Like frosting on a cake, terra cotta decorates dozens of Buffalo's most celebrated downtown buildings.
Lavish ornamentations can be seen in the grand, rust-colored Guaranty Building, the ornate archways of the Market Arcade, the enchanting cream and burnt sienna-glazed Calumet Building, the more restrained, green-tiled Ansonia Centre.
It's small wonder Buffalo's terra cotta structures -- designed by some of the best national and local architects of their day, from Chicago's Louis Sullivan to Buffalonians Esenwein & Johnson -- are considered among the nation's best.
"I see Buffalo as a microcosm of some of the best buildings and best examples of terra cotta that you would find in any major city," said Susan Tunick, the New York City-based president of Friends of Terra Cotta and author of "Terra Cotta Skyline: New York's Architectural Ornament." "You couldn't see better examples if you were in New York or Chicago or San Francisco."
Terra cotta -- baked ceramic clay sometimes fired with a colored glaze was first used in Roman times to produce ceramic ware for architectural ornamentation. Its heyday in the United States, between the 1880s and 1930s, overlapped with Buffalo's own ascendence as a dynamic center of commerce that produced extraordinary architecture.
Architects turned to terra cotta for numerous reasons, according to local architectural historian Martin Wachaldo. Terra cotta imitates carved stone but is cheaper to produce, weighs less and is more malleable in creating intricate details. It is also a natural fire retardant, boosting its value at a time when buildings were far more fire-prone.
In addition, coal was used a century ago to heat cities, with the byproduct that it blackened buildings as well as lungs. Terra cotta buildings, such as the gleaming white 1912 Electric Tower, were less susceptible than other materials -- and it still shows.
"The Electric Tower looks brand new. It's so clean and so white and so shiny that it's practically blinding," said Greg Lodinsky, treasurer of the Preservation Coalition of Erie County.
It's also eminently repairable as well as resilient, Lodinsky said. "If you use the same dye and mix, you can make the same embellishments decades later, or it can be repaired and replaced and you'd never know the difference."
Doris Collins, restoration consultant at Shea's Performing Arts Center, oversaw terra cotta work on the theater's exterior a few years ago. She said damage occurred most likely as a result of poor design or construction when the building opened in 1926, or from lack of maintenance.
"Terra cotta is an extremely long lasting material. If maintained [properly], it lasts for centuries," Collins said.
Terra cotta can be seen most often in Buffalo in the classic architectural style of Beaux-Arts, with its Roman and Greek themes. It's also found locally in Art Nouveau and Art Deco-styled buildings, such as Ansonia Centre and Buffalo City Hall, respectively.
While terra cotta buildings are mostly represented downtown and concentrated in the Theater District, they can be seen elsewhere. The East Side, for instance, can count white terra cotta-clad City Honors School, the vacant yellow- and cobalt blue-tiled former Sattler Theatre and most significant of all, the exquisitely detailed 1928 Blessed Trinity Church among its ranks.
A 1976 guidebook on the church by the Rev. Walter Kern pointed out the use of terra cotta in columns, arches, door frames and windows was for structural purposes as well as ornamental ones.
"There is so much [terra cotta] used that this may well be the largest use of it in an ecclesiastical structure in the country," Kern wrote.
Lodinsky believes the building at 317 Leroy Ave. -- a replica of the 12th-century Lombard-Romanesque-style churches of northern Italy also known for its mosaics and unusual bricks -- is in a class by itself.
"Blessed Trinity is a unique architectural gem. To walk in that church during the day when the sun is out is really an inspiring sight. It takes you into a different world," said Lodinsky, who led a tour this summer called "Downtown's Terra Cotta Terra Firma."
Terra cotta fans also draw inspiration from the 1896 Guaranty Building, considered one of Louis Sullivan's masterpieces, which he designed in conjunction with Dankmar Adler. Sullivan, "the Father of the Skyscraper" who would have turned 150 this year, said ornamentation on a building should not get in the way of the beauty of the structure, but instead be an added attraction that he compared to perfume on a woman.
The Guaranty was one of the first buildings to emphasize verticality when other tall buildings, borrowing from traditional European design, focused on the horizontal. It drew on earthy materials and nature for patterns inspired by flowers, seedpods, ivy and tree branches.
"There is no question that the Guaranty Building is as good as it gets," said Tunick, the terra cotta expert. "If you want to have an experience that is unparalleled, you would come to see that building."
"However, [in Buffalo] that's just the tip of the iceberg."