Polychrome Terra Cotta at the Buerger Bros. Building

The Buerger Bros. Building in Downtown Denver is one of the most amazing examples of polychrome terra cotta that I have ever seen.  This five-story exuberant Art Deco-style building was constructed in 1929, and was designed by Denver architect Montana Fallis.  The terra cotta was supplied by the Denver Terra Cotta Company, who teamed up with Fallis one year later on the Mayan Theater.


Buerger Bros. were a beauty- and cosmetics-supply store who also manufactured proprietary beauty products.  The company was founded in Pueblo in 1885 and moved to Denver in 1888.  They erected this office building and store on Champa Street in Downtown Denver in 1929, where they remained in business until 1983.  The building is now residential lofts.

Architecturally, the Buerger Bros. building was designed with a verticality that gives it the appearance of a much taller and more grand structure.  The fluted piers between each window bring the eye up to wonderful, stylized anthemia, which splay into the terra-cotta frieze.  The frieze is framed at the top and bottom by zig-zag patterned projecting bands, and has polychrome roundels containing stylized floral motifs.  It is by far a masterwork of Art Deco ornament.  But let’s look more closely at the masonry.


There are two types of terra cotta on the façade: mottled, glazed terra cotta and polychrome terra cotta.  The mottled, glazed terra cotta makes up the body of the building.  It was manufactured by spray-applying a beige-colored glaze layer onto each dried terra cotta unit, then lightly spraying a second, slightly darker beige glaze layer in a speckled pattern on top of the first glaze.  The terra cotta was then kiln fired to form a vitreous glaze on the porous clay body.


The polychrome terra cotta, found at the spandrels, cornice, and the second-floor column capitals, was made with both hand-painted glazes and spray-applied mottled glaze.  The polychrome hand-painted glazes were applied first.  Once those dried, the terra cotta manufacturer must have applied some sort of masking over the polychrome elements to protect them from the spray-applied mottled glaze.  I would guess some sort of wax was used that easily burnt off in the kiln without affecting the finish of the glazes, though I am not sure how it was actually done.  If you look closely at the terra cotta in the photo above, you can see the intricacies of the polychrome units.

You can also see in the photo below that the mottled glazed units had a rough texture so that the terra cotta could more closely mimic eroded sandstone or limestone.  The vertical orientation of the combing marks also contributes to the building’s vertical appearance.


Finally, I want to bring your attention to the base of the building, which is shown in the photo above.  It is fairly common for builders to use natural stone such as granite at the bottom of a building, as granite is more durable than terra cotta in wet conditions.  Building bases tend to be wetter than piers due to rain or snow collecting along the sidewalk.  They are also subject to regular applications of de-icing salts in winter.

At the Buerger Bros. building, there are two types of masonry at the building’s base, neither of which are granite.  The green speckled units that support the windows are cast stone or terrazzo.  They do not call to mind any natural stone, but their color complements the rest of the terra cotta masonry.  The dark brown masonry units at the bases of the piers, however, are actual terra-cotta units.  They are so convincingly glazed that it is nearly impossible to tell the difference between these terra-cotta units and actual granite.  The only clue is a spall at the lower right where you can see the tan-colored clay body of the terra cotta behind the glaze.  It just goes to show you that the Denver Terra Cotta Company knew their glaze technology and employed master glaze artisans at the end of the 1920s.

Berthoud Hall

I have been doing a lot of research on architectural terra cotta this year, focusing on terra cotta manufactured in the Denver area.  Over the summer, I came across an article about Julius Peter ‘Pete’ Ambrusch, the lead sculptor at the Denver Terra Cotta Company from 1923 to about 1939.  The article referenced a project that he worked on at the Colorado School of Mines, so I thought I’d drive over to see if I could identify which building he worked on.  Sure enough, I spotted it right away: Berthoud Hall.


Berthoud Hall was designed by Temple Buell [pdf] in 1937 and was constructed between 1938 and 1940.  It was a WPA project, though it was constructed late in the Depression.  Named after a Mines founder and early trustee, the building houses the Geology Department and was home of the Geology Museum from 1940 until 2003, when it moved to a newer building on campus.

