It’s hard to think of any one company that had more influence on the look of Indianapolis than the Indianapolis Terra Cotta Company.
The Indianapolis Terra Cotta Company (along with its parent company, the American Terra Cotta Company) was a prominent leader in the early 20th century in the development of architectural cladding and decorative details that were attractive, easy to maintain, and low-cost (compared to the earlier stone decorations). The repeated design motif was a popular architectural technique in the early 1900s, and terra cotta was a cost-efficient way to achieve this look.
In the 1920s and 30s, glazed terra cotta tiles helped give a building a sleekly modern appearance that enhanced the simple lines of Art Moderne and Art Deco styling. Some examples here in Indianapolis include the Coca Cola buildings on Massachusetts Avenue:
Virginia Avenue State Bank (College and Virginia Avenue):
Belmont State Bank (Washington at Belmont); and the Moynahan Store Building (Crawford Bakery). Other examples of buildings with prominent terra cotta embellishments from Indianapolis Terra Cotta include the Madame C. J. Walker building, the Old Trails Office (Washington St.):
both the Granada Theatre (now the Murphy Building in Fountain Square): and Fountain Square Theaters, Oscar McCullough School (at the State Museum), and several pavilions on the State Fairgrounds, just to name a few. You can probably think of more.
Fans of terra cotta tile may want to find a copy of Statler Gilfillen’s American Terra Cotta Index for the complete records from Indianapolis Terra Cotta through the mid 30s. The book provides a chronological list of buildings that utilized tiles from the company, as well as the architect for the project. And should you ever want to take a terra cotta tour of other areas of the Midwest, you’ll find records from Chicago, Minneapolis, and other cities in American Terra Cotta Index as well.
After all this close inspection of these beautiful architectural details, you may turn into a real terra cotta wonk as I did—and you’ll want to snag a copy of George Berry’s Common Clay: A History of the American Terra Cotta Corporation 1881-1966. The book contains numerous pictures of buildings (both here and gone) that spotlight the simple beauty of the medium. IUPUI library was able to get both books for me through inter-library loan.
The people who built these lovely buildings really didn’t need to add those intricate and sometimes quirky terra cotta details, but they did. You may think you know what these buildings look like from driving past, but until you’ve parked the car and walked right up to the front door, you still have a lot of Indianapolis history yet to experience.