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Terrazzo: Beauty Under our Feet

Terrazzo floor, 5th floor elevator lobby, Johns Adams Building. Photo by J. Harbster

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.

Terrazzo and Mosaic Flooring, 5th floor elevator lobby, John Adams Building. Photo by J. Harbster

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.

Terrazzo map of Europe on floor of the Benjamin Franklin Post Office, Washington DC.

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:

One Comment

  1. David E Lorenzini
    November 20, 2016 at 11:29 am

    Thank you for publishing this least known, hardly noticed, artistic in nature, construction material. The map is located in the lobby of the Benjamin Franklin Station entrance in the US Post Office Administration Building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC. It was created and installed by my father, Ettore Lorenzini, a 20-year old terrazzo mechanic, around 1933. He came to this country in 1930, after graduating from the Scuola di Mosaici in Spilimbero, Italy, located in the heart of Friuli-Venezia Giulia province. He was hired as a terrazzo helper by United Marble and Tile Company, headquartered in West Pittston, PA, and was assigned to the Post Office project, which included all the terrazzo in the building, including the stair treads and landings.

    The map includes more than just Europe; it is a map of the world. During a trip to Washington DC with my father in 1952, he pointed out a white marble chip in northeastern Italy that indicated the location of his home town, Anduins. The chip has since been worn away by shoe leather. When the weather is rainy, the map is usually covered by a large rubber mat to make the surface less slippery, but it can be rolled back to exposed the map.

    The purpose of the map is to display the global reach of where the Post Office Department delivers mail. At each corner of the map there is a brass inlay of one of the methods of mail transportation: truck, train, ship, and plane. There are also two large brass disks, one on each side, that show the points of the compass.

    Terrazzo is a permanent material if properly installed to avoid cracks, and it can keep its original appearance indefinitely if maintained properly. This work of art may be a “one of a kind”.

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