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Local plant helps keep the art in architecture

Sculptor Michael Fritz re-created the north and south pediments of a Texas courthouse recently, using just two old photographs and historical fragments.

It's typical of the scarce source materials that the University at Buffalo graduate -- one of 16 sculptors at the Boston Valley Terra Cotta plant in Orchard Park -- typically has at his disposal replicating historic structures.

Still, he relishes the challenge.

"It's really rewarding to feel like you are, on some level, a custodian of art in architecture," Fritz said.

Such projects are all in a day's work for Boston Valley, which has been involved in terra cotta restoration and new construction since 1981, when it purchased Boston Valley Pottery. That company began in 1889.

The company then converted the cavernous, 125,000 square-foot facility into a full-service architectural terra cotta production site.

Today the family-owned company is one of only three terra cotta manufacturers in the United States.

Boston Valley's hundreds of projects have included work on Carnegie Hall in New York, the Breakers Mansion in Newport, R.I., and the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, D.C. International projects have included a department store in Melbourne, Australia, a bank in Montreal and a castle in British Columbia.

The work is a labor-intensive process, with samples often shipped to the plant to be reproduced, laid out, measured, cut, fitted and shipped back for installation.

"Terra cotta is a time-tested material. It's been used for 2,000 years," said John Krouse, president and ceramic engineer and one of four family members intricately involved in Boston Valley's operation.

The others are Richard Krouse, vice president and plant manager; William Krouse, vice president and senior estimator; and Gretchen Krouse, vice president of sales and project management.

Boston Valley's maiden job was restoring the internationally renowned Guaranty Building in downtown Buffalo.

"To start with a National Historic Landmark building by Louis Sullivan is, of course, not a bad way to start," said Gretchen Krouse.

Other Buffalo projects have included the Telephone Building next door to the Guaranty Building, the former Courier-Express Building and Shea's Performing Arts Center.

The company employs 150 people who, on a recent day, were working on about 60 projects in various departments and at different stages of development.

The bulk of the red and buff-colored clays the company uses are imported from central Ohio and Macon County, Ga. At least six ingredients are added to the formula to help melt and fuse the clay together to strengthen it, John Krouse said.

Clay mixing and batching stations assure a consistently homogenous blend, with gray tint particularly popular in New York to give projects a limestone finish common in the state.

"You can produce a multitude of textures and colors in combination to mimic materials that a lot of people wouldn't think would be terra cotta, John Krouse said.

Matching the color of new terra cotta with original material is the challenge of Sarah Hise, a glaze chemist and the company's director of research and development.

"People think glazes are like paint, like you can go to Home Depot and match the color. You can't. It takes weeks to match colors," Hise said.

"It's definitely an art; it's not a science."

Use of terra cotta is becoming fashionable again as a sustainable and green material, John Krouse said. To that end, Boston Valley has begun using a new panelized, mortarless cladding system first introduced in Europe.

One of its first jobs was creating terra cotta for the Colburn School of Performing Arts in Los Angeles.

-- Mark Sommer

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