Ornamental Maintenance An Architectural Primer on Terra Cotta

Recently many northern tier cities have enacted building façade inspection laws to ensure public safety. One of the primary reasons for these laws has been aging and deterioration of the ornamental on older buildings, which is made from architectural terra cotta. When architectural terra cotta is maintained properly, it is a safe and beautiful material which gives older buildings their character.

What Is Terra Cotta?

Architectural terra cotta was primarily used in this country from the late 1800's until the 1930's. It is a man-made material used to imitate carved stone. Terra cotta is cast from molds and baked in an oven. Finally a glaze is applied and the material is baked again, just like a dish or a coffee mug. The shapes that terra cotta can be cast into range from simple square blocks to ornate statues. Because the final color comes from an applied glaze, there is no real limit to the color possibilities, but usually we find architectural terra cotta in beige and sometimes red ochre colors.

Terra cotta units are hollow, much like a concrete block. They are also a weak material and therefore, can only be used in an ornamental fashion. It can not be used to support the weight of the masonry wall above it. In most buildings there is a supporting framework made from steel that supports the terra cotta, especially at projections like cornices and ornamental balconies.

Terra cotta was used because it was less expensive than stone and the architectural terra cotta could be mass-produced to further reduce its cost. It was also easy to create custom designed pieces because of the ease of molding and fabrication of terra cotta units. Architectural terra cotta is also a lighter weight material than stone, which makes it easier to install and support than stone work.


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  • I would like any information that you may be able to provide relating to companies which may produce replacement parts for TerraCotta facades. We are currently restoring the exterior of our Masonic Center, built in 1913. There are currently 14 tiles which are failing and need replacement. We are located in Battle Creek, MI. My email address is Thank you Dave