This was not Temple Buell’s first time working with Ambrusch and the Denver Terra Cotta Company.  The architect and sculptor had worked together on the Paramount Theater, the richly ornamented terra-cotta building constructed in 1930.  Berthoud Hall, however, has a classical Beaux-Arts design compared to the Art Deco-style Paramount Theater.  Berthoud Hall is a four-story rectangular building flanked by two lower wings to the east and west.  The wings were later additions constructed in about the 1950s, though they are of a similar style to the original building.  The Denver Public Library has several great photographs of Berthoud Hall both before and after the wings were added.

Terra cotta is one of my favorite building materials, and it is exemplified in all of its glory at Berthoud Hall.


The entrance is richly ornamented with cream-colored terra cotta, as are the window mullions, the spandrels, and the masonry cladding across the fourth floor.  There are even two terra-cotta benches built into the walls flanking the entrance, which you can see in the photo above.


Look closely at the rich ornament of the terra cotta above the entrance.  The panels include foliage, eagles clutching swirling ribbons in their talons, banded reeds (or perhaps dynamite sticks?) with hatchet blades sticking out of the cluster, and an elegant layered cartouche framing an oval window.  There is even a man’s face, complete with forlorn expression, watching everyone who enters and leaves the building.  Although you can see the mortar joints at the curved entrance panels and at the cartouche, the naked eye would be hard pressed to find joints in the panels to the left and right of the oval window.  This is terra-cotta sculpting at its finest.

Similar ornament appears at the fourth floor, especially at the corners.  The corner panels are even more opulently decorated than the entrance, with fountains, cornucopia, fruit, and swirling foliage surrounding a richly textured cartouche.  Note also the rich details of the window mullions to the left and right of the corner panels.


When you look at the terra cotta close up, it also has a wonderful texture.  The two – possibly three – glaze colors give the impression natural stone that has been hand-carved, rather than molded clay that has been glazed and fired.


When I visited the campus over Thanksgiving weekend to take photographs – I stupidly forgot my camera the first time I sought out the building, and an iPhone just doesn’t do it justice – I thought maybe those east and west wings were later additions.  The terra cotta was similar in nature, but didn’t have the same ornamental richness as the central portion of the building.  The glaze color is the same (though it appears a little lighter in my photograph below), and the sill course at the second floor has the same profile as the main portion of the building.  But the detailing of the window mullions suggests to me that these were not designed by Ambrusch.  While ornate, they have a simplicity that you would not see in Ambrusch’s work.  Also, the mullions project outward at the window head, as though they were meant to support a projecting bracket.  It is an odd detail, and I would not doubt if the east and west wings have moisture problems around the second-floor windows when rainwater or snow pools on those ledges.


Weak Mortar

Over the holidays my family experienced a masonry disaster.  The culprit: weak mortar.  A bit of chaos ensued, but fortunately there was a conservator in the house to help stabilize the situation.

You see, on Christmas Eve my sister and her kids made a gingerbread house.  My niece and nephew had a great time decorating their gingerbread house with candy and frosting.  Their house looked beautiful!  And they were so proud of their creation.

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Following the obligatory photo shoot, the adults retired to the living room when suddenly there was a crash!

And a scream!

And two sad little whimpers.  (Followed by giggles, naturally.)

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The gingerbread house had collapsed!!! (Dun dun dun)

Fortunately, an architectural conservator who specializes in masonry construction was on hand.  She rushed in to try to assess the situation.  She found that the mortar was too soft for the large slabs of masonry.  It simply didn’t contain enough cement support the heavy roof structure.

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We knew that specialized contractors would charge triple on a holiday, so the conservator did the best she could to piece the house back together.  The result was a stabilized ruin, complete with an open roof and a bit of sagging ornament.  Some ornament had to be removed from the ruin, as it was too damaged to be reinstalled.  And sadly, a looter (aka grandpa) scavenged a few choice pieces.  But the conservator did such a good job that the ruin stood true for several hours until the house was devoured by marauding giants (aka my niece and nephew).

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