Put-downs and terracotta

Published 10 February 2016

WG+P have been working with the University of Notre Dame, an American institution with premises in the UK, on refurbishment works to their student residences at Conway Hall, Waterloo.

Conway Hall is grade II listed and enjoys a prominent London location, just across from Waterloo station. Originally the Royal Waterloo Hospital for Children and Women the building showed signs of ‘Regents Street Disease’, a common defect in early 20th century facades with stone or, as in this instance, terracotta cladding over a steel sub-frame. Gradual water ingress causes the steel to rust, this rust expands against the cementitious fill used behind the hollow terracotta units and the resulting movement generates cracks that, in some cases, can lead to terracotta falling from the façade. The only way to be certain you have solved the problem is to remove terracotta, treat the metal and replace. This often necessitates remaking damaged terracotta units.

The repairs to Conway hall encompass the main entrance where some very distinctive and highly decorative glazed terracotta, often referred to as faience, exists. Reproducing faience is seemingly a dying art with one of the few makers of this specific glazed terracotta, Shaws of Darwen, going into liquidation in 2015.

In the wake of Shaws going bust, we have been working with historic façade specialists PAYE to find alternative manufacturers. Without anyone suitable left in the UK the net for finding suppliers had to be cast far and wide.

PAYE put us in touch with an American company, Boston Valley Terracotta, as a potential supplier. Prior to their demise, Shaws had been trading since 1897 whereas Boston Valley had been manufacturing architectural terracotta for a fraction of this time. Could these artisans from across the pond be serious contenders for such specialist and historic works?

So it was with an underlying reservation of judgement that we went to meet a visiting Boston Valley representative last October.

After brief introductions we put a fairly meaningless and in retrospect stupid question to Boston Valley  “so, you do a lot of this terracotta?”

The underlying scepticism presented in the question was quickly seized upon by our American friend whose response was pointed, quick witted and admirably profession-specific:

“…ever heard of Louis Sullivan?”

Only now does the penny drop; some of the most venerable American buildings of the late 19th and early 20th century would of course be built in a similar way and suffer similar construction ailments as Conway Hall and hence need work…a lot of work.

And not just any old buildings. World renowned icons of architecture such as the Reliance Building in Chicago, Manhattan’s Woolworth Building and indeed the Louis Sullivan designed Guaranty Building, all terracotta clad with steel frame behind dating from a similar age.

These particular examples all share one other common thread, they all happen to be restoration projects undertaken by Boston Valley.

Thankfully the discussions took a turn for the better and our enlightenment followed. In the USA everything is on a grand scale and so it goes for their terracotta; huge decorative capitols need to be noticeable when viewed 50 storeys up, adorned with colour and all to a phenomenally robust specification as the freeze-thaw cycles a piece of terracotta is exposed to at the top of a New York skyscraper far exceeds anything happening on the corner of Waterloo road and Suffolk street, despite the miseries of a London winter.

Whilst it may have taken some searching, it is arresting to know that somewhere there still exists the skill and expertise to restore such buildings. What’s perhaps even more exciting is to witness how modern computer modelling and subsequent laser and CNC cutting techniques are being used to produce incredibly refined reproductions alongside traditional working of the material by hand. This brings a relevance to the process which certainly must add to the renaissance in the use of modern faience in the UK and overseas. Albeit this time without the latent defects, one hopes. Either way, the terracotta industry is here to stay.

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