Chicago’s terra cotta commercial buildings are a precious and endangered category of buildings. Located throughout Chicago, these structures range from small neighborhood commercial buildings to world-renowned skyscrapers.
Many of the well-recognized “Chicago School” buildings of the Loop and Central Area are recognized as designated Chicago Landmarks, but often those in communities across the city are overlooked and have few protections. The Chicago Historic Resources Survey or CHRS, had identified some smaller neighborhood commercial structures which could be considered for possible designation when canvassing of the city’s-built environment between 1983 and 1996. Some of those buildings have been designated as Chicago Landmarks, either individually or as part of a Chicago Landmark District.
After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, fireproof brick and stone building cladding was frequently used, but the cost of stone ornament was prohibitive. Terra cotta emerged as an ideal alternate being highly versatile, inexpensive, light-weight, and fire-proof. It could be produced in any color, pattern or texture, easily replicated, and could be molded into infinite variations.
With the intense demand for this type of material, Chicago became one of the great centers of terra cotta manufacturing in the nation. Our city became home to such esteemed and pioneering manufacturers as Northwestern Terra Cotta Company, American Terra Cotta Company, the Chicago Terra Cotta Company and Midland Terra Cotta. However, the golden age of terra cotta was relatively brief, so the number of terra cotta buildings in Chicago is finite and irreplaceable once they are demolished.
Often due in part to their small size and wide distribution throughout Chicago’s neighborhoods, smaller, low-rise commercial terra cotta buildings are generally unrecognized and unprotected. Building owners are responsible for their maintenance and building condition, and this ranges widely due to the health of the community and also the whim of the owner and their financial circumstances. Terra cotta commercial buildings in neighborhoods across Chicago continue to be threatened by disinvestment and new development pressures. The result is often a slow but steady loss of these buildings.
The individual building losses appear isolated, but when viewed from a wider perspective of neighborhood and time, the trend is clear and alarming, and will continue without meaningful recognition, protection and support. With this nomination of Chicago’s terra cotta commercial buildings, Preservation Chicago hopes to focus the spotlight on many wonderful buildings, which often provide anchors to communities across the city of Chicago and are often greatly appreciated by neighborhood residents and delightful for visitors.