The late nineteenth century saw the rise of terra cotta as a popular building exterior facade material by offering the general appearance of carved stone at a substantial cost saving. Available in a variety of colors and standard shapes, architects could develop complex patterns and designs with off-the-shelf materials supplemented by special pieces fabricated in any shape desired. By the 1950s, changing architectural styles and rising labor costs brought the golden age of terra cotta use to a close.
Many vintage terra cotta-clad buildings have survived the wrecking ball and are today prized for their stylish appearance. Notable survivors include the Wrigley Building and the Reliance Building in Chicago, and the Union Trust Building in Pittsburgh. Architects, engineers, and contractors tasked with the evaluation, maintenance, and repair of these buildings are frequently faced with a daunting task. Failures of terra cotta facades, in some cases resulting in large pieces falling to the street, have been reported in the newspapers of large and small cities alike. The underlying problems can frequently be traced back to long-term deterioration related to original design misconceptions, and ongoing misunderstandings regarding the behavior and construction of terra cotta facades.
This paper will review the history of terra cotta as a facade material. The authors will present information regarding historic terra cotta fabrication and erection details, and their manifestation as facade problems today. Sources will include vintage literature on terra cotta construction, as well as the experience gained by the authors while investigating and repairing terra cotta facades.