Treat and Foltz, Chicago Club House, Chicago, 1875. (Andreas, Chicago)

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I can now pick up the story, where we left of in Volume 2, Section 4.7, of Peter Wight and his development of terra cotta fireproofing for iron columns, following the July 14, 1874, fire in Chicago and the corresponding subsequent cancellation of fire insurance policies in the business district.  After his first successful test of the timber-encased iron columns on October 8, 1874, he had worked with Sanford Loring’s Chicago Terra-Cotta Company to revise the system from employing timber pieces to ones made of Loring’s porous terra cotta.  Wight’s first terra cotta-encased columns were incorporated late in 1875 in the six-story Chicago Club Building at 12 E. Monroe Street, across the street from the Palmer House, designed by Treat & Foltz as Chicago’s first genteel retreat for the likes of Potter Palmer and Marshall Field.  Four cast iron columns with the cruciform section were encased in one-foot long sections of porous terra cotta, which projected 1″ beyond the flanges and were covered with a smooth coat of Portland cement.

Peter B. Wight, Terra Cotta Fireproofed Iron Columns, Chicago, 1878. This was similar to the columns used in the Chicago Club House and the Mitchell Building (see next post), both built in 1875-76. The difference was the cross-section of the column, which was a cruciform rather than a cylinder with projecting flanges. (Brickbuilder, August 1897; Inland Architect, July 1892)

Wight did not rely on the mortar to bind the tiles to the column, for he was concerned that the tiles, when exposed to the heat of a fire, could break away from the column due to differential expansion lengthwise.  Therefore, he mechanically attached the tiles to the columns with 2-1/2″ square wrought iron plates that were located in recesses cast in the tiles that were then screwed into the ends of the column flanges. The column capitals were made by Loring’s Chicago Terra-Cotta.  These were first carved by its artist, James Legge, cut into two pieces, fired and finally set into place with Portland cement.  The shafts of the column were finished with a skim coat of plaster, completing the assembly.  The Chicago Club Building revealed the wide range of products that Loring was manufacturing in 1875.  In addition to the column capitals, Legge also sculpted the ornamental statuary contained in the front facade.  The gables of the portico and the roof were inlaid with highly sculpted majolica tiles.  The walls of red Baltimore pressed brick were accented with black enameled bricks.  The chimneys were constructed with molded terra cotta.  All of these were the products of Chicago Terra-Cotta.


During the completion of the Chicago Club Building, a new architectural magazine, The American Architect and Building News, had begun publication in Boston in January 1876.  Essentially, much of its initial support was from the A.I.A. as a means for publishing the Institute’s business and the papers that were delivered at its Conventions.  Due to Wight’s position within the Institute, he was the author of many articles in the first years of the weekly journal.  Wight’s articles were either signed, as an expert on fireproof construction, or anonymous, as the magazine’s Chicago correspondent.  Wight’s connection with the national magazine certainly enhanced Loring’s and Wight’s abilities to promote their products to the profession on a nationwide basis.  This was quickly exploited in an article by the “Chicago Correspondent” on the new Chicago Club House:

“The inventors [of the columns, Drake and Wight] have been so well satisfied with the results as seen in these, that they are recommending the use of fire-clay and Portland cement for exterior coating in preference to wood.”

The American Architect and Building News, First Cover Page, January 1, 1876. (Online)

The national preeminence of the Chicago Terra-Cotta Works at this time was assured by an atypically lengthy two-page article, “The Manufacture of Terra-Cotta in Chicago,” published in the December 30, 1876, issue. It was probably written by Wight, Loring, and James Taylor, the company’s foreman.  A complete description of the manufacturing process and facilities was accompanied by two pages of engravings that illustrated the various stages of the process.  The article stated that the company had, since its founding, already produced over half a million dollars of work, located “from Salt Lake to Boston, and from Minnesota to Texas.”  It also confirmed the fact that the company had transcended architectural ornamental terra cotta, and was producing “porous tiles for deafening or for ceilings and side-walls, porous blocks for fire-proof columns, and porous hollow bricks and flues.”

Illustrations of Chicago Terra-Cotta Works. (American Architect, December 30, 1876)

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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