We rarely take the time to stop and notice the artistic details that go into decorating a building. If anything, we tend to take these creative endeavors for granted. Every day we walk on some sort of flooring, be it hardwood, linoleum, carpet, marble, or tiles, and if we look at what is under our feet, we might notice something very special.
The flooring of the John Adams Building lobbies is called terrazzo. Terrazzo is a material which is made of marble chips that are set in Portland cement, then ground and polished to make a smooth surface. In the 1987 Hollywood movie War of the Roses, Oliver Rose (Michael Douglas) yells at Barbara Rose (Kathleen Turner), who is stranded on the chandler chandelier 20 feet above the floor, “Please don’t break the terrazzo floor when you land!” Little did Mr. Rose know, that properly constructed terrazzo floors are extremely durable and remain consistent, even in places with heavy wear.
Terrazzo is a derivative of the ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman practice of creating mosaic floors. It traces its modern roots to 18th century mosaic artisans from the Italian province of Fruili, 60 miles north of Venice, who created pavimento alla veneziana (Venetian pavement). The ‘terrazzieri’ (workers of terrazzo) were well known for using this material in Venetian architecture, especially in churches. There are also beautiful examples of terrazzo in the United States. Terrazzo first arrived in the U.S. in the 1890’s and gained popularity during the Beaux Arts period. Many of the buildings designed during this period used terrazzo for the floors. Early terrazzo floors were susceptible to cracking and were expensive and time consuming. Artisans would use hand tools, such as a pumice head stone, to grind and polish the floor. Around 1919, this all changed with the introduction of electric grinders and metal divider strips. Creating our modern terrazzo floors requires less labor and they are much more resistant to wear and color fading.
The John Adams Building mosaic work and terrazzo flooring were done by the National Mosaic Company of Washington, D.C. This company was founded by a group of Italian immigrants who arrived in Washington in the late 1890’s: John Zanier, Charles Facchina, Lorenzo di Giulian, Ferdinand Segnafiori, and Victor Facchina. John Zanier, the company’s president, and the other partners learned this industrial mosaic art from their fathers and grandfathers who were skilled mosaic artisans from the province of Fruili. This group of men formed the company in 1896, and by 1906 had already installed terrazzo floors and other mosaic/ tile decorations in public buildings across D.C. The most notable are the Library of Congress, the Washington Monument, the U.S. Capitol, the U.S. Soldier’s Home, the Smithsonian Institution museums, the Sherman Monument, the Colorado Building, the Evening Star Building, the Willard Hotel, the Georgetown University Hospital, and the Franciscan Monastery. Louis Facchina was the company’s last president and closed the business in 1942 due to a shortage of materials.
You can find excellent examples of terrazzo across the United States, especially in buildings designed during the 1930’s. The next time you walk into a building, stop and look down at the floor. You maybe walking on a piece of art.
My sources for this research spanned across the Library’s collections and resources. Here is a selection of the sources I searched for this post:
- Chronicling America
- The Art of Mosaics and Terrazzo- a trade journal from the National Mosaic and Terrazzo Association
- Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals (subscription database)
- Ancestry.com (subscription database)
- LC Archives in the Manuscript Reading Room
- Twentieth-Century Building Materials: History and Conservation, edited by Thomas Jester (c1995)
- Sweet’s Architectural Catalog File