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The Rise of Terrazzo in North America and Its Migration West!

The Hollywood Walk of Fame is 18 wonderful blocks of terrazzo underfoot.

From coast-to-coast, the United States offers many fine examples of terrazzo. George Washington’s beloved Mount Vernon features the first terrazzo floor installed in North America, while the Hollywood Walk of Fame is continually celebrated for its glamour and beauty as millions stroll along it each year. Innumerable public buildings and private residences are resplendent in terrazzo with corporations and tourist attractions using terrazzo as a medium to display logos, emblems, and artwork. But how did this lovely Italian art form become so prevalent in North America? It was driven by the desire of immigrants to seek their fortunes in “the land of opportunity.”

These immigrants were descendants of Italian mosaic tile craftsmen who mixed marble remnants with clay to create terraces at their homes during the sixteenth century. The recipe for this beautiful surface, polished to a high sheen with goat’s milk, was held as a closely guarded secret within their families; passed down from father to son for generations. Fast forward to the 1800s when land and job shortages, crop failure, famine, and rising taxes sent many Europeans on a trans-Atlantic journey to find a  better life in the United States. Among these hopeful travelers: many accomplished craftsmen, known as Italian “terazzeri,” who were proficient in the art of terrazzo.

They introduced their unique flooring to a new audience including the wealthy Vanderbilt family which chose terrazzo to grace the floors of their opulent Fifth Avenue mansion in New York City. As the popularity of terrazzo grew, over three million Italian terrazzo and mosaic workers flocked to the United States to meet the demand for their highly-valued skills. Regarded as the aristocracy of the immigrant labor force, these workers built a powerful network of businesses to expand the terrazzo trade and would eventually go on to dominate the U.S. market. But first many headed west.

The Cornelius Vanderbilt II House, 1 West 57th Street, New York City

In an editorial in the New York Tribune in 1865, author and newspaper editor Horace Greeley urged adventurous souls to “go west, young man and grow up with the country.” The phrase caught on and was embraced by pioneers who settled in the new frontier and began building towns. Immigrants flowed into the western territories and states as the need for labor started to rise. The demand for skilled workers to construct buildings continued well into the early twentieth century with more “terazzeri” moving west to fill the need. Their artistic skills elevated construction projects to a higher design level and that led to jobs with prestigious architects and contractors.

Horace Greeley
Hoover Dam by Cédric Dhaenens on Unsplash

One of the most famous public works projects touched by terrazzo is the Hoover Dam. Built in the Black Canyon on the Colorado River on the Nevada/Arizona border, this engineering wonder is a testament to fine design and craftsmanship, thanks in part to Italian immigrant brothers. In 1936, Joseph and John Martina were tasked with the installation of the terrazzo floors at the public works complex. With the assistance of 30 countrymen, they embedded marble chips in cement, separating them with brass divider strips to create Southwestern Indian patterns. After more than a year of meticulous work, the end result was Hoover Dam’s brilliant terrazzo floor that, despite its age, still looks like it was created yesterday.

Hoover Dam star map floor center

The sturdy quality of terrazzo is one reason it is used both indoors and outdoors where crowds routinely gather. Another reason is its ability to be shaped into unique patterns. Given its longevity and luminous beauty, it should come as no surprise that terrazzo essentially replaced marble after World War I as the preferred choice for public and commercial buildings in the United States. This trend also allowed the U.S. Terrazzo Industry to flourish. Terrazzo, however, had not yet moved into mainstream American homes. But that was about to change.

Richard Neutra - one of the most important modernist architects in the United States
Richard Neutra
Richard Neutra’s Hassrick Residence

In the 1940s, the respected and acclaimed Richard Neutra began incorporating terrazzo into his Southern California home designs. Dubbed one of the most important modernist architects in the United States, Neutra was renowned for the attention he gave to defining the needs of his clients, and his endorsement of terrazzo paved its way into a whole new residential market. By the 1960s, terrazzo became the indoor/outdoor flooring choice in homes in California and Florida (in part for its ability to remain cool underfoot) then spread to other states well into the 1970s.

Simultaneously, wall-to-wall carpeting was coming into vogue.  However, its tendency to soil easily, require frequent cleaning and periodic replacement at an additional cost led to some disenchantment. Many people who embraced carpeting began to desire a more durable type of flooring; terrazzo certainly fit the bill.

Today, many mid-century homeowners have removed carpeting to display the brilliant terrazzo floors installed so many decades ago. Home designers, builders, and remodelers have also discovered the benefits of using terrazzo for indoor flooring, decorative walls, damage-resistant countertops, and outdoor patios. Terrazzo’s blend of aggregate embedded in concrete or cement truly offers elegance with durability that can last a lifetime and beyond.

At TREND Group, we’ve always known that terrazzo is timeless, and we are pleased by its resurgence as a preferred twenty-first-century option. Infused with cutting edge innovation, today’s terrazzo offers a myriad of color options, flexibility, strength, and resilience. Best of all, terrazzo is a sustainable product using recycled materials devoid of volatile organic compounds. Many terrazzo floor systems are also able to resist moisture and bacteria, which helps to improve indoor air quality.

With California, Oregon and South Dakota among the country’s most environmentally conscious states, was it destiny that brought terrazzo to the American West so many years ago? Now a highly-sought-after green building material by today’s forward-thinking designers, architects, and builders in the region, we’d like to think so.

Learn more about TREND Group’s eco-friendly terrazzo products, embraced in the United States and around the world, by giving us a call at (866) 655-0164 or sending an email to info-us@trend-group.com.

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