Terra Cotta was the vinyl of nineteenth century architecture --inflammable and seemingly watertight, lighter than brick and cheaper than stone, moldable into any shape or texture, available in any color. Mississippi Valley clay had already made Saint Louis a brick manufacturing center, so it is not surprising that it became a "terra cotta city" as well.

While architectural terra cotta is often associated with utilitarian products like drain pipe and roof tile, Saint Louis' Winkle Terra Cotta Company is still famed for its architectural ornaments. Winkle's friezes, angels, and gargoyles began with wagon loads of clay "farmed" from local beds being leavened with minerals and specialty clays at the company's Manchester Avenue plant. Molders then pressed the mixture into plaster patterns in a workshop where:

there is no sound save that of the slapping and punching of the non-resistant clay which endures this purgatorial process and severe persecution that it may subsequently receive the crown of an honored position in an important public structure.

The molded ornament was then steam-dried, glazed, and fired, with "from five to eight days ... required for watersmoking and burning".

Saint Louis' ornamental terra cotta appears in landmark buildings all over the country, but a great deal of it stayed home. Louis Sullivan's Wainright Building used Winkle Terra Cotta, as did such vanished Saint Louis landmarks as the Carleton and Buder Buildings and Millner Hotel. Terra cotta ornament also added a note of high style to many of the city's utilitarian commercial buildings, suggesting that firms with offices in the Wainright or Carleton had had small beginnings themselves.




TOP: Generations of budding stenographers and bookkeepers passed through the doorway of the Speedwa School at 3107 Grand Boulevard, near the site of Sportsmens Park.

ABOVE: Far from downtown at the crossroads of Jefferson Avenue and South Broadway, the two-story Mueller Building has an entrance worthy of a skyscraper. However, garlands and cornucopias are a strange backdrop for the scrawny eagle who guards the door.

RIGHT and LEFT: In Saint Louis even plain commercial buildings were built with ornate tera cotta doorways.

The ivory-glazed side street doorway at the left is around the corner from the entrance to a storefront. It likely once led to the upstairs offices of a dentist or insurance salesman. The faux marble doorway at right once led to a store's "showroom". The frieze's center crest memorializes the building's original occupant, in 1906 when its address was on Franklin rather than Martin Luther King Avenue.

BELOW: In inner-city Saint Louis, all Chinese restaurants seem to refer to themselves as "Chop Suey". This last building standing on Grand Boulevard between Martin Luther King Avenue and Cozens Street is saved from drabness by its terra cotta piping, inset floral emblems, and peaked cornice chevrons.

BOTTOM: During the 1920s, terra cotta broke out of its classical motifs and became popular as glazed polychrome tile. Many factories of the era used terra cotta tile facades to suggest that they were bright, clean, and modern, with no connection to the dim, dismal, Dickensian brick Victorian workhouse. It is particularly fitting that the old Mutual Cleaning Company plant on Martin Luther King Avenue is faced with this material and particularly ironic that it now appears to need a serious cleaning itself.

Terra cotta has two natural enemies. One, ironically, is water. When decades in the elements craze a glazed terra cotta surface, minute cracks allow moisture to soak into the porous layer of fired clay underneath. When the water freezes, its expansion "spalls", or fractures the surface, leaving a pockmark. In an extreme case, a spalled ornament can look like it was blasted with shotgun pellets. Also, most ornamental terra cotta is hung on metal mesh or support bolts. When sealing fails and water rusts these supports, elements can fall of their own weight.

The other enemy is the architectural salvage market. Like cemetery headstones, stained glass windows, or iron gates, vintage terra cotta ornaments are known to disappear long before a building is faced with demolition. While it is not known how it happened, the Mutual Cleaning building is now missing most of its cornice ornaments.

For a turn-of-the-twentieth-century description of the Winkle Terra Cotta Company's operations, click here

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