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HomeContentArtisanA brief history of ceramic tile in America, Part IV

A brief history of ceramic tile in America, Part IV

More of “…the romance of the past and the promise of the future.” – Architect, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue

The 198-foot California Tower and interior wall, Museum of Us (renamed in 2020), Balboa Park, tiled with California China Products in 1914.

Similar to today, the more talented artisans in an American tile business are frequently drawn away when perceived opportunities arise elsewhere – occasionally even when they own the company. Inevitably, factors beyond a company’s control can determine the results. 

Case in point: California China Products Company (CCPCo) in National City, Calif., founded in 1911 as introduced last Spring in TileLetter ARTISAN.

Fred Wilde 

By 1917, a year after the closing of the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, many of the raw materials required for producing tiles were needed by the U.S. government in anticipation of the country’s entry into the war in Europe, which occurred in April of that year. Tile business was at a virtual standstill.

Casa Dorinda, summer home of Mr. and Mrs. William Bliss in Montecito, California. Architect: Carleton Winslow, 1917.

Among the departing staff was tilewright Fred Wilde, who at 28 arrived in New York from England in 1885. Having worked at Maw & Co. as a young man, he was well equipped for employment in the States and worked at four different tileries in the East before moving to California in 1903. He then found work in Los Angeles before being recruited by Walter and Charles Nordhoffin 1911 to serve as their company’s superintendent for CCPCo, their recently-formed tile manufacturing operation.

Border tiles around the entire entry hall at Casa Dorinda. Designed by Frank Ingerson and produced at Arequipa Pottery in Marin County, California in 1917.

In 1916, when he was 59 years old, Wilde was hired by Dr. Philip King Brown to become the director of the pottery at the Arequipa Sanatorium in the hills outside Fairfax, north of the Golden Gate well before the bridge was built. The pottery, initiated in 1911 to serve as therapeutic recreation for the female tuberculosis patients housed at the sanitorium, had formerly employed two other Englishmen, both of whom focused on vases and plates. Being a specialist in tile production, Wilde brought his skills to bear producing some of the most uniquely beautiful tiles ever produced in the state.

Mrs. Anna Dorinda Blaksley Bliss was heir to the Castor Oil fortune, and with her husband William purchased estate property just east of Santa Barbara in the mid-1910s to build a second home designed by young architect Carleton Winslow from Bertram Goodhue’s office in New York. Titled “Casa Dorinda,” the entry hall in the main house was covered in decorative tiles designed by Frank Ingerson of Cathedral Oaks in the Santa Cruz mountains, and produced at Arequipa by Fred Wilde.

Today, Casa Dorinda is a Premier Life Care Community serving wealthy patrons during their final years. At some point, in the past 15 to 20 years, the glazed surfaces of the tiles in the Long Hall had worn to the point of embarrassment and had to be replaced. The decorative tiles that had bordered the room, however, were never walked on and were in pristine condition. Tragically, no effort was made to conserve or salvage these handcrafted Arequipa tiles; they were removed and discarded with the remaining floor tiles. 

Fred Wilde ended his constructive career ushering in Pomona Tile Manufacturing Company in 1923 at the age of 67. He retired in 1940 at 84 and died three years later.

Walter de Steiguer 

“Suncastle,” commonly referred to as Scotty’s Castle, Death Valley, Calif. Architect: Charles MacNeilledge, completed in 1931. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, 2007.

Walter de Steiguer, who also arrived at California China Products in 1911, worked alongside Wilde as a glaze specialist. A native of Missouri and graduate of MIT as a mining engineer and geologist, he was invited to become vice-president of the company in 1912 and remained until operations closed in 1917. Still a young man of 33, he too had another significant role to play in California’s tile history.

Sun dial, produced at The Spanish Pottery, Los Angeles, c. 1930. Scotty’s Castle, Death Valley, Calif.

After several years working as Superintendent of the Tile Department at Tropico Potteries in Glendale, de Steiguer chose to start his own business nearby in 1927, titled The Spanish Pottery. The small operation specialized in handcrafted red clay pavers of diverse size and shape, some with designs stamped by hand into the wet clay, as well as a series of glazed wall tiles. 

The kitchen at Scotty’s Castle. All tiles produced at The Spanish Pottery, Los Angeles, c. 1929-30.

Interestingly, the only location known to have these Spanish Pottery tiles installed is the landmarked Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley as was discovered by historian Lisa Taft in her review of the Castle’s archives about 35 years ago. The two-story, Spanish Colonial Revival villa, designed by architect Charles Alexander MacNeilledge for Albert and Bessie Johnson of Chicago, is a treasure trove of ceramic tiles in virtually every room. Along with the Spanish Pottery tiles are those from Alhambra Kilns, Hispano Moresque and Gladding, McBean, presumably from its Tropico Potteries. Speculating, it seems possible that the architect preferred a more handcrafted tile for this particular job than these other companies were producing, hence the creation of The Spanish Pottery by this enterprising young man from Missouri. Coincidentally, the pottery opened in 1927 when tiles were first needed at the Castle and closed in 1931 when construction there ended.

Opportunities elsewhere

The Spanish Pottery in 1999 prior to demolition. Photo by Steve Soukup.

Charles Nordhoff, who founded California China Products with his father in 1911, left for France in the fall of 1916 to become a volunteer ambulance driver, soon a fighter pilot and eventually a world-recognized author. With his friend and fellow pilot James Norman Hall, the pair wrote three best-selling novels: The Mutiny on the Bounty, Men Against the Sea and Pitcairn’s Island. His father, Walter, anticipating his 60th birthday, was ready to move on as well, but not before hiring Rufus Keeler in 1917 to close the factory in National City. Walter then left, retiring north to Santa Barbara where he focused on writing his memoirs, ultimately publishing The Journey of the Flame in 1933. More about Mr. Keeler in the Spring.

With special thanks to historians Alexander Bevil, Steve Soukup and Lisa Taft.

Unless otherwise noted, all photographs were taken by Joseph Taylor for the Tile Heritage Digital Library.

Sheila A. Menzies and Joseph A. Taylor
Founders at Tile Heritage Foundation | Website | + posts

Joseph Taylor and Sheila Menzies founded the Tile Heritage Foundation in 1987 in Healdsburg, Ca. This archival library and resource center is dedicated to the preservation of ceramic surfacing materials in the United States. The archives catalog information about historic and contemporary tile companies in the United States, and maintains a collection of over 4,000 historic and contemporary tiles, all of them donated. The non-profit Foundation is maintained by sponsorship, grants, gifts and membership, as well as contemporary tile sales. Visit http://www.tileheritage.org for more information.

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