Sturgis and Brigham, Museum of Fine Arts. Terra cotta tiles manufactured by John Blashfield. (Boston Museum of Fine Arts)

As earlier noted in Dr. Cutting’s 1880 report, it was perceived that good building practice dictated that even decorative stone trim should be eliminated from brick walls, due to the potential damage likely to result from the stone’s exposure to heat.  Therefore, an architect who wanted to impart some type of ornamental relief to a brick wall had to either employ a variety of coursing patterns (as we saw in Furness’ designs) or actually have the brick sculpted in place.  This latter practice was quickly supplemented with the use of molded brick, but the high degree of intricate carving inherent with stone was still lacking in these brick techniques.

The need for a highly plastic material that could withstand not only the rigors of the North American climate, but also the high temperatures generated by a fire, had already been resolved in Chicago after the 1871 fire with Sanford Loring’s development of architectural terra cotta.  While I have reviewed Loring’s development of porous terra cotta (fire clay tile) as a fireproofing material, I have not delved into his earlier pioneering efforts to fabricate an American ornamental terra cotta. During his partnership with William Le Baron Jenney (1868-70), Loring had become involved with a small terra cotta company in Indianapolis that had been purchased in 1868 by Chicagoan J.F. Nichols that he had moved to Chicago.  Loring had dissolved his partnership with Jenney in the spring of 1870 so he could devote his efforts solely on improving the quality of the company’s products. Concerned about the quality of their product and aware that England at this time had overtaken France in the quality of its architectural terra cotta, Loring wrote to the largest English terra cotta company, owned by John M. Blashfield in Stamford, Lincolnshire, and eventually secured the talents of the company’s foreman, James Taylor, who arrived in Chicago in August 1870.  This was a stroke of good fortune for Chicago’s architecture, for upon his arrival in New York in the spring of 1870, Taylor had first tried to secure financial backing to start his own company.  Luckily for Chicago, Taylor found the minds of New York’s architects closed to his ambition:

“My dear sir, there can be but one opinion upon that subject.  It would most surely fail.   has been tried over and over again, and every attempt has resulted in loss and vexation to all parties concerned.  We know all about that material; it is useful enough in Europe, but it will not withstand the rigors of our American climate.  If that young man intends to continue his trade of making I would strongly advise him to return to England, for he will find it impossible to earn a living for his family at that trade in the United States.”

Therefore, Taylor had no alternative but to move on to Chicago, for:

“In 1870 the New York architects and builders certainly were not ready for the reception or use of architectural terra cotta, and therefore no organized effort was made at that time to manufacture it in this vicinity… The first American city to welcome architectural work was Chicago.  The Western metropolis teems with men who, like the Athenians of old, are ever on the lookout for some new thing.  The cost of stone, the rusting of iron and the danger of wooden structures to city property led them to cheerfully welcome a material that would… give them a decorative and useful building material.”

Adopting the English improvements Chicago Terra-Cotta’s products immediately improved to a quality that began to support architectural applications, fortunately just in time for the post-fire building boom.  Taylor also appears to have changed the company’s design emphasis from that of imitating stone to one that exploited and expressed the inherent plastic qualities of terra cotta.

While Chicago Terra-Cotta had already provided terra cotta for over 300 buildings in the Midwest by the time of Taylor’s departure from England early in 1870, Blashfield had just shipped to Boston his first terra cotta produced for an American building.  John H. Sturgis, a Boston architect who had been in England since 1866, had gained a firsthand knowledge of the developing English technique that apparently paralleled Loring’s mounting interest.  In 1869 Sturgis had designed “Pinebank,” the Edward N. Perkins House (grandson of James Perkins, T. H. Perkins’ brother and partner in Boston’s largest China trade firm) in Boston that was erected early in 1870.  Sturgis contracted Blashfield to produce a terra cotta parapet and ornamental panels that were carefully shipped to Boston for the house.  Thus, the East Coast had received its first significant example of English architectural terra cotta not much later than Loring’s first applications in Chicago using the English improvements by Taylor.

Sturgis’ interest in terra cotta may have been one of the factors that led to his firm’s (Sturgis & Brigham) winning the competition in February 1871 for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to be erected on Copley Square (where the 1867 Temple of Peace had been erected).  The successful use of terra cotta and molded brick in Perkin’s house, who coincidentally was the chairman of the Boston’s Athenaeum’s Fine Arts Committee that had originally proposed the museum, probably lent credence to Sturgis’ entry that incorporated terra cotta on a large scale for the first time in the East.  While working on the final design and coordinating the terra cotta details with Blashfield, who was, once again, contracted to produce and ship it to Boston, Sturgis took the opportunity to share his knowledge of English terra cotta at the 1871 A.I.A. convention in a paper that coincidentally preceded Wight’s observations of the Chicago fire.  After giving a brief history of the material, Sturgis listed three major advantages of terra cotta:  it weathered better than any other material, including stone; it was not only cheaper than carved stone, but could be produced in quantities at a faster rate; and lastly, it weighed much less than stone that meant not only that it was easier to transport and erect, but also the load imparted to its supporting structure was much less.  

Sturgis and Brigham, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1870-76. (JSAH, May 1973.)

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until 1874 that the Boston Museum’s construction began.  First, the Boston fire of November 8-9, 1872, and then the financial Panic of the following September, kept postponing the start of construction on the Museum, which didn’t open until July 3, 1876, some five years after Sturgis and Brigham had been awarded the commission.  By this time, Sturgis’ successful incorporation of Blashfield’s terra cotta in the building had made the city a prime potential market for the introduction of Loring’s product in the East.  Following the completion of the Museum in July 1876, after almost six years of successful exterior applications of architectural terra cotta in Chicago, Loring took advantage of three large orders from Boston for ornamental terra cotta and made arrangements to rent a portion of the Boston Fire Brick Co. facilities in order to start up a second factory.  This was not only a more feasible arrangement than trying to transport such a large quantity of finished terra cotta over such a distance (although it had been done before), but more importantly, it also afforded a base office from which to expand the company’s business in the region of the country where the Depression was first letting up.  Fortunately, Loring was able to entice his former foreman, James Taylor, who had just retired to New Jersey in early 1876, to supervise the new operation.  Loring himself also moved to Boston to aid in the start-up and to procure new contracts.  such as in Philadelphia, (Christ Church Chapel designed by J. P. Sims in 1876) and In Providence, Rhode Island.

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

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