Cheaper than granite, easy to mold and distinguished by their luminous sheen, terra-cotta tiles were widely used in construction of some of the country's most stately buildings during the first half of the 20th century.
Indeed, the kiln-fired clay "in the hands of an architect was what wax is in the hands of the sculptor," architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said.
But the delicate and porous tiles were also susceptible to moisture and deterioration. For this reason, terra-cotta restoration is more common today than its use in commercial construction, as architectural ornamentation has become increasingly costly.
Such is the case with Ventura's grand City Hall, which sits atop a hill overlooking downtown and the ocean. Built in 1912, the structure is undergoing a $2.7-million face-lift aimed at restoring the peeling and cracked tiles that cover its exterior.
Designed by Albert Martin, the architect behind Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, City Hall is not only Ventura's most distinctive public building but also a state landmark, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
"[It] is the preeminent historic building in town," Mayor Brian Brennan said. "Spending the time and energy to restore it is what this community wants."
Funded by a state park bond, the restoration effort -- headed by San Francisco-based contractor Rainbow Roofing and Restoration -- involves grating away the tile glazing with hand grinders and reapplying the glaze using a chemical process.
Because the bricks are already attached to the building, the chemical reaction produces the same effect of kiln firing, the process traditionally used to give the tiles their smooth surface.
The restoration, which began in April and is scheduled to be completed in May 2005, also entails replacing the grout and repairing the building's copper dome to prevent drainage problems.
According to city engineer Rick Raives, rain runoff from the roof accumulates behind the terra-cotta tiles, creating a moist breeding ground for destructive mold and algae. Salt from the ocean has also quickened the erosion.
Although temperate weather prevents the freezing and expanding of water behind the tiles -- a problem common in the Midwest and East -- California's earthquakes pose another natural hazard.
Earthquake damage led to 3,100 cracked terra-cotta tiles being replaced on Los Angeles' City Hall in 1994. The total cost of that project, which included earthquake retrofitting, was $299 million.
"By and large, terra cotta is inexpensive to install," said Jeff Townsend, who restores residential and commercial tile with his Santa Monica-based company Stone Services Inc. "It's just a lot more expensive to maintain."
Terra cotta's low cost is probably why the builder chose it for Ventura's City Hall and why it became so popular for a time among American architects. Unlike most stone surfaces, glazed terra cotta was designed to be cleaned cheaply and easily, which made it more attractive in an age when pollution became a growing concern after the Industrial Revolution..
By the 20th century, cities began considering other uses for the material, especially in Chicago where many buildings had been destroyed in the Great Fire of 1871.
The famous Wrigley Building in downtown Chicago was built in 1920 of sparkling white terra cotta, and the Uptown Theater used the tiles for its Spanish Revival-style exterior.
"Most cities in America had experienced fires and were looking for ways to create fire-proof construction," said Ken Breische, director of the Historic Preservation Program at USC's School of Architecture.
With the advent of steel framing, architects began wrapping the durable material over frames, molding ornamented exteriors onto offices, hotels, museums and great theaters -- including the Tower Theater and the massive columned facade of the Los Angeles Theater downtown.
Here, more so than in the Midwest or East Coast, terra-cotta buildings were common because access to stone and marble was limited.
Terra-cotta buildings were found almost everywhere in Southern California, Breische said.
In downtown Los Angeles, the god and goddess statues atop Pacific Mutual building's arched entrance were molded of terra cotta in 1921, and the smooth, cream exterior of the Barker Bros. building in 1925 was a specially finished version of the material, cast to resemble rusticated stone.
During the Great Depression, the wheels of construction slowed, and when things picked up again by World War II, the straight and sleek lines of Art Deco left little room for architectural adornment. Cheaper and lighter, ceramic-coated metal panels took the place of terra cotta.
Terra cotta remains a popular material in residential construction across the state, said Townsend, who has restored tile for clients who wanted to maintain or emulate the Spanish architectural style.