Tag Archives: terra cotta

The Breuner Building ~ a gem in sea-glass green

I’m not done with the Paramount yet… but in an effort to be quick today (I’m a bit under the gun) I thought I’d share some photos of the lovely Breuner Building, designed by Albert Roller and built in 1931. It was constructed to house the John Breuner Company Furniture Store… indicative of this early history is the building’s front facade, another terra-cotta relief (in fact the entire building is clad in terra cotta glazed in a gorgeous sea-glass green) featuring two workers crafting a chair. It’s classic Art Deco – high stylized motifs incorporating images of industry with more organic forms (leaves, swirls), and of course, always the zig-zags!

breuner building, art deco terracotta, art deco buildings oakland

The Breuner Company was established in 1865 (also indicated in relief on the exterior) but this store was opened decades later at “22nd and Broadway — despite the onset of the Great Depression — to join fellow retailers H.C. Capwell and I. Magnin, and the grand and elegant Paramount and Fox Oakland movie palaces.” (Annalee Allen) Here is a shot of the original building with the Breuner sign atop, and what it looks like now, the sign replaced by a lone flagpole.

Breuner Building, art deco buildings oakland, breuner company furniture store

Historical photo courtesy Christopher C. Curtis, Metrovation Brokerage

terra cotta relief of chair, art deco terracotta

You can see that the lower portion of the building was changed significantly and large openings were cut into the ground floor that now harbor huge criss-crossed steel trusses, likely an earthquake retrofit.

art deco buildings oakland, art deco terra cotta, breuner furniture company

breuner building on broadway, art deco buildings oakland

Surprisingly, the Breuner Furniture Company still exists today, now called Breuners Home Furnishings. The company was originally founded by John Breuner, a German cabinetmaker turned gold miner, who “founded the company in 1856 in Sacramento, California when he realized selling [furniture] to gold miners was more lucrative than mining gold for himself.” Smart man. His sons Louis and John Jr. were responsible for the later move to Oakland. The store was ultimately shuttered in the 1970’s and the building currently consists of commercial office space, including the home of The California Genealogical Society.

Art deco building oakland, art deco terra cotta

architectural terracotta, oakland art deco building

Art Deco Oakland, Breuner Building on Broadway

Art Deco & Terra Cotta

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