For decades, an underappreciated art gallery of hand-crafted, glazed terra cotta creations has resided above the daily hustle and bustle of downtown Fresno, lending a subtle and sometimes dramatic flair to the city's historic buildings. Some pieces can be found high up — as many as 15 stories above eye level — while others are easier to appreciate closer to the ground.
Created by craftsmen in collaboration with architects, mainly during the first three decades of the 20th century, these architectural embellishments helped shape the city's skyline and give character to the structures.
The post-World War I era saw Fresno blossom into a major urban center, with strong economic times reflected in the construction of the city's first high-rise buildings.
Influenced by symbols of antiquity — and the symbolism of a lasting permanence — the glazed terra cotta creations depict gargoyles, winged and fish-tailed cherubs, mythological figures, lions, goddesses, ancient scribes and laborers, dramatic masked faces, corinthian capitals and columns, and scores of botanical specimens.
Much of the work was done by artisans at Gladding, McBean & Co. In 1874, founder Charles Gladding learned of a rich deposit of kaolin clay near Lincoln in Placer County. After first manufacturing sewer pipe and roof tiles, the company expanded its product line to include architectural ornamentations. After nearly 140 years, the company, now known as Gladding, McBean, is still in business.
Terra cotta, meaning "burnt earth," became popular during the Beaux-Arts and Renaissance Revival, and later Art Moderne architectural movements. During these time periods, literally thousands of prominent buildings in major cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego and across the nation, from skyscrapers to homes, were embellished with these "burnt earth" creations.
For architectural ornamentation purposes, using terra cotta instead of carved stone was advantageous because of its versatility, its moderate price and the ease in which it could be finished with a variety of glazes and colors to replicate the look of stone. Another benefit: The terra cotta pieces were much, much lighter than stone. Most were hollow, with the clay cast in molds or hand carved.
Another advantage was its durability. Just a stroll around downtown shows how it has, over time, been found to be nearly impervious to weather. Many pieces today look as they did the day they were installed.
Terra cotta fell out of style as modernization — with its cleaner look of steel, glass and concrete — took hold in architectural design work after 1945. In some cases, the terra cotta embellishments were stripped away to help modernize a building.
Fresno has several buildings where terra cotta features can be seen:
The Security Bank building (formerly the Pacific Southwest Bank building), built in 1923: It has 15 stories clad with nearly 500 tons of Gladding, McBean terra cotta and the company's Granitex finish that replicates a granite appearance, including on the massive columns.
San Joaquin Light and Power building, 1924: An Italian Renaissance Revival style building.
Rowell building, 1912: A Renaissance Revival style building.
Helm building (formerly the Griffith-McKenzie building), 1914: A Renaissance Revival style building.
Fresno County Hall of Records, 1935: Art Deco-style building.
Fresno Bee building, 1922: A Renaissance Revival-style building.
Bank of Italy, 1917: A Renaissance Revival-style building.
Liberty Theater, 1917: The oldest surviving movie theater in Fresno, the Renaissance Revival style building still displays signage for all three of its names: Liberty, Hardy's and Mexico.
The Warnors Theater, 1929: This Moorish, Spanish and Italian Renaissance Revival style building has probably the most dramatic embellishments of those in Fresno.
Since most of these architectural treasures are in Fresno's historic central corridor, most can be seen on a several-block tour. So put on some walking shoes, grab a pair of binoculars and head out to see Fresno's architectural sights.