The Character is in the Details

Downtown Manhattan is a perfect location to see the evolution of New York City's architecture throughout the 20th and 21st century. When buildings from these eras are juxtaposed, one of the most obvious differences may be the staggering heights that the newer buildings are able to reach. At the same time, the lack of ornamentation in the newer buildings brings forth the unique character and attention to detail that the older buildings have shown through their ornamentation.


Whether it is a sculpture, a scroll, or even a geometric mosaic, ornamentation helps give a building its identity and gives it a narrative and a place in time. From atop 57 Reade Street I had an opportunity to observe two great pieces of terra cotta, a centurion and a lion head. 


"But the building's identity resided in the ornament."

-Louis Sullivan

By Fabian Yang



Terra cotta has been used on many of the buildings throughout New York City, imparting a characteristic grace to our streetscape.  Most often its use is subtle and difficult to spot as it can be glazed in greys and beiges to mimic granite and limestone.  But there is one delightful example on the Upper West Side that celebrates its terra cotta, unmistakably as orange as a flower pot, and even more striking in its details. Not every joint is perfect, but that adds to the charm of a building covered in clay!  I had walked past it dozens of times on the way to one of CTA’s restoration projects a block away, but finally took a few moments to look and appreciate the details of the Lucerne Hotel, truly an icon and, in my mind, the ultimate NYC spokesmodel for terra cotta.

Views of the Lucerne Hotel terra cotta brought to you by Laura Termini-Lande.


I don’t think it can be explained, and I kind of like it that way.  In the middle of a run-of-the-mill block on West 38th Street at the edges of the old millinery and trimming districts is this building replete with massive terra cotta Roman Centurion’s helmets.  The letters “SPQR”  are there in sharp relief below some of the helmets.  “Senatus Populusque Romanus”  the Latin for the Senate and People of Rome. Best place to see it without scaffolding?  The dressing rooms at the Men’s department of Lord and Taylor, another fine old building.

View of the terra cotta Roman Centurion helmets brought to you by Dan Allen.

View of the terra cotta Roman Centurion helmets brought to you by Dan Allen.


As a native New Yorker, I have often taken the tall buildings of the city for granted. But if you look up, relics of the past await you. Terra cotta details, made by hand for a New York City of a hundred years ago adorn even the most unassuming building. If you happen to find yourself out walking in New York City, stop and look up. The tourists are on to something.

View of the 210 Riverside Drive (above) and from the rooftop of 800 West End Avenue (below), both brought to you by Katie Ipcar.


Like a puzzle, the terra cotta cornice at 36 Gramercy Park East is made up of many pieces that are similar but unique. Although many of the pieces appear to be the same, the dimensions vary ever so slightly. This makes resetting the pieces a challenge for even the most skilled Tetris champion.

Terra cotta cornice detail at 36 Gramercy Park East brought to you by Jiro Baskin.