Terra-cotta, Latin for “fired earth,” is an ancient building material, made of baked clay, first used throughout early civilizations in Greece, Egypt, China the Indus Valley. In more modern times, architects realized that “fired earth” actually acts as a fire-deterrent. In the age of the skyscraper, terra-cotta became a sought-after fire-proof skin for the steel skeletons of New York’s tallest buildings. In the early part of the 20th century, the City’s most iconic structures were decked out in terracotta.
You’ll find terra-cotta on famous facades from the Flatiron to the Plaza, but the material often flies under the radar of pedestrians and architecture buffs alike because it can mimic other materials, like cast-iron or carved wood. Now, this long-underappreciated material is getting its due. On October 24th, the Historic Districts Council will present its annual Landmarks Lion Award to the terra-cotta firms Boston Valley Terra Cotta and Gladding, McBean, which work to keep terra-cotta alive worldwide, and to the preservation organization Friends of Terra Cotta, which has worked to preserve New York’s architectural terra-cotta since 1981. The ceremony will take place at Grand Central’s Oyster Bar, under the magnificent Guastavino terra-cotta ceiling recently restored by Boston Valley Terra Cotta. Fired up about finding “fired earth” around town? Here are 10 of the most impressive examples of New York terra-cotta!
Learn more about New York’s Terra Cotta Treasures
As a media sponsor of Archtober–NYC’s annual month-long architecture and design festival of tours, lectures, films, and exhibitions–6sqft has teamed up with the Center for Architecture to explore some of their 70+ partner organizations.
With stunning stained glass windows and a striking mix of Moorish, Gothic, and Romanesque features, the Eldridge Street Synagogue cuts an imposing figure on the Lower East Side. The Synagogue opened in 1887 as the first and finest Orthodox house of worship built by Eastern European Jews in America and served as a spiritual headquarters for millions of immigrants as they made new homes in New York. By the turn of the 20th century, over 4,000 congregants supported three daily services, and holiday crowds overwhelmed the building.
But, by the 1940s, the congregation dwindled, and the doors of the great sanctuary were sealed; not to be reopened until the 1970s. When preservationists rallied to save the building on its 100th anniversary, they rediscovered the splendor of the sacred structure and spent 20 years restoring it. Following a meticulous restoration, the Synagogue reopened in 2007 as the Museum at Eldridge Street. Today, the museum welcomes visitors from around the world, and preserves city’s immigrant history as well as the structure’s sacred secrets.
Learn about these 10 secrets of the synagogue
, Wed, September 19, 2018
Community Gardeners at the Bowery Houston Community Farm and Garden, 1974 via Liz Christie Community Garden
Awash in gray pavement and grayer steel, New York can be a metropolis of muted hues, but with 39 community gardens blooming between 14th Street and East Houston Street, the East Village is the Emerald City. The neighborhood boasts the highest concentration of community gardens in the country thanks to a proud history of grassroots activism that has helped transform once-abandoned lots into community oases.
By the mid-1970s, as the city fought against a ferocious fiscal crisis, nearly 10,000 acres of land stood vacant throughout the five boroughs. In 1973, Lower East resident Liz Christie, who lived on Mott Street, refused to let the neglected lots in her neighborhood lie fallow. She established the urban garden group Green Guerillas, a rogue band of planters who lobbed “seed bombs” filled with fertilizer, seeds, and water into vacant, inaccessible lots, hoping they would flourish and fill the blighted spaces with greenery.
Get to the root of the story!
, Mon, September 10, 2018
Loew Bridge ca. 1868, via NYPL
Lower Broadway is the city’s oldest thoroughfare and has always been one of the busiest. In fact, in 1867, the intersection of Broadway and Fulton Street was “continually thronged with vehicles of all kinds, rendering it almost impossible for pedestrians to pass.” Without the benefit of traffic lights, the crush of traffic was so snarled and thick that policemen had to untangle the flow during business hours so pedestrians could cross. Concerned that the sheer mortal hazard of simply crossing the street was losing him business, nearby hat shop owner Philip Genin convinced the City to build a bridge across Broadway that would ease foot traffic and just so happen to deliver pedestrians safely to his shop.
Hats off to the rest of the story
Essex Market School ca. 1890, via MCNY
With public schools back in session as of today, let’s remember that it was from the classrooms of New York City that the call for “Equal Pay for Equal Work” was sent thundering around the world.
