The Twin Cities in terra cotta

Firenze.jpgSome of Minnesota’s most celebrated architecture is known for its ornate terra cotta exterior work, like the Victoria Crossing mall on Grand Avenue, the Suburban World Theater in Minneapolis and even the Firenze apartments in St. Paul’s Hill District.

The baked clay is part of the Prairie School influence from Chicago, where terra cotta gained a reputation for its utility and the fact that it didn’t catch fire. That was a big selling point after 1871.

And while Chicago got some of the most beautiful buildings, Minneapolis got something that may in the end be more enduring: the archives of the American Terra Cotta Company. It was the workshop that created and manufactured some of the most beautiful and ornate exteriors in the Midwest. It eventually absorbed Midland Terra Cotta, which made some of the features in this slideshow.

Famed architect Louis Sullivan liked the work of ATC’s modeler Kristian Schneider. If Sullivan had an idea, Schneider made it into three dimensions. They worked together, for instance, on the renowned National Farmers Bank of Owatonna.

Owatonna bank.jpg

But why did a Crystal Lake, Ill., building material company’s archives wind up in Minneapolis?

“We said ‘yes,’” says Barbara Bezat, assistant archivist at the Northwest Architectural Archives at the University of Minnesota. After the company quit making terra cotta in 1966, it turned over decades of drawings, photos and records to the U, where it was indexed by architect Statler Gilfillen in 1973. He said the U was the only place to ask for the stuff and have a good place to put it.

He actually discovered the records, in the attic of the factory office building. “If there’s a sister city to Chicago, in terms of terra cotta, it would be Minneapolis,” Gilfillen said in an interview from North Carolina, where he now lives.

But the cities’ family resemblance is scarcely documented. Many of the American Terra Cotta company records were inadvertently disposed of by dump truck 40 years ago. Gilfillen published only100 copies of his index, and it remains the authoritative guide to what may be one of the U’s most obscure collections.

There are 812 cubic feet of records at the U, but it includes some amazing photos of long-lost buildings in the Twin Cities, like what must have been the stunning Capitol Theater in St. Paul. And they’re even online.

Capitol Theater.jpg

Some of the buildings have been fondly remembered in Larry Millett’s books and in other places, but there are also pictures of terra cotta on buildings in Albert Lea, Duluth, Owatonna, Rochester, St. Cloud, Waite Park and Winona in the collection. The index lists buildings in no less than 97 American cities.

You can comb through the archive yourself, here.

(h/t to WBEZ in Chicago)

Photos from: Minnesota Public Radio (top), American Terra Cotta Company Records, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries.

  • http://special.lib.umn.edu/manuscripts/architect.html Barbara Bezat

    For folks who are interested in this topic – you should know that the link to the American Terra Cotta Company images housed in the Northwest Architectural Archives at the U of MN is no longer valid.

    Try this one instead, and use the search box on our home page. Click on “images”, select “American Terra Cotta Company” in the “limit search to” menu, type your search and go for it!

    We are in the process of re-creating the other search capabilities and should have most of the old functionality back soon.