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Arts & Culture, Historic Preservation

Look up! Architectural Terracotta Everywhere

Ever been walking along 3rd Avenue in downtown Seattle and happen to look up and see a bunch of walruses staring back down at you, complete with tusks the size of your head? Seattle is home to many great examples of architectural terracotta, and Robert Mech is here to tell you all about it.

March 13, 2015

Ever been walking along 3rd Avenue in downtown Seattle and happen to randomly look up at Cherry Street only to see a bunch of walruses staring back down at you, complete with tusks the size of your head? No? Well, let me tell you, you’re missing out. Or maybe you just have yet to be introduced to the intricacies of the terracotta Beaux-Arts polychromatic style that permeated the building culture of Seattle far into the 1930s... Or, maybe I’m just a hopeless romantic student of architecture, awed by the masterful craftsmanship of elements far too expensive to pay for nowadays with our blue-collar budgets...

Such was not the case after the Klondike Gold Rush of the Northwest between 1896 and 1899. Lesser-known perhaps than the California Gold Rush of 1849, such prospectors who were lucky enough to strike it rich banded together in 1908 and founded the Arctic Club of Seattle, and commissioned a building to document their exploits, designed by local architect A. Warren Gould in 1916. (No, not the same Gould as the University of Washington’s Gould Hall, named after Carl F. Gould.) Gould ornamented the third-floor façade with (I don’t know how many there are – someone let me know and solve the mystery!) multi-hued walrus heads to celebrate the frozen tundra which provided these prospectors with their discovered wealth.

Arctic Club entrance
Arctic Club entrance

Entrance to the Arctic Club

Arctic Club Walrus corner
Arctic Club Walrus corner

Polychromatic Terracotta Panels

Arctic Club Walrus
Arctic Club Walrus

Close-up of a Walrus Head Gargoyle

Expounding the beauty of terracotta goes far beyond the scope of this blog post. Suffice to say that this clay-fired art form diminished and fell to the wayside during World War II, bowing to more economical and mass-produced forms of ornament in building stock. But for the basic understanding, it is quite similar to clay brick, which is a product fired in a kiln and sometimes glazed and colored to taste. If you’ve got ceramic tile in your home, you’ve got the bones of terracotta. Artisans, largely anonymous to this day, crafted the molds that created these walrus heads, and many uncounted other fantastic ornaments around our great city. If the industry of terracotta were alive today (and don’t get me wrong – several facilities still manufacture terracotta for unique purposes and high-paying clients) these artists would be celebrated with the Michelangelos of their time. (Seriously, like any artisan they were undervalued with what they bring to a society.)

KM_C654e-20150312134159
KM_C654e-20150312134159

Architectural Graphic Standards, Third Edition 1941

Historic Seattle, a non-profit I’m a proud member of, recently held a great lecture, film show, and panel discussion with a myriad of fine experts in the history of terracotta in Seattle, including a structural engineer named Mark Morden from Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates that actually helped design and restore these aforementioned walrus heads to the Arctic Building after years of substandard maintenance. Check out this detail image, and then a more in-depth paper on the restoration!

KM_C654e-20150312134233

For those of you less interested in the chemistry, mathematics and engineering of such artforms, just remember to look up the next time you’re walking through downtown Seattle. Many, many examples of our rich terracotta industry still exist, from the Woolworth Building on 3rd and Pike (now Ross) to the landmark Smith Tower (formerly the tallest building west of the Mississippi, dog-gonnit!).

We’re surrounded by our past, so you can’t help but embrace it. Do yourself a favor and appreciate the things that last – even if you don’t like each style, I hope you can appreciate the workmanship and pride our ancestors put into this tangible world!

Thanks for listening. Tune in next time for more of Robert’s Ruminations, or Mech’s Musings, or whatever people at Board & Vellum end up calling my endless rants on bygone eras.

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