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HomeContentArtisanA brief history of ceramic tile in America, Part V

A brief history of ceramic tile in America, Part V

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

Calco tiles on the south side of the Keeler bungalow in South Gate, California, designed to serve as a “salesman’s sample” in 1924.

In 1916, Rufus Bradley Keeler, then 30 years old, was commissioned by Walter Nordhoff, President of California China Products Co. in National City, south of San Diego, to serve as Superintendent, closing down what had been an extremely successful tile manufacturing business. For the first time in the Southland, architects and designers were captivated by the bright glazes and geometric formations introduced by colleagues like Bertram Goodhue of New York and others; and the public had responded accordingly. By the middle of the decade, however, raw materials were becoming scarce due to the war in Europe, and the joys experienced by many at the expositions in San Francisco and San Diego were now over shadowed by the deep concerns resulting from the news of the day.

To effectively meet this challenge, Keeler would have had to have considerable experience from working in comparable potteries. In fact, he had been employed as a ceramic engineer and designer at Gladding, McBean & Co. up north in Lincoln, Calif., since 1911, one of the largest and most reputable potteries in the country. During the previous six years he’d basically learned the trade at the Carnegie Brick and Pottery Company in the hills east of the Bay Area where he’d met and later married Mary Leary and given birth to a son, Bradley, in 1913. Just how Nordhoff found this young man, extracting him from a potentially successful career nearly 600 miles to the north, remains a mystery.

Rufus and Mary Keeler, c. 1925.
The Keeler bungalow built in 1924.

By 1917, Walter Nordhoff had found a buyer for his tile company, and Rufus subsequently closed the plant in National City, delivering the manufacturing equipment and molds to the West Coast Tile Company in Vernon, just south of Los Angeles. Noting a vacancy down the street in Vernon, Keeler established his own business, Southern California Clay Products, making chemical stoneware, vats and containers, to assist in the war effort. By 1920, he was designing and fabricating tiled fireplace mantels augmenting the post-war building frenzy.

Entry to the Keeler home, from the roof to the door surround, the steps and risers, all Calco tile.

In the Spring of 1923, a group of well-heeled investors approached Rufus Keeler, who had added a daughter to his family the year before, inviting him to come on board to serve as Superintendent of a large tile manufacturing plant to be built in South Gate, a small growing community adjacent to Vernon. In June, Keeler’s company was reorganized as California Clay Products, referred to as Calco. $1,500,000 was invested in construction on a 12-acre site, headed by W.A. Savage, Founder of the Savage Arms Company, and W.N. Hamaker, Vice President of the Continental National Bank. The company would produce electrical conduits, both sewer and water pipe, earthenware, as well as pressed, fire, paving and building brick, ornamental and bathroom tile, and bath fixtures.

Calco tiles greet people when they first enter the house.

By 1924 Rufus Keeler was on a roll. He and Mary, now carrying their third child, bought a lot within walking distance of the new factory, designing (and building) a bungalow suitable for their growing family and serving as a “salesman’s tool” for his Calco tiles. 

Quoting historian Brian Kaiser: “The house, a single-story covering approximately 2,000 square feet, was Spanish Colonial in style with a pleasant but modest appearance from the street. In concept, design and construction, this was a tile house from start to finish exemplifying the use of ‘everlasting’ materials. Once completed, Keeler used his home as a ‘salesman’s sample’ where he demonstrated how tile accents could elevate the appearance of what he called an ‘everyday home.’

The magnificent Mayan fireplace, all produced at Calco.

“Initially, a perimeter foundation was constructed and concrete slabs were poured upon which floor tiles were later installed. The walls were constructed of 1-inch hollow tile which provided air space for insulation. They were covered with steel wire mesh and then coated inside and out with waterproof concrete. Every lintel had 12-inches of poured reinforced concrete above it. The roofs of both the house and a separate garage out back were adorned with red ‘mission’ tiles, typical of this style of architecture.

“As one approaches the house, the ceramic accents become apparent. The window mullions were covered with green, twisted terra-cotta columns, each crowned with a ceramic capital. Overhead the decorative wooden beams were held in place with stud bolts, and the ends were covered with terra-cotta rosettes. The front door was surrounded with rustic tile quoins; the landing was fashioned from broken pieces of kiln furniture used as flagstones; and the stair risers were decorated with colorful Calco tiles. 

“Through the front door into the vestibule an exuberant tile wainscot was there to greet you. Three and a half feet high, the bright colors and geometric shapes were copied exactly from La Casa del Greca in Toledo, Spain. Three arched doorways in this room were also bordered in tiles of Saracen design.

Special thanks to Brian Kaiser, who since 1987 has had the privilege of owning and residing in the home built by Mary and Rufus Keeler in 1924. His description above can be read in its entirety in “Flash Point,” Vol. 5, No. 3, July-September 1992.

“In the living room there was a true tile wonder, a magnificent Mayan fireplace, the focal point of the house. Nine feet tall and eight feet wide and modeled in green and brown terra cotta, the fireplace was inspired by the main panel from the Temple of the Cross in Palenque, Mexico. King Pakal stands to the left of the firebox; his son, King Chan Bahlum II, is on the right. The face of a sun monster looms over the firebox, and two Mayan figures holding up lamps with mica shades kneel above the mantel on either side. Tiled stair risers in Mayan designs complete the theme of the room.”

There are additional innovative uses of tiles in the house: fanciful tile baseboards in several rooms including a wisteria forest lining the hallway; yellow roses adorning the perimeter of the front bedroom; and an intricate pattern of blue flowers surrounding the back bedroom. The master bathroom is a sight to behold with its decorative floral motif carried throughout, including the fixtures.

The Keeler’s third child, Byron, was born in February 1925.

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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