Jesus Cardenas and Humberto Miranda, Terra Cotta Artisans

Good Work: Masters of the Building Arts

For 135 years, skilled artisans at Gladding, McBean & Company in Lincoln, California, have been crafting architectural terra cotta. Their fanciful creations–cherubs, gargoyles, lions, eagles–decorate the facades of many of our nation’s great buildings, including Carnegie Hall in New York, the Wrigley Building in Chicago, and the Warner Theater in Washington, D.C.

Terra cotta literally means “baked earth.” Made of high-quality clay, it is easily modeled into a variety of shapes and lends itself to rich ornamental detailing. It can be glazed in a wide range of colors and textures and even made to look like limestone, granite, or marble. Widely used from the 1880s to the 1930s, terra cotta is one of the most prevalent masonry building materials found in the urban environment. Today, many of the older buildings that used terra cotta for ornament are being restored to their original beauty. Gladding, McBean’s premiere terra cotta craftsmen, including Mexican American modeler Jesus Cardenas and moldmaker Humberto Miranda, are at the center of this renaissance, transforming clay into objects of beauty and strength that are an integral part of our architectural heritage.

Making architectural terra cotta requires the skills and talents of a wide range of craftspeople. Starting with an architect’s plan, draftsmen create detailed scale drawings that incorporate the shrinkage factor for the clay and specify the placement of joints. Clay modelers then craft a full-size model of the design out of clay. Next, moldmakers make a plaster mold directly from the clay model. Skilled hand pressers then press special terra cotta clay into the mold, taking care to capture all the fine ornamental detail and obtain the proper thickness. When the clay has dried for a few hours, the piece is taken out of the mold and finished by hand with various tools to achieve the desired effects. After the terra cotta has totally dried–which can take a week or more–glazers apply specially formulated glazes to each piece. The terra cotta ornament is then fired in a kiln at extremely high temperatures. The finished product embodies the dedication, skill, and pride of an entire team of workers. “We’re like a family,” said clay modeler Ray Johnson. “Everyone does their part. It’s the result of many, many labors and skills. They’re all in there!”

This segment of Good Work captures Jesus Cardenas, Humberto Miranda, Pete Pederson, David Martinez, and other Gladding, McBean craftsmen as they restore intricate pieces of architectural terra cotta ornament for Louis Sullivan’s renowned Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building in Chicago, Illinois.

 

“I like the creativity and the challenge. Every piece is different. You have to be able to improvise—to figure out the best approach.”

 

—Jesus Cardenas

 

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