New York City has an emotional attachment to terra cotta. There is a Friends of Terra Cotta organization. There is no “friends of urethane sealant,” or “friends of liquid applied roofing.” Virtually all of SUPERSTRUCTURES’ award winning preservation projects have involved terra cotta.
Terra cotta is Latin for cooked earth. It’s ubiquitous in American buildings dating from the late 1800’s. In temperate locales like Seattle or San Francisco, terra cotta can be magnificent and durable. In NYC, with our combination of saline atmosphere and freeze/thaw cycling, terra cotta does not always fare so well. It can be seen, in varying states of repair, on landmarks like John Jay College’s Haaren Hall, and at the other end of the spectrum, on the “Class C” buildings that populate the garment center.
Twenty five years ago, when the terra cotta ornamentation on a Park Avenue landmark clearly required replacement, the contractor asked us, “So, what would you like to use…precast? GFRC? fiberglass?” The concept of replacing terra cotta in kind never even dawned on him.
Gradually that mindset has changed. At our recent Lucy Moses award winner, the General Post Office in Brooklyn, 17,000 damaged terra cotta units were replaced – with new terra cotta. GFRC (glass fiber reinforced concrete), precast concrete, and even FRP (fiber reinforced plastic) are all viable options depending on circumstances. More and more, damaged terra cotta is being replaced in kind. But because only two companies produce terra cotta for the North American market, product availability and its impact on schedule has become a significant consideration.
One thing we will not do is remove decorative terra cotta from a façade without specifying a viable replacement. SUPERSTRUCTURES treats every building like a landmark, whether designated or not.