California brick
CALIFORNIA BRICKS


Tropico Potteries, Inc.

Western Art Tile Company

History



Tropico Potteries, Inc. logo. From Southwest Builder Contractor, 1922.

Professor Joseph Kirkham, an expert ceramist, who had formerly worked at Wedgwood Pottery in England, Kirkham Art Tile and Pottery Company in Barberton, Ohio, and the Providentia Tile Works at Trenton, New Jersey, was looking to establish a new tile plant in California. He initially had planned to build his plant in San Francisco when he was induced by Colonel G. J. Griffith to build it in Los Angeles. Griffith had arranged and secured 43 acres of land at the town of Tropico (now Glendale), about 5 miles northwest of Los Angeles, for the new ornamental tile plant, which, it was said, was the first of its kind to be built west of the Mississippi River. Landowner Richardson donated 15 acres of the property to the company. The address of this property was to become 2901 Los Feliz Boulevard.

In March 1900, the Pacific Art Manufacturing Company was incorporated with a capital stock of $600,000, divided into 6,000 shares, the full amount being subscribed. Company directors were J. P. Bliss and D. J. Ryan of Columbus, Ohio; Joseph Kirkham, J. C. Marquardt, G. J. Griffith, G. Easton, and W. H. Perry of Los Angeles. The purpose was to manufacture art tiles and other ceramic products. Colonel G. J. Griffith was president; Major George Easton of Easton, Eldridge & Co., was vice-president; Professor Joseph Kirkham was general superintendent and ceramist; Judge Charles Silent was attorney; and J. C. Marquardt was secretary.

Construction of the tile plant began in January 1900. The building was 185 feet wide by 570 feet long. Machinery of the latest design was shipped from eastern manufacturers. Interestingly, the plant cost $20,000 less to build than a similar building in the East because expensive heating apparatus to protect water pipes from frost was not necessary. The office of the factory was in a three-story ornamental building of pressed brick in the center of the large plant. The office was described as having mosaic floors, and walls of ornamental tiles, designed after the fashion of the Rookwood pottery near Cincinnati, Ohio. It contained facilities for amateur ceramic work, which was opened to women to do modeling, coloring, decorating, and glazing their own work. Next to the factory was built a large tile furnace of 25,000-tile capacity. There was no smoke or vapors to contaminate the neighborhood. The plant was situated next to the Southern Pacific railroad with a side track for loading. The company was planning to hire between 800 to 1,000 workers of which one-third were to be women and about 100 expert artisans were to be hired from eastern potteries.

View of the Tropico pottery works in 1907. From the Highland Park Herald, 1907.
View of the Tropico pottery works in 1907. From the Highland Park Herald, 1907.

Pacific Tile purchased different clays from Elsinore and Corona in Riverside County. The clays were shipped to the plant by rail. Ceramist Kirkham tested the clays and chose the best ones for the products that were made.

The first ornamental tiles produced from the Tropico plant came out in December 1900 and was displayed in the H. J. Whitley's jewelry store at 111 North Spring Street in Los Angeles. Thousands came to see the exhibit. The tiles were three panels of glazed wainscot and floor tiles. The Chamber of Commerce was also proud to display some of the first art tiles made on the Pacific Coast. Ornamental tiles were shipped mainly in the Los Angeles region. No bricks were manufactured by this company.

The market for tile was not as expected and the plant closed in 1901. In August 1904, the Western Art Tile Company purchased and reopened the plant to continue the production of floor, wall, mantel, and art tiles. Lycurgus Lindsay was president and E. M. Durant was secretary and treasurer of the company. They had set up a sales office at the 375 Pacific Electric Building on 608 South Main Street in Los Angeles, with Thomas Fellows as the sales agent. Raw material was initially imported from Europe because it was cheaper than the domestic clay on account of locally high transport costs.

View of the Tropico pottery works in 1907. From the Architect and Engineer, 1907
View of the Tropico pottery works in 1907. From the Architect and Engineer, 1907.

