after 10 years of searching, bldg. 51 museum archive secures original 1910 northwestern terra cotta company catalog

c. 1910 northwestern terra cotta company catalog cover.

the northwestern terra cotta company was founded in chicago in 1877 by a group of investors that included john r. true. the company became a major producer of terra cotta trimmings used by the construction industry. by the beginning of the 20th century, architectural terra cotta was firmly established as america's premier material for detailing commercial structures, especially the new, steel-framed skyscrapers then rising in chicago and new york city.

original 19th century advertisement post card for northwestern terra cotta company. courtesy of the bldg. 51 museum archive.

after the devastating chicago fire of 1871, the fireproof qualities of this ancient, baked-clay form propelled its acceptance as a less expensive and lightweight alternative stone. to direct both production and installation, the studio’s draftsmen transformed architectural blueprints into comprehensive "shop drawings" that identified exactly where and how each puzzle-like piece would be secured to its supporting structure. favored by such international architectural luminaries as louis h. sullivan, daniel burnham, frank lloyd wright, and albert kahn, the company ultimately contributed to thousands of buildings across the country in a wide array of styles. by the early 1890's, when northwestern terra cotta employed approximately 500 men, annual sales approached $600,000. it was during this era that the company successfully recruited european craftsmen to join the firm as sculptors in its modeling shop. these highly skilled artists could earn three or four times as much as a less skilled laborer at the same factory.

richly colored full plate (from catalog) image of northwestern's office - located in the railway exchange building. the burnham & company-designed building was outfitted with terra cotta on the outside and interior atrium.

northwestern terra cotta targeted its client base by advertising in trade journals such as american architect and they wasted no time promoting its involvement in the construction of the distinctive wrigley building—the first skyscraper completely clad "from sidewalk to searchlight" in terra cotta. not only was the gleaming white-enamel office tower chicago's tallest structure at that time, it was the first of a series that inaugurated new development north of the chicago river. northwestern's operations in chicago declined alongside the construction industry during the great depression, and was eclipsed by modernist curtain walls of glass, exposed steel, and concrete. in 1965, northwestern terra cotta co.'s only remaining plant in denver closed.

the cream-colored glazed terra cotta interior railway exchange building atrium as it appeared in 1910.

product page from the northwestern terra cotta company catalog. several examples of ornament were designed by louis h. sullivan.

matching set of original interior neoclassical style terra cotta blocks salvaged from the railway exchange building atrium during restoration. the greek key and checkered border were motifs used on both the building's exterior and interior. courtesy of the bldg. 51 artifact museum.

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