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.

Republic Plaza

I think Republic Plaza is one of the most handsome buildings on the Denver skyline.  A simple geometric form, Republic Plaza was designed by Donald Smith of Skidmore Owings and Merrill, also known as SOM, and was built between 1983 and 1984.  Not only is it Denver’s tallest building, but it is reported to be the tallest building in the Rocky Mountain region.


Republic Plaza has very little ornament and almost no surface texture.  Signage is applied above the triple-height first-floor level, and there are two short mechanical floors horizontally dividing the building into thirds.  Each façade is also divided into vertical thirds by thin metal-framed expansion joints that run from the ground to the roof.


Many people think Republic Plaza is a boring white box, but I think its simplicity results in an understated, elegant building.  It was built using Sardinian granite veneer panels surrounding square windows, which in turn have pale gray frames.  The polished granite panels are pale cream speckled with light gray and some black grains.


When seen from afar, the granite reads as an even, cream-colored façade, while the windows reflect the sun, the clouds, and even adjacent buildings depending on where you are standing and the angle of the sun.  As a result, the building’s appearance changes over the course of each day.  It is this reflectivity that makes Republic Plaza so spectacular to me, especially when you catch it reflecting a crimson sunset.  And because it is the tallest building in the area, downtown Denver’s skyscrapers can be in shadow while Republic Plaza still glows with the last glimpses of the day’s light.


Due to its height, Republic Plaza can be seen from all over the city.  It was built on the diagonal street grid of downtown Denver, while the rest of the city is set on a grid matching the cardinal directions.  This lets you see two sides of the building reflecting different features.


Not only is the exterior simple and elegant, but the interior lobby also reflects the exterior’s understated elegance.  The lobby has no interior partitions other than the Vermont verde marble-clad elevator banks.  This elegant design brings to mind the mid-century designs of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, such as the glass, jewel-box Manufacturers Hanover Trust Building designed in the 1950s by Gordon Bunshaft.

My admiration of Republic Plaza will likely be derided by many preservationists who fought hard to stop the 1981 demolition of the original Republic Building.  Although I appreciate the design of Republic Plaza, the demolition of the Republic Building is a real shame.  This earlier building was a beautiful buff-brick and terra-cotta clad office building designed by G. Meredith Musick, a master of Art Deco design in Denver.  Historic photographs of the building can be found on the Denver Public Library’s Western History Collection website.  My favorites are this detail of the entrance and this overall photo of the building.

Fire Station No. 1

Fire Station No. 1, which is the home of the Denver Firefighters Museum, was designed by architect Glen W. Huntington [pdf] and constructed in 1909.  This handsome building on Tremont Place replaced the earlier Fire Station No. 1 located on 15th Street near Broadway, which was demolished to make way for the 1911 Pioneer Monument.


I was surprised to learn that although it was built in 1909, Fire Station No. 1 originally housed horses and horse-drawn fire wagons.  (According to the National Register nomination for Fire Station No. 1 [pdf], it was not until 1924 that all fire houses run by the Denver Fire Department used modern, motorized firefighting equipment.)  From 1909 until the mid-1920s, the first floor of Fire Station No. 1 contained horse stalls and fire wagons, while the second story held a large hay loft.  In 1932, the station house was remodeled: the wood floor was replaced with concrete, plumbing and electric equipment were updated, and the hayloft was replaced by a kitchen and dining area for the firefighters.  In addition, new garage doors were added at the ground floor to accommodate larger motorized firefighting equipment.

The building was an active fire house until 1974 when a new Fire Station No. 1 was erected on Colfax Avenue.  Rather than demolish the building, several citizens and prominent fire firefighters were able to save it by creating the Denver Firefighters Museum.  The museum, which opened in 1978, is a popular attraction for children and adults alike.  The building is both a Denver city landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The masonry of Fire Station No. 1 is a buff, iron-spotted brick with Indiana limestone trim.  Three courses of rowlock bricks – headers turned perpendicular to their normal orientation – frame a large arch at the second story, and a single course of rowlock bricks surrounds the round oculus windows flanking the arch in the photo below.

DFD No1detail2

If you look closely at the brick in the photo below, the iron spots give it a nice texture while the light-colored mortar makes the masonry read as a unified whole.  The entire building was restored in the 1970s and remains in excellent condition.

DFD No1detail1