Architecture General--the Terra Cotta City
Terra Cotta Detail on the Cobb Building
Seattle's tragic fire in 1889 devastated the young city and destroyed its downtown. From this tragedy, Seattle rose from the ashes with new building codes that required buildings to be fashioned with fireproof materials.
The new downtown buildings started off in the beautiful Romanesque Revival style popularized by architect Elmer Fisher. His finest example is the stately Pioneer Building. He went on to design a total of 50 structures in this style.
Architectural style evolved again and architects and builders turned to terra cotta and steel skeletons to build taller and thinner buildings. Most of the building's weight was born by the skeleton.
Terra cotta is clay that has been shaped into its final design and then fired in ovens to strengthen it. The weight advantage of terra cotta over granite is that a cubic foot of terra cotta weighs 70 pounds verses 170 pounds for granite. Its use in building design was aided by its weight advantage over granite as well as the fact that it was less expensive to buy and to sculpt.
Terra cotta can be made in a countless number of colors but its beauty shone with the lovely white and ivory-colored shades that were used extensively in Seattle. Architects used terra cotta for their elaborate building ornamentation that was so popular in the early 20th century. Tastes changed and terra cotta fell out of favor by the 1930's.
For lovers of early 20th century architecture and terra cotta ornamentation, Seattle is a veritable gold mine. Some of Seattle's grand terra cotta buildings such as the Orpheum Theater have been lost to the wrecking ball but many buildings remain from this era and many of them have been restored to their early grandeur.
We are going to point out some notable examples of buildings with terra cotta. This is not a comprehensive list but it offers you a few of my favorites.
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506 Second Avenue
This is my favorite building in Seattle. I fell in love with this structure years ago. It just happens to feature beautiful white terra cotta cladding. For many years, this was the tallest structure in Seattle. Smith Tower still features a shimmering elegance as it gazes over the Pioneer Square District. Interestingly, the terra cotta has been cleaned only two times since the building was completed in 1915.
700 Third Avenue
The Arctic Club Building has always been one of my favorite architectural sights in Seattle. Its group of terra cotta walrus heads watching over the city is one of the most charming sights in the city.
500 Pike Street
This is the former Coliseum theater designed by Marcus Priteca, the famous theater architect. Priteca made extensive use of terra cotta ornamentation as is evident on this restored building.
1619 Ninth Avenue
This Tudor Revival building has magnificent terra cotta ornamentation on its red brick exterior. It is one of the most elaborate examples of terra cotta ornamentation in Seattle.
1305 Fourth Avenue
The terra cotta American Indian chief heads that gaze out serenely from their perches near the top of this building are striking.
710 Second Avenue (Pioneer Square District)
This beautiful building has a lovely terra cotta clad exterior as well as one of Seattle's most striking lobbies.
909 First Avenue
This gorgeous structure features cream-colored terra cotta flowing from the top of the building over the red brick exterior. The design of the terra cotta suggests the shape of the nearly Olympic and Cascade Mountains.
217 Pine Street
I think this is one of the most beautiful of all of the buildings that feature terra cotta. The Art Deco ornamentation in terra cotta is elegant on this terra cotta clad structure.