a wide array of styles.
In the 1890s the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company successfully recruited European craftsmen to join the firm as sculptors in its modeling shop. These highly skilled artists could earn three or four times as much as a less skilled laborer at the same factory.
By 1920 the firm's Clybourn Avenue plant covered 24 acres and was the largest in the world. In addition to operating a second facility in Chicago Heights, the company subsequently acquired plants in St. Louis, Missouri and Denver, Colorado.
Northwestern Terra Cotta Company targeted its client base by advertising in trade journals such as American Architect. The company wasted no time promoting its involvement in the construction of the distinctive Wrigley Building—the first skyscraper completely clad "from sidewalk to searchlight" in terracotta. Not only was the gleaming white-enamel office tower Chicago's tallest structure at that time, it was the first of a series that inaugurated new development north of the 'Chicago River.
The second narrative
From the immediate post-fire years of the 1870s through the early 1930s, Chicago was a leading American center for architectural terracotta design and manufacture. Terracotta factories took advantage of Chicago’s vibrant and innovative architectural community, its strategic location at the center of the nation’s great railroad transportation network, and its proximity to clay deposits in nearby Indiana.
In Italian, terracotta means “baked earth.” For architectural purposes, however, terracotta generally refers to building cladding or ornament manufactured from clay hand molded or cast into hollow blocks with internal stiffening webs and fired at temperatures higher than used for brick. Developed first to produce clay urns and garden statuary, the Chicago Terra Cotta Company—the first terracotta company in the United States—opened in 1868 and soon expanded into architectural terracotta production. Terracotta soon became a staple of architects seeking fireproofing and decorative features in the years after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. After the fire, when it became apparent that cast-iron structural members in destroyed buildings had melted in the extreme heat, and brick and granite had broken and crumbled, terracotta came into its own as a protective, fireproof building material. Terracotta was used to encase cast iron structural supports such as I-beams and columns, as well as floor joists, partitions and as backing for exterior walls. Terracotta cornices were also in high demand because of their relative lightness (in comparison with stone) and perceived durability.
Use of terracotta expanded when Chicago passed an ordinance in 1886 requiring that all buildings over ninety feet in height should be absolutely fireproof. In addition, the city’s building boom of the 1880s and 1890s gave terracotta manufacture a tremendous boost as builders of skyscrapers found the building material an attractive medium because of its lightness, durability (crisp details did not erode over time and could easily be cleaned),and potential for decorative uses (terracotta’s plastic quality allowed for highly original ornament)—all attributes which stemmed from the nature of the material.
In the early years, however, few architects took advantage of the opportunities for colored glazes being pioneered by terracotta firms. Even an 1898 article from The Brickbuilder, entitled “Notes on Terracotta for Exterior Polychrome Decoration,” stated: “it seems to have been a question of willingness on the part of architects rather than the public that has thus deterred the use of color.” Terracotta was viewed mainly as a cheaper alternative to stone, which it often imitated in color. It was not until the late 1920s that buildings clad with multi-colored terracotta began to be become popular.
In 1927 the officers of the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company brought six French sculptors to Chicago to supply new designs for their firm. These artists introduced up-to-date Art Deco-style building ornament to the repertoire of historic architectural styles already produced by the firm, and Northwestern became known for its “Modern French” terracotta ornament. The modelers, using motifs inspired by the large 1925 fair catalog they had brought with them from Paris, quickly convinced local architects and other terracotta companies of the merits of the new Art Deco style. Soon colorful stylized flowers, dancing zig-zags, plump birds and exotic maidens began to make their debut in Chicago architecture. Unlike the prevailing historically inspired styles, these motifs represented an architectural style that looked to the future.
As interpreted in terracotta by Northwestern sculptors, nature was reduced to its basic geometric forms. In the Art Deco style, flowers and leaves became flattened circles and triangles, while the lines and patterns within these became evenly spaced rays or chevrons. Other favorite Art Deco forms were volutes, arches, rays, bubbles, symmetrical ripples, and fountains, and the stepped form known as the Ziggurat. This kind of ornament was particularly suitable for multi-colored terracotta, for the interplay of colors helped to emphasize the dramatic forms and lines of the design while making the low-relief ornament more distinct.