In March 1907, Western Art Tile introduced the hollow tile block. According to their advertisements, the tile blocks are fire and weather proof, came in glazed or unglazed, and capable of carrying 100,000 pounds per foot. These were four-partitioned hollow tile blocks. Some of the first tile blocks of a pinkish buff color were used in the walls of the Highland Park Masonic Temple. The residence of L. Lindsay on West Adams Street in Los Angeles was also constructed of hollow tile blocks. Cream hollow tile blocks were used in the bank building on the northwest corner of Main and Sixth streets in El Centro.

Illustration of hollow terra cotta blocks. From the Architect and Engineer, 1908.
Illustration of hollow terra cotta blocks. From the Architect and Engineer, 1908.

In 1908, the hollow tile block department was expanded to meet the increasing demand for hollow blocks. A Raymond 9-foot dry pan was installed and a new drying shed, 115 by 125 feet, was built, enabling drying during the winter months by the use of exhaust steam from the kilns. Two additional down-draft kilns were built. For enamel brick production, five 50-foot square kilns were added. The company was also establishing an architectural terra cotta department and built four Scotch muffle kilns to fire terra cotta.

View of the kiln room at the Western Art Tile works. From the Architect and Engineer, 1907.
View of the kiln room at the Western Art Tile works. From the Architect and Engineer, 1907.

In November 1909, the company hired Maxwell A. Metzner, formerly of New Rochelle, New York, to manage the plant. In July 1910, James W. Hislop, formerly with the Stockton Fire and Enamel Brick Company, was put in charge of the terra cotta and brick department. By December 1910, the plant was producing 30,000 enamel brick per day. These bricks were shipped throughout the state as well as to Portland and Seattle. At this time, raw material was shipped to the plant from local sources, Elsinore, and Death Valley.

In December 1910, the company was reorganized under the name of the Pacific Tile and Terra Cotta Company, which was incorporated at Los Angeles with a capital stock of $1,000,000, by F. C. Kellar, A. T. Wintergill, E. M. Davids, T. Vigus, and J. W. Hislop. Michael A. Murphy was the president and general manager and Thomas Vigus was secretary. The office was at 720 South Olive Street in Los Angeles.

View of the Pacific Tile and Terra Cotta Company. From Brick and Clay Record, 1923.
View of the Tropico pottery when it was owned by the Pacific
Tile and Terra Cotta Company. From Brick and Clay Record, 1923.

This company, in turn, leased the works to the Independent Sewer Pipe Company of Los Angeles, which made only sewer pipes, until 1917, when the Pacific Tile and Terra Cotta Company resumed operations there with production of tiles and sewer pipes.

In 1917, vitrified paving brick was introduced under the supervision of George C. Little, a pioneer brick manufacturer. At present, there is no information about the vitrified paving brick.

In 1918, E. M. Davis, a son-in-law of plant owner Lycurgus Lindsay, became manager of the plant.

Advertisement of Pacific Minerals and Chemical Company. From Southwest Builder and Contractor, 1920.
Advertisement of Pacific Minerals and Chemical Company.
From Southwest Builder and Contractor, 1920.

In 1919, the Pacific Minerals and Chemical Company took over the Tropico plant and continued manufacturing sewer pipe. In 1920, the company reorganized under the name of Tropico Potteries, Inc., with B. M. Wotkyns as president, F. B. Ortman as vice-president and manager, and E. M. Davids as secretary-treasurer. Capital stock was $1,000,000, of which $700 was subscribed. S. M. Haskin was one of the directors. On January 1, 1921, Tropico Potteries, Inc., purchased all of the assets of Pacific Minerals and Chemical Company, including its clay property in Temescal Canyon near Corona in Riverside County. The new company was financed by a $300,000 first mortgage 8 per cent bond issue, which was rapidly being absorbed by the public. Fred B. Ortman was formerly general manager of the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company at Chicago, Illinois. It was under Ortman that the Tropico plant returned to manufacturing tile and architectural terra cotta, as well as other clay products. Ortman electrified the plant to run it more efficiently. He improved the driers, added new kilns, and increased the plant output. The plant at this time was reported to have 21 oil-burning kilns.

