Visiting the American Terra Cotta Museum
by Lucy Toomey, CEO
Recently, we had the opportunity to attend the opening of the American Terra Cotta Museum in Crystal Lake, Illinois. This small museum does a wonderful job of detailing the Terra Cotta & Ceramic Company’s rich history and expansive production from architectural terra cotta to Teco art pottery.
Evolution of the American Terra Cotta and Ceramic Company
Founded northwest of Chicago in 1881 by lawyer William Day “W.D.” Gates, the American Terra Cotta and Ceramic Company first introduced terra cotta to adorn building exteriors in the form of brick façades and sculptural ornamentation. Often, the terra cotta was fashioned to complement Prairie School architecture — Frank Lloyd Wright was a notable client. Simultaneously, Gates was inspired by the Arts and Crafts ideas originating in Britain, which placed an emphasis on using the finest available materials and prioritized skilled handcrafting as opposed to the mechanized production that gained prominence during the Industrial Revolution.
Along with architectural terra cotta, the company began making art pottery called Teco, short for ‘Terra Cotta.’ Gates himself was an accomplished ceramicist who created several memorable examples in the Arts and Crafts style. In addition, he hired many excellent designers who diversified the range of Teco offerings, such as Fritz Albert, Harald Hals, W.B. Mundie, Fernand Moreau, and others.
In the 1930s, with the Great Depression limiting resources and demand, Gates turned the American Terra Cotta & Ceramic Company over to his son Major, who sold the business in 1934 to George A. Berry, Jr. In the decades that followed, Berry focused solely on making terra cotta for construction purposes. Today the company is known as TC Industries, after transitioning from clay to steel production. The new firm is located on the same site where Gates began his operation in Crystal Lake in 1881.
“The mission of the American Terra Cotta Museum is to preserve and showcase artifacts of the American Terra Cotta & Ceramic Company to share the story of the people, processes and production of architectural terra cotta and Teco pottery and the company’s transition to steel heat treating and fabrication.”
Planning Your Visit
The American Terra Cotta Museum offers exhibits, interactive videos, and many examples of terra cotta design through the years. Displays include details on the raw materials used in production and the process of making terra cotta as well as a survey of the important architects and artists who turned “common clay” into a beautiful, versatile material. If you would like to visit the museum, tours are currently available by appointment only.
Teco Pottery at Auction
Since its inception, Toomey & Co. Auctioneers has had the privilege of handling countless pieces of Teco pottery. On December 2, 2018, we sold a Calla Lily vase designed by Fritz Albert in our inaugural Tradition & Innovation auction for $93,750. Other recent sales have also included multiple Teco lots.