A visually pleasing aspect of old downtown buildings is often their elaborate decoration. The modern movement striped the "unnecessary" decoration off buildings in order to emphasize the essence of a structure, but the older buildings in downtown are embellished with examples of architectural decoration that break the monotony of modernism.
A good example is the Heywood Building at 2014-18 Shattuck Avenue. Built in 1917, it is a small, two-story commercial building that is only one retail space wide, but it is the only building in Berkeley where terra cotta is used in such a lush and decorative manner. The facade is a composition of a ground floor storefront with a wide transom above, and a set of three arched windows on the second floor. These are all surrounded by elaborately carved terra cotta glazed creamy white and accented with pale blue and green. A heavy Classic styled cornice is also made of terra cotta.
The building was featured in the February 1919 issue of Architect and Engineer. It was designed by James Plachek, who also designed the Main Library, for William Heywood a son of Berkeley pioneer Zimri Brewer Heywood. (Berkeley Observed June 15/16)
Terra cotta simply means fired clay and the use of unfired (adobe) or fired clay (usually brick) as a building material has been used since ancient times. In Babylon Nebuchadnezzar built the Ishtar Gate in the 6th century B.C. and lined the walls with bas-relief panels of animals made from carved bricks glazed with bright colors.
In more modern times, architectural terra cotta became a popular building material as a substitute for carved stone. Its colorful decorative possibilities made its use very popular during the 1920s & 30s when fabulous Art Deco buildings, such as the Flower Depot in Oakland, were constructed.
The type of terra cotta used on the Heywood Building was made in hollow block-like sections. The clay was hand pressed into plaster molds made from hand-carved clay pieces. The sections could be glazed in any color and some were glazed to look like stone. The hollow block-like sections were then attached to the under-structure of a building with rods and wire. A facade made of architectural terra cotta was truly hand-made.
In downtown Berkeley other buildings where terra cotta is used are the Koerber Building at 2050 University Avenue, the Wells Fargo Building. the U.S. Post Office, the Kress Building and the signage on the Acheson Building, the Masonic Temple, and Roos Brothers Building.
The terra cotta on the Heywood Building was produced by the Gladding McBean Company in Lincoln, California, the largest producer of terra cotta on the West Coast. The company is still in business and many of its master molds and drawings still exist. Occasionally the company has tours of its terra cotta factory.
Susan Cerny is author of Berkeley Landmarks and writes this in conjunction with the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.