The products of Tropico Potteries, Inc., according to advertisements, included architectural terra cotta, vitrified clay sewer pipe, faience tile, quarry tile, chimney pipe, drain tile, and flue lining. Advertisements encouraged the use of architectural terra cotta, which was "made of raw material of a plastic nature, selected fireclays, presenting possibilities of an endless variety of color and texture effects and ornamental enrichment." Examples of their products were used in Bank of Italy, First Methodist Episcopal Church, Merchants National Bank, Hotel Stowell, Commodore Hotel, Robinson's Store, Arnold Garage, Security Branch Bank (Vermont Avenue), Presbyterian Church, and the Ross Campbell Building in Los Angeles, Pacific Southwest Bank and City Hall at Long Beach, Security Trust and Savings Bank at Glendale, and the City National Bank at El Paso, Texas.

Advertisement of architectural terra cotta. From Southwest Builder and Contractor, 1922.
Advertisement for architectural terra cotta.
From Southwest Builder and Contractor, 1922.

Terra cotta brick was produced by the Tropico Potteries to accommodate the architectural terra cotta. I'm grateful to Douglas S. McIntosh for providing a picture of one of these bricks. These bricks were wire-cut and repressed. During the repressing, it was stamped with the name "TROPICO" inside a rectangular frog on the face. We don't know if all bricks were stamped as not many of these bricks have been found. Another variation of branding uses the capital "T" similar to that shown on the company's logo, which were stamped on the backs of tiles. No examples of this mark have been found on any of their bricks. These bricks were probably made between 1920 and 1923, when Tropico Potteries, Inc., ran the plant.

In June 1923, Tropico Potteries was purchased by Gladding, McBean and Company, as part of the latter company's attempt to break into the Los Angeles market with their own line of sewer pipe and architectural terra cotta. Tropico Potteries continued to manufacture its products, but under the Gladding McBean label. On December 17, 1928, Tropico Potteries, Inc., was dissolved. In 1934, Gladding, McBean used the Tropico plant to manufacture its line of Franciscan dinnerware and garden pottery. The plant was closed by Wedgwood in the 1983, when they moved the dinnerware production to England. The site has been partially built over by Costco.

View looking south of the Tropico plant, Glendale. From Brick and Clay Record, 1924.
View looking south of the Tropico plant, Glendale. From Brick and Clay Record, 1924.

Tropico Brick

Tropico terra cotta brick is light gray. The brick has perfect form with straight sharp edges, except for the rounded short edges, and dull corners. Shallow or flat wire-cut grooves are displayed on the faces. The marked face is stamped in recessed block letters with the name "TROPICO" which spans 5 1/4 inches and stands 3/4 inch. The name is inside a rectangular frog that is 5 3/4 inches long and 1 inch wide. Interior contains 3 percent subrounded white quartz and 5 percent round brown iron oxides, less than 1/4 inch in diameter, in a cream coarse granular clay body. This brick was made by the stiff-mud process. Length 8 3/4, width 4 1/2, height 2 1/2 inches.

View of the marked face of the Tropico terra cotta brick.
View of the marked face of the Tropico terra cotta brick.
Photo courtesy of Douglas S. McIntosh

References

A Great Success, Los Angeles Herald, December 4, 1900.

A Prosperous California Industry, Brick, v. 15, no. 3, September 1901, p. 121.

Architect and Engineer, v. 12, no. 1, February 1908, p. 98 (Hollow Tile Block ad).

Architecture Digest, 1922, p. 72 (Tropico Potteries, Inc., ad).

