Manitoba History: Titans of Clay: Winnipeg’s Terra Cotta Buildings
by Gail Perry
It was 1912. In the North Atlantic, the Titanic went down. In Winnipeg, the Allan, Killam & McKay Building went up. Home to the Allan Line Steamship Co. Ltd., it would rise six storeys at 364 Main Street, shimmering and defiant in its opulent ornamentation. It boasted nine colourful “ship’s wheel” panels above and below upper floor windows, each proclaiming the company’s pledge: “swift, safe, steady, luxurious”.
These words could equally (or maybe better) describe the fascinating but forgotten material that faced and decorated the company’s building. Architectural terra cotta, a precast kiln-fired clay material, worked by artists and forged by science, created the unique sheen, colours and crisp detail that distinguished this structure. Terra cotta was versatile, resilient, economical and beautiful.
Architectural terra cotta was popular in Winnipeg during our great building boom between the turn of last century and the First World War. It was especially favoured in the year of the Titanic when seven large new downtown buildings featured this substitute or embellishment for exterior brick and stone. In addition to the Allan, Killam & McKay Building, 1912 saw the construction of the Great Western Building (356 Main), Confederation Building (475 Main), former Union Trust Building (191 Lombard), Boyd Building (388 Portage), YMCA Building (301 Vaughan) and Lindsay Building (228 Notre Dame).
Over a dozen notable terra cotta structures still stand over Winnipeg’s downtown, dating from 1901 to 1931. Sadly lost are the towering Child’s Building (211 Portage), the Great Western Building and its neighbour, the Allan, Killam & McKay Building. These three structures were in good condition when they were razed for new developments in the 1970s and 1980s.
A large fragment of the fanciful cornice and attic story of the Allan, Killam & McKay Building has been incorporated into the back lobby of today’s 210 Portage Avenue. In the adjacent, connected lobby of 360 Main Street hang two of the ship’s wheel panels. Deeply three-dimensional, cool and satiny as china, they are wheels to grab on to, to steer through thick choppy seas into skies of yellow and blue.
These panels, like all architectural terra cotta, were made from a mixture of high-quality clay, water and previously fired clay used to reduce shrinkage in the drying and firing process to come. Each ship’s wheel panel was produced from a mould made from a detailed model sculpted by an artist.
After the clay recipe was prepared, skilfully lined in the mould and allowed to dry, it was finished with a glaze (a liquid containing finely ground minerals), slip coat (a clay and water mixture), or both. The addition of feldspar or flint contributed to the ship’s wheels’ glossy finish. Chemical additives, in different combinations, created the many different colours. The consistency and ingredients of the glaze or slip and manner of application, even the pieces’ placement in the kiln during firing, determined the final colour and texture of the terra cotta.
The “baked clay” on other Winnipeg buildings was also meticulously crafted. For example, the former Criterion Hotel (214 McDermot) sprouts decorative green foliage and red berries, entwined in geometric shapes of blue and white. Deceptively, the Curry Building (233 Portage) seems to be made of beige and black-flecked granite, intricately carved in the gothic style. In fact, it is a quality terra cotta assembled on-site. Similarly, the former Electric Railway Chambers (213 Notre Dame) is not made of pink-grey granite. The Paris Building (259 Portage) is not grey cut stone as it appears, any more than the Paterson GlobalFoods Institute (504 Main, formerly the Royal Bank Building) and Marlborough Hotel (331 Smith) are adorned with stone. Repeating architectural features on these buildings, including arches, stringcourses (banding) and pilasters (columns attached to the walls), were not individually carved by stonemasons, but precast from one or more detailed moulds.
This was the allure of terra cotta. It could be made to assume any color or texture. It could look like stone, but was less expensive. As terra cotta was lighter than stone, shipping costs were reduced and fewer workers were required at the job site. Terra cotta could be anchored to the building structure and required no finishing. This saved both time and money. As well, it proved to be more resistant to fire than stone or brick and was equally durable in Manitoba’s climate.
Its plasticity and relative lightness also expanded design possibilities. The front of the former Inglis/North West Commercial Travellers’ Association Building (291 Garry), could be festooned with ornamental fruits, vegetables and flowers. The former Birks Building (276 Portage) could be graced with delicate chips of color that appear as mosaic pictures. Defying gravity, the deep, frothy cornice of the Confederation Building could boldly project over the curve of Main Street, near Market. The largest cornice in the city, it is arguably the finest to be seen anywhere.
The production of terra cotta was not local. However, by the turn of the century, Winnipeg was well connected to the United States, Eastern Canada and, by extension, England—places where architectural terra cotta was produced. Terra cotta works were typically located in sites having appropriate clay and were primarily associated with ceramic companies and brickworks. Names like Doulton and Corning were involved in the industry. The Leeds Fireclay Company of Yorkshire, England manufactured a semi-glazed terra cotta that, in 1910, was used to cloak Winnipeg’s new Bank of Nova Scotia (254 Portage). Twenty years later, when the building was expanded westward (258 Portage), the same company produced matching terra cotta for the extension, in the same ivory with pink and yellow hues. This was so artfully executed that only careful examination reveals the building’s two-fold history.
The American Terra Cotta Company of Chicago figures prominently as the supplier for at least three terra cotta structures in Winnipeg, all designed by Chicago-trained architect, John D. Atchison. The White House (234 Portage, formerly the North West Trust Building) is faced with an exquisite cream terra cotta trimmed in dark green, blooming with cream-coloured flowers and topped with cherubs. The former Union Trust Building is clad in gleaming white terra cotta except for two lower storeys of grey British Columbia Kootenay marble. The original terra cotta cornice was replaced with a modern one, fashioned from glass fibre-reinforced concrete. The former Great-West Life/Chamber of Commerce Building (177 Lombard) bears only a top floor of grey terra cotta. However, its structural steel girders and beams are encased in terra cotta for fireproofing.
In 1928, Winnipeg architects Edward Parkinson and James Halley designed elaborate multi-coloured terra cotta panels for the now-demolished Crescent Furniture Building (northeast corner of Portage and Vaughan). The panels were produced by another Chicago firm, the Midland Terra Cotta Company. They have been incorporated into more recent construction all over downtown, including the front of Portage Place (393 Portage), the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School Residence (236 Carlton), and the Pantages Playhouse Theatre extension (180 Market) on both the Market and Main facades.
The terra cotta industry generally ended with the Great Depression. The 1930s ushered the closure or decline of most of the manufacturers. Modern times dictated cheaper and different products. Today, terra cotta is produced almost exclusively for the repair and restoration of historic buildings.
Our awareness of history is spotty. We know in exacting detail the events of a fateful voyage on 14-15 April 1912. Yet, curiously, an entire industry contemporary to that event and which prospered for decades before and afterwards, is all but forgotten. Family stories about terra cotta production are not shared in Winnipeg because it had no manufacturers here. Local people who erected the material, or watched it being hung in the construction process, are no longer with us. And even when we are made aware of its existence, our senses are tricked, telling us it is something else. It is no wonder that the fruits of the terra cotta industry are overlooked, lying beneath the surface of our collective memory.
“1912 “ is conspicuously emblazoned, in terra cotta, on the Lindsay Building. The date is dotted at every corner of the trapezoidal skyscraper, in the centre of wreathed disks just below the second floor. Cream on green, the numbers are stylized, strikingly modern. They mark a heady year in Winnipeg, in a golden age when the interests of a thriving industry coincided with a buoyant city.
And our good fortune goes on. Winnipeg is home to a remarkable list of terra cotta survivors.
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We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 8 April 2021