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Art Deco & Terra Cotta

March 10, 2010

I am displaying my naiveté here, but I always thought that terra cotta was that fired earthen-colored clay they made cactus planters out of… cheap and not very pretty.  But as I delve into more of the architecture of Oakland, “terra cotta” continues to pop up in unexpected places. Unquestioningly, I’ve referenced it in posts on:

And today’s building features terra cotta like you’ve never seen it!  Just look at this…

Mary Bowles Building, Oakland Art Deco Building, Blue-green Terracotta

So what’s the deal with this terra cotta stuff?

Well, to begin, my first statement was essentially correct.  Terra cotta (or terracotta, or terra-cotta) is Italian for “baked earth.”  Yes!  It’s basically a clay-based material that can be molded in any variety of ways while “raw,” to be later heated to its final ceramic state in a kiln, or in ancient times on a hearth or by the sun.  The material has been used for centuries in art, pottery, water pipes, bricks, roofing tiles, and architectural embellishments. While the color can vary widely, everything from yellow to gray to pink (which explains some of the references above), the more common clays contain iron which produces the orange or reddish hue.  And like our simple cactus planters, the finished product is light, relatively strong, and somewhat porous, which makes it non-waterproof unless glazed.

For architectural decoration, terra cotta has advantages over other materials such as marble or stone sculpture, being lighter, cheaper, and able to be incorporated into series production using mold-making techniques, similar to cast plaster (we’ll get to this in my upcoming post on the Paramount). Though early architectural applications used the unglazed material, later developments incorporated glazing, both for protection from the elements, and to allow for greater variety of finishes, including faux metal patinas, and gorgeous coloring as in our lovely blue-green example above from one of Oakland’s Art Deco lovelies.

Built in 1931, designed by Douglas Dacre Stone, and later restored in 2004, the Mary A. Bowles Building is located on Broadway at 17th near where Telegraph and Broadway unite. The building spans the block, its backside on Telegraph just as pretty as the front.

Mary A. Bowles Building, Oakland Art Deco Buildings, Terra Cotta Frieze

Mary A. Bowles Building, Oakland Art Deco Buildings, Blue Green terracotta

The terra cotta panels with their repeating swirls of organic shapes and sunburst patterns, as well as the geometric zig-zag patterns on the windows below are classic Deco. Check out the detailing on the metallic flourishes at each end… also likely molded terra cotta with a faux silver finish (similar to the Floral Depot building which we’ll also get to in coming days).

terra cotta ornamentation, oakland art deco building

terra cotta ornamentation, art deco buildings oakland

One more…
Art Deco Oakland Building, building designed by Douglas Dacre Stone

I was unable to find any information on Ms. Bowles and why she might have this building named after her, but I did find this obituary for her husband. If anyone has more information, please send my way…

Philip Ernest Bowles, Mary A. Bowles

2 Comments
  1. March 17, 2010 10:51 pm

    Hi Deb!
    (It’s Estella from Wax! :)

    I absolutely LOVE your photography of Oakland’s architecture! I just mentioned to my partner the other day about how incredibly beautiful our buildings are, especially in the downtown/uptown/old oakland areas. So many of us forget to actually look UP once in a while. :/ These are definitely some of the great gems of Oakland!

    Keep doing what you do cuz it’s FANTASTIC!!

    -Estella

  2. January 9, 2012 1:28 pm

    Hello, I ran across this tidbit doing a web search on Philip Ernest Bowles. From “Financing an Empire – History of Banking in California”, Cross, Dr. Ira B., S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1927:

    “In November 1883 Mr. Bowles was united in marriage to Mary A. McNear, daughter of George W. and Amanda M. (Church) McNear.”

    Hope that helps! FYI, I have always loved that building. Always kept an eye out for it on many a bus ride down Telegraph when I lived in Oakland.

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