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Terra Cotta in SF

by Jason Cohen

There is a multitude of terra cotta building decoration in San Francisco, and much of this is thanks to the town of Lincoln, 30 miles northeast of Sacramento. The town began in 1861 as a railroad terminus on land owned by railroad pioneer Theodore Judah. Civil War veterans settled in the area to raise cattle and orchards, and coal mining began in 1873. In 1874, when a source of high quality clay was discovered nearby, several Chicago businessmen decided to open a clay products manufacturing plant. A year later Gladding McBean opened as the first producer of clay sewer pipe west of the Rockies.

Sewer pipe was, and continues to be, Gladding McBean’s main product. In 1884 the company began producing architectural terra cotta pieces for building decoration. Terra cotta literally means burned earth and has been used since Roman times for architectural pieces and large statues.

Terra cotta was an extremely popular material for buildings from 1890-1930. The beginning of this period is when skyscrapers were invented. Lighter weight than stone and less expensive than having to pay stone masons to carve designs into granite or marble, terra cotta became a popular cladding material for the outer walls of buildings.

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In the Hunter-Dulin Building (Sam Spade’s 111 Sutter Street office), terra cotta is used as the cladding (siding) for the steel frame of the structure.

Terra cotta also provides a fire insulation quality, required on steel frame buildings since steel melts in a hot fire. However, terra cotta buildings did not stand up well to the 1906 earthquake and fire. The Gladding McBean headquarters building on Market Street in San Francisco, along with many others, was destroyed.

Another benefit of terra cotta is that it can be glazed in a wide variety of colors, textures and finishes to meet architectural specifications. Each manufacturer employed a ceramic chemist whose full time job was developing new glazes. One of Gladding McBean’s most successful innovations was a glazed material called Granitex. It is almost impossible to distinguish from real granite.

The imitation stone is so convincing, that walking through downtown San Francisco, it can be difficult to know if we’re looking at stone or terra cotta on the wall of a building. Here’s a clue—because terra cotta is brittle and can be chipped easily, architects generally used real stone for the first few feet above the sidewalk to resist damage from handcarts, briefcases, and so on. Above this, the wall cladding will often be terra cotta. On close observation you may see small chips in the surface, and if what’s behind the chipped surface is tan/brown in color, it’s probably terra cotta.

Just a few of the Gladding McBean buildings familiar to City Guides and seen on our tours are: City Hall, Opera House, Veterans Building, Asian Art Museum (former Main Library), Mark Hopkins and Ritz Carlton hotels, Danielle Steele’s home (Spreckels Mansion), Pacific Telephone Building, Hunter-Dulin Building (Sam Spade’s Sutter Street office), Hobart Building, and the Russ Building.

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At the Adolph and Alma Spreckles’ mansion at Octavia and Washington Streets, you can see how terra cotta is often used for the capitals (tops) of the columns.

Terra cotta successfully made the transition to Art Deco and Art Moderne architecture in the 1920s and 1930s; however, very few large buildings were constructed during the Great Depression and World War II. When building resumed in the late 1940s, the Modern style, using glass and steel, became popular. Just as terra cotta was more economical than stone as a building material, glass and steel are less expensive than terra cotta. Their competitors went out of business by the late 1950s, but Gladding McBean was able to survive because of its core sewer pipe business. In recent times, work has become available for architectural restoration projects. The clay pit in Lincoln has enough raw material to last 350 years.

Gladding McBean is open for public tours each May during the “Feats of Clay” ceramic competition sponsored by the Lincoln Arts and Culture Foundation. Hundreds of original models and molds are stored museum-like in the old buildings, while glass-plate negatives of everything they produced are housed in the State Library. For information on tours see


A longer version of this article appears in GuidePost at

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