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Roving Rube

Terra Cotta

July 10, 2003

Beaver Building, 8292 Beaver Street












1903-04, Clinton and Russell; New York City Landmark.
Brick with brightly glazed terra-cotta ornament. Office building.
(Source: "Terra-Cotta Skyline", by Susan Tunick).

The Beaver Building has gotten shaded over by the tall towers of the Wall Street area (see portrait view) and can only be seen piecemeal.

We like the mottling of the green panels here at the top of the building.*

The windows are deeply set and are also framed with green panels (2-jpg).

3-jpg shows the beavers above the entrance and, at left, under the cartouches that ring the base of the building. The Rube thought they were terra cotta -- he thinks everything is terra cotta now. But Susan Tunic identifies them as stone -- for one reason, stone carvings were favored around entrances because it was regarded as "classier" then terra cotta.


*From "Terra-Cotta Skyline":

To critic Herbert Croly writing in 1906, the brightness of the green, cream and russet glazes was praiseworthy, but he deemed the excessive attention to the upper stories 'inappropriate decoration for the top stories of a tall building'. (p. 57)

The rich imagery on the upper reaches of New York's tall buildings is aptly described by Anatole Broyard in a 1981 article in the New York Times: 'So many of its architectural idiosyncrasies are high up in the air, where the pedestrian cannot see them. Statues, towers, miniature temples, spires, gargoyles, masks, Mayan-like shapes and colors, Art Nouveau sinuosities, Gothic extravaganzas, and cubistic jumbles ... it's like a secret city existing on a ethereal plane.'

Like Broyard, I frequently wondered why a great deal of ornament had been placed so high up that it could not be readily appreciated by pedestrians. Surely it was not the result of generous speculative builders, willing to incur expense for the pleasure of those in neighboring towers. More likely, architects with their beautiful renderings successfully persuaded owners of the potential financial benefits of elaborate ornamentation. Architectural display became part of the owners' marketing strategies, and the visual showmanship of many commercial buildings intentionally expressed the underlying competitiveness of the city's business community. (p. xii)

The Rube's two cents:

  • A friend said she heard the ornament was aimed at the occupants of the neighboring tower tops, as they represented the peer group of the occupants of the tops of any particular tower, and were who they most wanted to impress. This seemed so true to human nature that she felt no need to wonder further.
  • The Rube is currently reading "Skyscraper Dreams: The Great Real Estate Dynasties of New York", by Tom Shachtman, which argues that major skyscrapers serve also as monuments to their developers, who in most cases feel New York is their town and it's got the world's best skyscrapers, especially theirs. In such a case a builder might demand more ornament than even the architect wanted.
  • This makes three cents, but if you put a lion on the top of your building, everyone can see it from blocks away -- even if they can't see exactly what it is -- it makes them look at your building and see how high it is. If you put the lion at street level, only the poor saps who work there see it.

































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