Speaking The Terra Cotta Language: Gladding McBean Adds an Earthy Touch to a Boston Renovation

2 Posted by - August 18, 2014 - Americas, Architecture, Design, Urbanism
Burnham Building Faux Pillars

Burnham Building closeup Beaux-Arts faux pillars.

The original vision and final result of a renovated building are usually quite similar. The vision of the architect and developer is conceptualized as a finished product, and usually if all goes well, the result is very much like the vision. The new owners and/or tenants can see what the architect and the visionary saw, and it all makes sense. But what the onlookers and tenants or owners don’t see are the backstories of process and material, especially when it comes to renovation and restoration.

A perfect example of this is the renovation of the Burnham Building in downtown Boston. It is part of a much more expansive development, Millennium Tower Boston, and both appear as they were meant to be, in direct architectural contrast.

Millennium Tower Boston will be one of the tallest buildings in Boston: a sleek new skyscraper, contemporary in every way. In contrast, The Burnham Building, which couples with the Tower (they will connect at the lower levels.) has a past. It was architected by legendary Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, and was completed in 1912 as the location for William Filene and Sons’ department store, better known as Filene’s. This was the last major project by Burnham and his only work in Boston. This building was widely regarded as one of the best examples of Beaux Arts architecture in Boston. The look and feel of the building, which eventually took over a city block, was replete with cornices, swags and other sculptural embellishments. Together, the Tower and the Burnham Building define the architectural discourse between Boston’s past and future, just as they symbolize Boston’s new urban spirit. 

Millennium Tower Boston

Beautiful rendering of the Millennium Tower Boston project.

The renovation of the Burnham Building has been ongoing for almost two years. The companies chosen to do the renovations had to understand the building’s DNA, and be able to work within the Beaux Arts designs, and compliment other exterior and interior embellishments.

The renowned Gladding McBean Company was chosen for one very specific aspect of the extensive renovations because their reputation involves two required dimensions:  They know Terra Cotta, and they have been in business for 135 years using this material to exceptional architectural benefit. Gladding McBean is the only remaining major manufacturer of hand-sculpted Terra Cotta in the United States. Despite a number of technological advances, these artisans perform their work using tools similar to those used at its inception.

The company was founded in Lincoln, California, near Placerville in Northern California, where Mr. Gladding himself came in the mid 1800’s to inspect clay beds for his original Chicago company that made sewer pipes.  The clay beds were exceptional, and the company evolved, becoming expert in all types of Terra Cotta construction. Within the past 100 years, Gladding McBean built many exceptional terra cotta buildings in California, including many city halls, courthouses, state libraries and many other famous buildings, including the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. Their company also developed a reputation for being the historic repository of molds and models for buildings that no longer exist. They have been handcrafting architectural Terra Cotta since 1875.

Terra cotta means “burnt earth,” and is an exceptional clay product that provides the flexibility to be molded and shaped to imitate almost any material or design, past or present. Terra Cotta can accurately reproduce a historic building facade or create unique elements on a renovated design. The qualities of Terra Cotta are its high compression strength, allowing for high weight capacity, and its low moisture absorption. Both of these factors make it an ideal material to withstand tough climates – especially Boston’s winters. Thus, the renovation of the Burnham Building, aspects of which deal with the plasticity and strength of Terra Cotta in the re-creation of the Burnham Building’s original designs, was administered by Gladding McBean, many of whosecraftsmen are 4th generation employees.

The process of molding the Terra Cotta designs and glazes for use in the Burnham Building renovation defines a great attention to detail, as everything must match. It is a fascinating, time consuming, delicate, process: the design team selects a fragment of the stone from the original building; the glaze is matched and shop drawings are created. The sculptors then use the same stone fragment as a reference when hand carving the patterns, that are then recreated onto the new Terra Cotta stone models.  Then, a five-sided box is constructed around the model and Plaster-Of-Paris is poured to create the mold. The mold is used to create the new replacement Terra Cotta.  After it dries, the glaze ceramic engineers mix the glaze to match the building glaze, and then the glaze is put on the Terra Cotta.Then, the stones are shipped to the construction site. The renovations are scheduled to be finished in late 2014 or early 2015.

With the ongoing renovation of the Burnham Building and the construction of Millennium Tower Boston, it can be easily seen how much the past and future inform Boston’s architectural present, adding an organic liveliness to a great, historic American city.

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