Terra-Cotta Comes Back as a Luxury Home Material of Choice

by | Jun 26, 2018 | The Wall Street Journal

It’s a material associated with some of the country’s most iconic historic buildings, such as New York’s Flatiron building, Seattle’s Smith Tower skyscraper and Chicago’s famed Rookery Building. But terra-cotta, the clay-baked ceramic, went out of style as a building material in the mid-20th century as developers increasingly turned toward the more in vogue glass curtain wall.

Now, experts say terra-cotta is making a comeback as condominium buyers gravitate toward a more traditional aesthetic in what some are dubbing a “backlash” against all-glass towers.

Some developers, from New York to San Diego, are restoring old terra-cotta buildings, such as the historic Woolworth Building in Lower Manhattan, or incorporating elements of terra-cotta into brand-new projects.

As a result, two of the largest U.S. producers of architectural terra-cotta, New York-based Boston Valley Terracotta and California-based Gladding, McBean, said they have seen a big jump in business over the past few years.

A representative of McBean said the company has seen about a 70% rise since 2014 in prospective projects planning to use terra-cotta.

“It’s not really a minirenaissance anymore,” the representative said. “It’s growing by leaps and bounds.”

The Fitzroy, Manhattan

An Art Deco-style condominium project by JDS Development Group and Largo Investments in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood uses 5,696 terra-cotta blocks in 518 types in shades of dark and light green, juxtaposed to copper-clad window frames, according to the developers, who said the craftsmanship gave a more “human” element to the Roman & Williams design. The blocks were painted by hand or in a spray room at Boston Valley’s hangar-like facility in Buffalo, N.Y. The boutique condo project has 14 units on 10 floors. JDS Development said the majority of units are in contract, but it took remaining units off the market until construction is completed in October.

Pacific Gate Condominiums, San Diego, California

In San Diego, developer Bosa Development uses terra-cotta wall paneling inscribed in geometric patterns with golden glaze for the entry of the Pacific Gate Condominiums, a 215-unit building designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox. The design is intended to suggest rays of a setting sun, said Boston Valley, which shipped and installed the panels. Jinsuk Park, design director at KPF, said the firm was inspired by the bright ceramic tiles at Santa Fe Depot, the city’s historic downtown train station. Units at Pacific Gate, completed earlier this year, range from about $1.1 million to just over $4 million.

11th  Beach Street, Manhattan

HFZ Capital, the developer of a boutique condominium in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood, used terra-cotta tile to line the project’s inner courtyard, said Julie Nelson of BKSK Architects, the designers. The ivory matte terra-cotta slabs, shaped to resemble a butterfly or a bow tie, are made to reflect natural light and make the building interiors brighter. Terra-cotta is also incorporated into the facade, between the windows. Ms. Nelson said terra-cotta has a timeless quality and is fitting with the neighborhood’s overall aesthetic. The project has 27 units on 10 stories. A penthouse is on the market for $22.5 million.

207 West. 79th Street, Manhattan

A new project by architect Morris Adjmi on New York’s Upper West Side has a terra-cotta facade incorporating floral patterns, designed to catch light and shadow, and to give the modern building “a more contextual look,” the Gladding, McBean representative said. It is adjacent to the landmark Lucerne Hotel, which has a terra-cotta facade dating to 1903. The 19-unit project, developed by Anbau, includes a penthouse priced at $15.45 million.


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