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.