Searching for the Age of Terra Cotta

Terra cotta, a fired clay, is used mostly for the ubiquitous roofing tiles that lend the Los Angeles cityscape a Mediterranean tone.

The material, which literally means "burnt earth," also is used occasionally for detailing, such as the green-glazed banding on the facade of the new addition to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

But from the turn of the century through the 1920s, it was embraced by architects here and generously applied to a generation of neoclassical, Renaissance Beaux Arts, and Art Deco-style structures, most notably office buildings and theaters.

Light, durable, waterproof, fireproof, clean and easy to build with, terra cotta was used then principally to simulate the look of much heavier and more expensive building materials, such as marble, granite and cut stone. It also had the capability of being shaped and molded in a variety of engaging forms and colors to be used for decoration.

(The use of the material faded in the 1930s in the face of the more subdued Streamline Moderne style and the growing influence of the severe International movement and its preference for unadorned glass and steel; the latter dominating the architectural scene until recently.)

Two marvelous and contrasting examples of the use of terra cotta can be seen in the decoration of the Eastern Columbia building at 849 S. Broadway and the Fine Arts Building at 811 West 7th St.

On the Eastern Columbia Building, designed by Claude Beelman and built in 1929, terra cotta is used in the form of highly glazed green and blue tiles with gilded inserts to lend the structure a sleek look and a stunning tone. The building, which not coincidentally houses the Los Angeles Conservancy, is an Art Deco landmark.

On the Fine Arts Building, designed by the architecture firm of Walker and Eisen and built in 1925, terra cotta is used in the decorating of the Italian Romanesque-styled structure with a host of gargoyles, griffins, grotesques and what-have-you, seeped in mythology.

Almost everywhere you look, there are creations in terra cotta at which to marvel. Among my favorites are the finely rendered figures of a warrior, clergyman and scholar on the molding of the recessed arched entrance.

Most distinctive are the two large figures reclining on the opposite ends of the cornice above the third story. They were designed by Burt Johnson to represent, appropriately, sculpture (represented by the bust at the foot of the south figure) and architecture (represented by column capital at the foot of the north figure).

The Fine Arts and Eastern Columbia are among 22 buildings that are on a walking tour, inaugurated today by the Conservancy, to explore the use of terra cotta in the downtown area.

The tour, which costs $5 for the public and is free to members, is scheduled to become part of the conservancy's permanent repertoire of tours and will be offered the first Saturday of every month, beginning Oct. 3. One also could shape his/her own tour, with the help of the conservancy guides to downtown. For information, call the conservancy at (213) 623-CITY.

Among the other buildings to be viewed on the tour is 818 West 7th St., across from the Fine Arts Building. Designed by Curlett & Beelman, the entry to the Italian Renaissance Revival-styled building is spectacular and is said to have been inspired by the Strozzi Palace in Florence.

For some exquisite terra-cotta decorations on the facade, look on either side of the four-story entrance at the figures of Pan, each grasping crossed keys over a heraldic device with a rampant lion.

Gods, Directors, Actresses

Terra-cotta figures of note on other buildings include a god and goddess above the entrance of the Pacific Mutual Building, 523 West 6th St., and a scantily clad director, holding a camera and megaphone, and a bare-breasted woman, holding a mirror in one hand and fingering her beads with the other, on the facade of the Tower Theater, 802 S. Broadway. (Giving too precise a location would spoil the fun of examining the facades for the figures.)

Not on the conservancy tour, but one of my favorites, is the Million Dollar Theater, 307 S. Broadway, designed by Albert C. Martin Sr. in 1917. Particularly engaging is the parade of statues on the fourth-story facade wrapping around the building and representing the Fine and Lively Arts.

What also is represented is a full flowering of terra cotta and a grand and fanciful age of architecture.

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