Architectural Ornament in Heraldry and Emblems
When we look at architectural ornament in the categories of heraldry and emblems, we find abstract compositions that no longer imply a physical connection, as was the case with human, animal, and bird forms. Instead, we see a miscellany of items: plums, crowns, flowers, shields, weapons, and other things associated with aristocracy. Such things make up the vocabulary of heraldry, which was systematically established throughout Europe in the twelfth century to meet the demand for emblems of respectability and proclaim the importance of feudal families. Tracing family genealogies and devising coats of arms were its principle tasks.
Over time the aristocracy of business and commerce subsumed that of humans. Companies and corporations commissioned heraldic crests emblazoned on shields, which were displayed on the buildings they owned and occupied.
Although company logos have now replaced heraldic crests, we can still find examples of the old-fasioned heraldry on pre-modern buildings. The terra cotta plaque shown below, which appears on a building at 101 The Embarcadero, is an example of such heraldry. The client is not identified, but the decorative elements imply prestige, even royalty, as in the fleur-de-lis, the royal lilly of France.
Below, the “M” for Matson, an internationally known shipping line, is rendered in rope. The facade of the company building at 216 Market Street building is embellished with nautical symbols such as anchors, dolphins, and shells. Portraits of the Matson steamships appear in cartouches.
The bronze plaque on the building at 233 Sansome Street is an heraldic tribute to the firemen who may have occupied the building.
The former Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company building of 1925, designed by Timothy Pflueger, has a bell framed in a rondel suspended above staff-like elements often used in heraldry as symbols of authority.
The bell was modeled by the sculptor Pio Oscar Tognelli who was employed by the Gladding McBean terra cotta manufacturing company in Lincoln, California. This factory produced terra cotta ornament for buildings, particularly on the west coast, from the late 19th through the first decades of the 20th century. The Gladding McBean company’s history traces the growing popularity of terra cotta.
The factory’s location in the small city of Lincoln followed the discovery nearby of an extensive deposit of pure white kaolin clay, which partners Charles Gladding, Peter McGill McBean, and George Chambers leased from the owner, George Towle, in 1875 for the production of vitrified sewer pipe. The dramatic growth of west coast cities in the latter part of the 19th century gave this product a bright future.
A two-story headquarters building was constructed in 1884, the year the company began production of architectural ornament, to advertise terra cotta’s advantages over other materials such as stone. It once stood at 1358 Market Street in San Francisco but is long gone.
Terra Cotta was less expensive to use for architectural purposes than stone for several reasons. It could be glazed and textured to mimic different kinds of the more costly material from warm buff-colored sandstone to cool gray granite. And because terra cotta was lighter than stone the amount of structural steel needed for the building frame could be reduced, which also lower costs.
Architects favored terra cotta because their designs could be modeled at full scale and reworked, if necessary, before they were cast. Despite the need for skilled labor to make the molds, once made, these could be reused more or less indefinitely. The standardization provided by the use of molds guaranteed accuracy in repeated ornament, saved money through speedy execution, and avoided the need for site work by expensive skilled labor.
To reduce costs further, it was common practice to construct tall buildings using stone on the ground floor and perhaps the second and third floors if they were visible from the street. But the upper floors were often clad in terra cotta or cast stone colored and textured to imitate the stone used below.
“Shapes of Clay,” a company publication, described the process by which an architecct’s drawing was turned into reality. In the factory drafting room, the drawing was keyed to show the location of the ornament. A shop drawing was then made following the architect’s drawing and submitted to the architect for approval. Full size working drawings were made with allowance for shrinkage, and every piece was scheduled. At the factory, staff artists modeled the ornament in clay and plaster. After approval by the architect–often by means of photographs taken in the shop—the model was sent to the plaster shop where final molds were made. The publication recognized the creative efforts of the staff sculptors, adding that they were always under the supervision of the architect.