Given that New York City has a Friends of Terra Cotta organization, the city has an emotional attachment to the material. 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 nineteenth century. 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 of the garment district. 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.
Decades 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 one of our Lucy Moses award winners, 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 facade without specifying a viable replacement. SUPERSTRUCTURES treats every building like a landmark, whether designated or not.