Terra Cotta Not on Terra Firma

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The year the Titanic went down, the grandest building in Ventura went up, complete with neoclassic columns, stained glass domes, marble floors--and built into its facade, a $6-million repair bill that could come due any day now.

That is the estimate for fixing or replacing hundreds of damaged terra cotta tiles spanning the exterior of Ventura's City Hall, built in 1912 as the county courthouse. While the glazed tiles give the building a luminous sheen, the tiles are peeling in spots, letting moisture seep in to further damage one of the area's most distinctive public buildings.

No city money is available for the massive face lift, but officials warn against doing nothing.

"If it's not fixed, the problem will keep getting bigger and more expensive," said Ron Calkins, the city's public works director. "If we don't fix a $6-million problem now, and wait 10 or 20 years, the cost could double or triple."

Between the late 1800s and the 1930s, terra cotta--a type of clay mixed with sand and then baked--was seen as a miracle material for stately buildings. It was durable, richly colored, cheaper than granite and capable of being molded into architectural ornaments such as the 24 friars' heads peering off City Hall. In fact, some old buildings with terra cotta surfaces have held up well, but many others have slowly deteriorated.

At City Hall, the friars are doing fine, but patches of glazing have worn off near the building's entrance, exposing the porous, brown terra cotta beneath. In other spots, the decay is more subtle--but, according to city officials, just as threatening, with webs of fine cracks and painted-over scars allowing rain and salt air under the surface. The caulking between blocks, installed during a renovation 30 years ago, is decaying, turning spongy and ineffective.

"It wasn't the way you'd do it by today's standards," Calkins said.

The result: colonies of black mold flourishing under the glaze, blistering the skin even more and letting moisture corrode the metal fixtures holding each terra cotta block in place.

"Once it starts, it can go on and on," said Pete Pederson, a spokesman for Gladding, McBean & Co., one of a handful of firms that still manufacture architectural terra cotta.

It was Gladding, McBean & Co., situated on a huge reserve of clay 30 miles northeast of Sacramento, that provided the tiles for Ventura's City Hall in 1912. The company's archives still hold the original plans for the San Buenaventura Courthouse, with each irregularly sized terra cotta block numbered for future reference.

Making the blocks is an arduous, expensive process--many must be hand-crafted--and installing them is an equally specialized task, Pederson said.

"You can have a mason who's a good bricklayer or one who can build a straight concrete block wall, but what you need is a mason who really knows terra cotta," he said. "It's a different kind of skill."

All that adds up to eye-popping costs, with installed terra cotta running as much as $100 per square foot, according to experts.

"It gets very, very expensive, very rapidly," Pederson said.

Using an engineering study commissioned in 1999, Ventura officials have estimated their job would require four years' work at a cost of more than $6.4 million. By comparison, the city rebuilt its landmark pier for $2.2 million. In the early 1970s, after Ventura County had deemed its old courthouse an earthquake risk and left it for a new office complex, the city renovated the entire building for $3.4 million.

The terra cotta restoration is listed in the city's new five-year capital improvement plan, but nobody knows exactly where the money for it would come from.

Tom Gardner, Ventura's administrative services manager, said the city will try to find state and federal funds for historical preservation. Designed by Albert C. Martin, the architect behind Los Angeles City Hall, Grauman's Chinese Theatre and other historic structures, Ventura's City Hall is a state landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Gardner also raised the possibility of the city issuing "certificates of participation," a form of municipal borrowing that does not directly increase taxes or require voters' approval.

"It's a classic irony," he said. "We probably chose terra cotta because it was cheaper than granite. So we saved on the construction."

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