In 1893, Kate Hogan graduated from NYU Law School with the first class of women allowed to earn JDs. By 1906, she was working as a seventh-grade teacher in Manhattan. At the time, the starting salary for a male teacher in the New York City public schools was $900 per year, but a woman in the same position earned just $600. Seeing no justice in that situation, Hogan founded the Interborough Association of Women Teachers. The Association’s mission and cry: “Equal Pay for Equal Work.”
Boynton’s Bicycle Railroad, via Wiki Commons
As Labor Day draws near and New Yorkers run to squeeze a few more beach days into the end of the summer, packed trains and ferries carry crowds to the city’s sandy shores. But, beachgoers of yore weren’t simply piling onto the Q train to get out to Coney Island. They reached the southern tip of Brooklyn via a much more zany (or visionary?) mode of conveyance: Boynton’s Bicycle Railroad. In the summer of 1890, Boynton’s Bicycle, so named because it featured two rails, one beneath the train and one above it, shuttled passengers between Gravesend and Coney Island via an abandoned section of the Sea Beach and Brighton Railroad.
The Story Rolls on This Way
Getting to know a Son of Liberty, via Fraunces Tavern
The Sons of Liberty may be best known for the Boston Tea Party, but Fraunces Tavern, the Revolutionary-era watering hole and museum at 54 Pearl Street, is showcasing the group’s history in New York City. The new exhibit, Fear and Force: New York City’s Sons of Liberty, opened on Wednesday, August 22nd in the Museum’s Mesick Gallery.
In 1765, New York’s Sons of Liberty began protesting the Stamp Act, and other measures they believed the King had no right to impose. Their active resistance to the trappings of British Rule makes for an exciting exhibition. The items on display, all culled from the Museum’s own collection, reveal the group’s pivotal role on the road to Revolution. Interactive features, like chests of Bohea tea, which you can sniff, help make visitors feel like a part of that story.
The revolution continues…
L’Ecole Libre des Hautes Etudes at the New School in 1942, via France-Amerique
In 1937, the great German writer Thomas Mann suggested “To the Living Spirit” as a motto for the New School’s University in Exile. Since the Nazis had removed the same motto from the great lecture hall at the University of Heidelberg, the phrase would “indicate that the living spirit, driven from Germany, has found a home in this country,” and that home was on West 12th Street.
Between 1933 and 1945, The New School’s University in Exile offered asylum to more than 180 refugee scholars from fascist Europe. The exiled academics became the Graduate Faculty of The New School for Social Research and represented the largest contingent of refugee intellectuals in the United States. In the classroom, they made pioneering advances in the social sciences; in the war room, they advised the Roosevelt Administration on economic policy, war information, and espionage. Educating future Nobel Prize winners as well as future Oscar winners, they influenced American scholastic and cultural life to such a degree that even Marlon Brando remembered his émigré professors at the New School, “enriching the city’s intellectual life with an intensity that has probably never been equaled anywhere during a comparable period of time.”
More living and learning this way!
New Amsterdam in 1671, via Wiki Commons
New York is the largest Latino city in the United States. Over 2.4 million New Yorkers, or nearly one third of the population, identify as Hispanic or Latino. The city’s thriving Latin community marks the most recent chapter in the history of Latin New York, which stretches over 400 years.
In the spring of 1613, Juan Rodriguez (also known as Jan Rodrigues), a free mixed-race Dominican man from Santo Domingo, became the first non-Native American person to live in what would become New York City. He arrived aboard a Dutch trading vessel, declined to leave with the rest of the crew, and stayed on until 1614, as a fur trader. Rodriguez’s settlement pre-dates the first settlers of New Amsterdam by a full 11 years, making him the first immigrant, the first black person, the first merchant, and the first Latino to live in New York City.
Learn more about Early Latin NY!
When the Piccirilli Brothers arrived in New York from Italy in 1888, they brought with them a skill– artistry and passion for stone-carving unrivaled in the United States. At their studio at 467 East 142nd Street, in the Mott Haven Section of the Bronx, the brothers turned monumental slabs of marble into some of the nation’s recognizable icons, including the senate pediment of the US Capitol Building and the statue of Abraham Lincoln that sits resolutely in the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall.
The Piccirillis not only helped set our national narrative in stone but they also left an indelible mark on New York City. They carved hundreds of commissions around the five boroughs, including the 11 figures in the pediment of the New York Stock exchange, the “four continents” adorning the Customs House at Bowling Green, the two stately lions that guard the New York Public Library, both statues of George Washington for the Arch at Washington Square, and upwards of 500 individual carvings at Riverside Church.
Chisel away at this tale