Terra Cotta Owl Architectural Ornaments, Artifact of the Month for May 2012

August 28, 2012 Posted by: Jennifer Clark, Archivist

Terra Cotta Owl Architectural Ornaments
JEFF-1187 and JEFF-1188

Terra Cotta Owl, front view                     

 Terra Cotta owl, from the back

May's artifacts of the month are a pair of 22-inch tall, 128 lb terra cotta owls recovered from 121 South Second Street. This building stood at the northwest corner of Second and Elm Streets, an area that is now a part of the Gateway Arch grounds. These architectural fragments perched over the front door of the five-story warehouse built in 1909, once the home of B. Harris Wool Company. As you can see in this 1936 photo, the fire escape overshadowed the owls above the door.

121 South Second Street, V106-13901


Close up of owl on V106-13901 photo
V106-13901 (detail)         

The owls were recovered from the building by park employee John A. Bryan. An architectural historian, John Bryan wrote many research reports about the history of the park site, as well as the book Missouri's Contribution to American Architecture published in 1928 by the St. Louis Architectural Club. As the buildings on the memorial site were demolished, park employees such as John Bryan and Charles Peterson collected specimens of architectural interest.

Terra cotta is made from hard-fired clay shaped into complex ornamental pieces, either left the natural reddish color of the clay or glazed to produce many other colors. Terra cotta was cheap, light and fireproof and proved extremely popular for decorating buildings from the 1870s until the 1930s.

Bryan believed the owl to be a product of the Winkle Terra Cotta Company of St. Louis. Founded in 1883 by Joseph Winkle, Winkle Terra Cotta Company was St. Louis' first major terra cotta manufacturer. (Stiritz, "Winkle Terra Cotta Company") Joseph Winkle immigrated to America from Staffordshire, England, where he had trained as a potter. Winkle came to the city in 1874, because of the thriving St. Louis brick industry and the natural deposits of clay which would provide the raw material for the terra cotta (Stiritz, "Winkle Terra Cotta Company"). The company's offices were located in the Century Building at 9th and Olive Streets and the main factory was at 5739 Manchester ("The Clayworking Plants of St. Louis", Brick: Special Issues on St. Louis, May and June, 1904).

The Winkle Terra Cotta Company provided terra cotta ornamentation for many St. Louis buildings, including the D.L. Parrish laundry building at 3120-28 Olive. The National Register nomination for the building called it, "One of the most impressive and unusual applications of architectural terra cotta in St. Louis" due in part to the colorful accents throughout the terra cotta façade. (Toft and Bivens, "National Register Nomination for the D.L. Parrish Laundry Building, p. 5).

Detail of terra cotta on D. L. Parrish laundry building 
Detail of terra cotta pieces on the D.L. Parrish laundry building

Winkle Terra Cotta manufactured the terra cotta ornamentation for several of the city's most notable buildings, including the Wainwright Building and the Fox Theatre.

Detail of the Wainwright building cornice, photo from the Historic American Building Survey

close up image of the owl's head
Close up of owl, JEFF-1187

Stiritz, Mimi. "Winkle Terra Cotta Company", text for an exhibit for the Sheldon Art Galleries, The Winkle Terra Cotta Co., Architectural Art from the Ambassador & Comet Theaters, February 22-Mary 15, 2000. www.webster.edu/~corbetre/dogtown/history/sheldon.html

Toft, Carolyn and Matthew Bivens, "National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, D.L. Parrish Laundry Company Building", Landmarks Association of St. Louis, 2003. http://www.dnr.mo.gov/shpo/nps-nr/98000313.pdf

"Winkle Terra Cotta Company" in "The Clayworking Plants of St. Louis", Brick: Special Issues on St. Louis, May and June 1904. http://www.webster.edu/~corbetre/dogtown/history/winkle-brick.html

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