Beetles and all sorts of insects are all around during the summer in the Midwest. Whether you are digging your hands in the dirt, enjoying a nature path, or relaxing in the shade, these miniature and active creatures make their appearance. If spotted, the vibrant and lustrous colors of their exoskeletons can be really captivating. Beetles have fascinated humankind so much that they can even be found on buildings, crafted by artists.
The scarab is perhaps one of the most intriguing beetles in the arts. They have come to symbolize many ideas, including rebirth and regeneration. They are also known as the "dung beetle" because frankly, they play with manure. The dung beetle impressively rolls feces into a ball so it can feed on its liquid nutrients. The ancient Egyptians observed this behavior and compared it to their sun deity, Khepri, who rolled the sun across the sky. This comparison exalted the dung beetle as one of the most important symbols in their arts and architecture.
In the early 1920s, the adoration of the dung beetle in Egyptian civilization was re-appreciated by craftsmen, artists, and architects in the United States. The scarab, similar to Mayan hieroglyphs or Greek ornament, was another example of how creatives appropriated symbols from cultures of that past. Many buildings erected in the "Egyptian Revival" style featured the scarab. Some of these structures were built with stone or concrete, however, a handful featured the intricate and colorful detail of architectural terra cotta.
The Northwestern Terra Cotta Company of Chicago, Illinois created Egyptian-style ornament for a few buildings in the Midwest. One of them was the Masonic Temple in Racine, Wisconsin. The structure was an addition built in 1922 with designs from local architect and member of the temple Edmund B. Funston. On the frieze one can observe a winged scarab represented in opaque, matte glazes. The designs stretches across five units at approximately nine-in-a-half feet. In the center one can notice tan, dark brown, orange, blue, and green glazes on a single unit. The superior craft of the terra-cotta scarab has the power to captivate any passerby.
During 1928 appeared the medallion depicted below on the Scarab Club in Detroit, Michigan. It is only a block away from the Detroit Institute of Arts. The architect, Lancelot Sukert, positioned the scarab-seal on the third story of the brick facade above the front door. The richly-glazed tile was created by the Pewabic Tile Company of the same city. Its carefully applied surfaces featured a variety of seven glazes.
As mentioned on a historical marker next to the building, the winged scarab, "an Egyptian symbol of rebirth, represents the club's commitment to the perpetual renewal of the arts in Detroit." The site was built as an art center and continues to be one today. The clubhouse has hosted many of the world's most important artists, including John Sloan, Diego Rivera, Marcel Duchamp, and Norman Rockwell.
Outside of the Midwest are also two more buildings with ceramic scarabs in Utah. The more extraordinary of the two is the Peery's Egyptian Theater in the city of Ogden. Notice in the picture below the diverse palette of glazes represented on the terra-cotta facade, including greens, pinks, yellows, blues, and purples. There are four scarabs that embellish the ornate frieze. The architects were Leslie S. Hodgson & Myrl A. McClenahan.
Also in Utah is the Salt Lake Masonic Temple, built in 1926. Its imposing facade is built with buff pulsichrome terra cotta. Above the side entrance, as shown here on Reddit, is a scarab. The architect was Carl W. Scott.
Much can be learned from the portrayal of the scarab on these Egyptian revival buildings. While they were not built as funerary architecture for the sacred or elite, the craftsmen and architects were so dedicated to the detail that even the pharaohs could approve of their work. The scarab demonstrated that these facades were not merely superficial. The symbol carried new meanings on these building that were spiritual and philosophical.
It must also be acknowledged that clayworkers and builders from this day were having fun in their creations. A theater or warehouse in the heart of the American prairie with ancient Egyptian symbols on it must have seemed out-of-place or even inappropriate to some people. Nowadays the erection of a Marcus Theater with such ornamentation would likely stir controversy. The 1920s was a different time. There were hundreds of craftsmen in the country that were able to model and sculpt clay by hand for architecture. The erection of a building was a form of artistic expression. Many architects and developers knew this and believed that their buildings would mean something for future generations, whether it was inspiration, admiration, or that the quality of their work is a priceless value. Buildings from this time were also an adventure, or at least an invitation to explore - and some accomplished the experience so well that it could happen just upon seeing them on the street.
Scarab Club Detroit
Masonic Temple, Racine
Peery's Egyptian Theater, Ogden, Utah
Reebie's Storage Warehouse, Chicago
Masonic Temple, Salt Lake City
Adventures and reflections on the ornament and craft of architectural terra cotta in the majestic Midwest!