Duck Duck Book

43 – last of the handmade buildings
03.4.2007, 12:01 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

Last of the handmade buildings : glazed terra cotta in downtown Portland / Virginia Guest Ferriday.
Portland, Or. : Mark Pub. Co., 1984.
[MCL call number: 725.097954 F389L; four copies, no holds; one copy reference only at Central Library]

If you stood on the east bank of the Willamette River in the 1890s and looked across at downtown Portland, you would have seen riverside warehouses backed by a dark brick and stone business district, with few buildings higher than eight or so stories.  The same vantage point forty years later offered a view of a modernized city center with tall steel framed buildings, many of them faced in pale, glazed terra cotta. 

Why terra cotta?  When you build a building that is very tall, you have to find a way to keep it from falling down.  Around the turn of the century, steel frame technology allowed for a sincere revolution the design of large buildings — with light but sturdy steel frames to hold everything up, you could build extremely high without having to build walls nearly as thick as you would if you were trying to build out of stone.  But unlike buildings built of stone and brick, steel framed buildings do not have facing material and frame in one package — you have to cover up the steel with something.  Terra cotta is a nice solution because it is fireproof, much more lightweight than stone or brick, it can be formed into decorative and useful shapes easily, and it can be glazed in many colors. 

Ferriday’s thoughtful study of downtown Portland’s terra cotta buildings chronicles the period of their construction and profiles 40 surviving buildings.  She begins with a short but careful history of the development of downtown Portland and the general and local factors that allowed glazed terra cotta buildings to become, for a short period, a dominant architectural form.  Next are chapters on the technical concerns of terra cotta manufacture and application, terra cotta as an ornamental medium, and preservation of terra cotta building components.

Finally, Ferriday inventories 40 of downtown Portland’s glazed terra cotta buildings — from the Wells Fargo Building on SW 6th and Oak (built in 1907) to Charles F. Berg’s glorious department store on SW Broadway between Morrison and Alder (built in 1930), each building is described in detail, including the circumstances of its construction and information about its architect, original owners, initial use, decorative and architectural elements, and historical context.  A contemporary photograph or architect’s drawing illustrates each entry, and Ferriday provides a detailed list of sources for each building — this is the part that makes my librarian heart sing, really, because I know it must have taken hundreds of hours of research to build these little bibliographies of city records, professional and newspaper articles, pamphlets, company archives, and interviews. 

Although Last of the Handmade Buildings is clearly written and easy to read, it is so well illustrated (a useful picture, I think, on just about every page) that even those who do not trouble to read the text should find the book educational and interesting.

 * * *

In addition to her work on this book and as associate editor of the regional architectural history Space Style, and Structure : Building in Northwest America (reviewed above), Ferriday is dear to the hearts of local librarians and researchers for another project: she was the coordinator of a city-initiated inventory of historic properties that was completed in the early 1908s.  The inventory was published in binder form, and provides basic historical information about thousands of glamorous and everyday buildings in every Portland neighborhood, from Sellwood to St. Johns and Montavilla to Portland Heights:

Historic resource inventory, City of Portland, Oregon : identified properties.
Portland, Or. : Bureau of Planning, 1984.
[MCL call number: O- 720.9795 H675i; one copy reference only at Central Library]

 * * *

Those of you who become fascinated by terra cotta buildings should be interested to know that there are certainly other books about them.  Seattle’s terra cotta buildings are tersely inventoried in Impressions of Imagination : Terra-Cotta Seattle (Seattle, Wash. : Allied Arts of Seattle, Inc., 1986), which also includes ten essays on various aspects of terra cotta architecture, a glossary, and a walking map. 

New York City’s terra cotta buildings are lovingly described in Terra-Cotta Skyline : New York’s Architectural Ornament (by Susan Tunick, New York : Princeton Architectural Press, 1997), which includes some really lovely full-color modern photographs of New York City’s rather lurid polychrome terra cotta decoration as well as a helpful history of the terra cotta industry in New York and across the country.

No doubt there are books about terra cotta buildings in other cities as well.


2 Comments so far
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Would you be able to recommend a source for the complete inventory of Terracotta buildings in the US with date of constructiion? Thanks, Chris Dietemann

Comment by Chris Dietemann

That’s a great question! Unfortunately, I don’t know of a resource that inventories terra cotta buildings across the United States. I’d be surprised if there were a comprehensive inventory, since terra cotta was so widely used in the early twentieth century.

There is an organization devoted to the preservation and study of terra cotta buildings in New York called Friends of Terra Cotta — they may be able to suggest resources.

Good luck!

Comment by Emily-Jane

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