Text by Mimi Stiritz
The American architectural terra cotta industry was still in its formative state in 1882 when the Winkle Terra Cotta Co., St. Louis' first major manufacturer, began operation. Compared to brick, the manufacture of architectural terra cotta was far more complex and demanding. The industry required the expert talent of sculptors as well as moldmakers, draftsmen and ceramic chemists. Technicians experienced in the precision of drying and firing were also essential to the process. Efficient management was critical for meeting delivery schedules. In the past, many architects had been reluctant to use terra cotta because they believed it was inferior to stone. Some also held prejudice against a "dishonest" material which could imitate stone.
Joseph Winkle (1837-1914), entered the industry armed with a background few of the day could match. Trained as a potter in his native Straffordshire, England (a leading center of clay manufacturing), Winkle emigrated in 1857. He settled first in Ohio, then Pittsburgh where he opened a queensware pottery. St. Louis' booming fire-brick industry drew Winkle to the city by 1874. He began work at the Laclede Fire Brick Co. headed by James Green, The Laclede Co. was located along Manchester Road in Cheltenham, the hub of the city's brick industry. The Cheltenham area boasted rich deposits of fine clay and offered convenient railroad service for shipping.
Winkle was joined in the new company by partners Alexander Hewitt and Andrew J. Hewitt, his English-born brother-in-law and nephew. The family-managed firm was located in Cheltenham at 5739 Manchester Road. Early work consisted largely in filling orders for house trimmings along with panels, cornices, and capitals for St. Louis' moderate-size commercial building of the late 1880s. The company's output expanded dramatically with the appearance the tall office building. The display of Winkle's work on Louis Sullivan's Wainwright Building (1890-92) proved to be the catalyst for a new understanding of terra cotta's potential. 1890's contracts for two additional Sullivan-designed Louis secured impeccable credentials for the scarcely decade-old Winkle firm. Between 1890-1897, the business quadrupled; plant expanded with construction of large factories and additional kilns. Products were shipped to points throughout the midwest and as far west as Texas and Colorado. Winkle terra cotta embellished most of St. Louis' tall brick office buildings as well as a variety of other building types.
On the eve of the St. Louis World's Fair (1904) the Winkle Co., still family-managed, was reported the third terra cotta manufacturer in the country. Its Cheltenham plant covered some 6 acres, the site of 13 kilns. Shipments outside St. Louis were in excess of 100 carloads annually. The firm had proved itself in the vanguard of ceramic development with perfection of both color glazes and a true matte glaze.
Today, virtually all of Cheltenham's once-extensive clay manufactories have vanished. Examples of St. Louis' rich legacy of Winkle terra cotta, however, may be found throughout the city. The durable, weather-resistant and fire-proof qualities of the material have stood the test of time, and the wealth of artifacts marks the significant role terra cotta played in the city's building history.
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