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.

Mullen Building at St. Joseph Hospital

Shortly after I decided to start this blog, a friend introduced me to the Mullen Building at St. Joseph Hospital.  Located on Franklin Street in Denver’s Uptown neighborhood, the Mullen Building is a masterpiece of Art Deco brick work, the likes of which I had never before seen.


Designed by celebrated Denver architect Temple H. Buell, the Catherine Mullen Memorial Nurses Home was erected between 1932 and 1933.  Money for its construction was donated by Ella Mullen Weckbaugh in memory of her mother, Catherine Smith Mullen, though the source of the family’s wealth was Ella’s father and Catherine’s husband, John K. Mullen.

John Mullen had an interesting life.  According to Wikipedia, he was born in Ballinasloe, County Galway in the 1840s, moved to the United States when he was about 10 years old, and eventually settled with his family in Oriskany Falls, New York where he worked in a flour mill in his teenage years.  That may not sound remarkable to most people, but his family’s choice of Oriskany Falls surprised me.  Oriskany Falls is a tiny village in Central New York not too far from where I grew up.  It seems like a strange choice for Irish immigrants in the 1850s, as the town is land-locked in the center of New York State, it is several miles from the Erie Canal, and the area was still considered the frontier as late as the 1830s.  In the nineteenth century, the countryside around Oriskany Falls was (and still is) largely agricultural, though by the 1850s there must have been sufficient industry to attract the Mullen family.  However, John did not stay in Oriskany Falls for long.  By his late teens, John Mullen moved west to seek his fortune in Kansas and later in Denver.  He purchased his first flour mill in Denver in 1875 and by the 1880s owned several mills and consolidated the industry.  He eventually diversified his investments to land and cattle, and was known for his philanthropic work as he grew older.  But enough about Mullen.  The brick masonry of the Mullen Building is what fascinates me.


Temple Buell’s design for the Mullen Building included the use of a contrasting buff-brick body and deep-red brick piers.  Each line of windows is connected from the ground to the parapet with these wonderful vertical piers of undulating brick.  When you first glance at the building, it appears as though the red-brick piers are rising up to meet the sky, but the downward angles of the decoration also appear as though the brick is melting down the façade.  Descriptions of the building often use both upward and downward vocabulary, with History Colorado calling the brick ornament “a rustic wheat tuft”, while another website calls it “waterfall” brickwork.  Either way, Buell’s remarkable, dynamic design is uniquely his own creation.  (Buell used similar geometric ornament at the Paramount Theater, built in 1930 using terra cotta, as well as the brick-clad Horace Mann Middle School, built in about 1939.)

The brick that Buell selected for the Mullen Building not only varied in color, but it varies in texture.  If you look closely in the photo below (click to enlarge), you will notice that the buff brick of the building’s body has an etched spiral design on its stretchers and on some of its headers, though other headers have simple linear striations created by the extruded brick’s die.  The red brick has similar spiral patterns intermixed with plain sides and striated headers.


Buell’s method for installing the brick is also unique.  Typically brick is laid in stretchers or headers, perhaps with a few upended or diagonally laid bricks to create ornament.  At the Mullen Building, the red brick piers were created using alternating patterns of headers, stretchers, rowlocks (or headers oriented vertically), and soldiers (or stretchers oriented vertically).  The buff brick body has several courses made with a mixture of stretchers and headers, and are separated by a course of recessed rowlock bricks.  This irregular pattern of brick installation allows the outer wythe of brick to better bond with the inner back-up brick courses and creates a more stable wall system.

The Mullen Building’s street façades and side elevations are clad with the same unique masonry ornament, but the adjacent structure’s window piers also pay homage to the Art Deco masterpiece.  The adjacent structure, which is to the southwest of the Mullen Building, is partially visible in the photo below, just above the glass skywalk.


The adjacent building, which appears to be a mechanical annex of the main St. Joseph’s Hospital structure, has a red-brick body with decorative spandrels, sills and parapets executed in rough textured, maroon brick.  Although it’s certainly not as interesting as the Mullen Building, it is nice to see that the architect of the addition paid homage to Buell’s masterpiece.


State Capitol Annex

The State Capitol Annex is one of my favorite buildings in the Civic Center.


Funded by the federal Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Capitol Annex was completed in 1939 as an addition to the 1894 Capitol Building located across 14th Avenue.  According to the National Register nomination [PDF], the Annex and adjacent Boiler Plant were designed by a group of architects known as the Associated Architects for the Colorado State Capitol Annex Building, led by G. Meredith Musick [PDF], a well-known and prolific Denver architect.  Other architects in the group included Arthur A. Fisher, Sidney G. Frazier, F.E. Mountjoy, C. Francis Pillsbury and Charles E. Thomas.  Several of these architects went on to collaborate on other projects as the local economy began to improve in the 1940s.  The general contractor, the F.E. Kirchhof Construction Company, was also prolific in the early part of the twentieth century.


This majestic building is like a recipe book of Art Deco features: setbacks, curved corners, windows stacked in vertical piers, and stylized ornament carved in low relief.