Aubrey, Lewis E., The Structural and Industrial Materials of California, California Mining Bureau Bulletin 38, Sacramento, CA, 1906.

Boalich, E.S., Castello, W.O., Huguenin, Emile, Logan, C.A., and Tucker, W.B., The Clay Industry In California, California State Mining Bureau Preliminary Report 7, 1920, p. 56-57.

Brick, v. 21, no. 2, 1904, p. 73.

Brick, v. 29, no. 3, 1908, p. 416.

Brick, v. 31, no. 5, November 1909, p. 5.

Brick, v. 33, no. 1, July 1910, p. 34.

Brick, v. 33, no. 6, December 1910, p. 222.

Brick and Clay Record, v. 48, no. 11, 1916, p. 1055.

Brick and Clay Record, v. 50, no. 3, 1916, p. 261.

Brick and Clay Record, v. 52, no. 8, 1918, p. 707.

Brick and Clay Record, v. 62, no. 7, 1923, p. 636.

Burkick, Arthur J., Art Tile on the Pacific Coast, The Architect and Engineer of California, v. 9, no. 3, July 1907, p. 78-82.

California Heritage Museum, California Tile, The Golden Era 1910-1940, Hispano-Moreque to Woolenius, Joseph A. Taylor, editor, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Atglen, PA, 2004.

Clay Worker, v. 34, no. 3, September 1900, p. 224.

Clay Worker, v. 75, no. 6, 1921, p. 610.

Clay Worker, v. 78, no. 1, 1922, p. 50.

Collectibles: Franciscan Ware, Bon Appetit, January 1993, p. 18.

Demand for Tile, The Architect and Engineer of California, v. 10, no. 1, August 1907, p. 80.

Elliot-Bishop, James F., Franciscan, Catalina, and other Gladding, McBean Wares, Ceramic Table and Art Wares: 1873-1942, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Atglen, PA, 2001.

Fred Ortman Final Rites Set Today, Pasadena Independent, March 1, 1961.

Gladding, McBean Buys Tropico, Brick and Clay Record, v. 63, no. 1, 1923, p. 52.

Highland Park Herald, March 23, 1907, Western Art Tile ad.

Highland Park Herald, March 30, 1907, Western Art Tile ad.

Hollow Building Blocks, Highland Park Herald, March 30, 1907.

Incorporations, Los Angeles Herald, March 21, 1900.

Large Tile Works, Los Angeles Herald, March 16, 1900.

Little Jo Visits Tropico Properties, Brick and Clay Record, v. 64, no. 10, 1924, p. 726.

Los Angeles City Directory, 1901.

Los Angeles City Directory, 1907.

Los Angeles Herald, March 31, 1907.

Lost $37,000 in 4 Months, Clay Record, v. 36, no. 6, March 1910, p. 36.

McIntosh, Douglas S., written communications and brick photo, 2013.

New Bank Building, Imperial Valley Press, October 3, 1908.

Ortman Locates on Pacific Coast, Brick and Clay Record, v. 58, no. 5, 1921, p. 413.

Pacific Art M'F'G. Co., Los Angeles Herald, December 23, 1900.

Pottery Incorporates for Large Sum, Brick and Clay Record, v. 57, no. 13, 1920, p. 1102.

Russell, Shirley L., Lincoln Area Archives Museum, Lincoln, California, personal communications, 2010.

Southwest Builder and Contractor, January 9, 1920, p. 19 (products ad).

Southwest Builder and Contractor, October 13, 1922, p. 22 (Tropico logo ad).

Southwest Builder and Contractor, October 20, 1922, p. 42 (Architectural Terra Cotta ad).

Tile Exhibit, Los Angeles Herald, December 30, 1900.

Tile Factory Products, Los Angeles Herald, December 3, 1900.

Visit the Tile Works, Los Angeles Herald, April 11, 1901.

Copyright 2016 Dan Mosier

Contact Dan Mosier at danmosier@earthlink.net.