A blog about architectural tiles, terra cotta and other ceramic surfaces, architectural glass and ornamentation in and around New York.

Saturday, December 1, 2012


Mueller Mosaic Altar Mural, c. 1910

St. Thomas the Apostle Church was founded over 100 years ago in the Woodhaven neighborhood in Queens. 

The original altar mural was made by the Mueller Mosaic Tile Company of Trenton, New Jersey.
Herman Carl Mueller with a faience tile panel. (E. Stanley Wires, "Decorative Tiles", New England Architect and Builder Illustrated, Number 16, 1960)
“Herman Mueller founded the Mueller Mosaic Tile Company in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1908. According to one source, "Herman Carl Mueller was born in Germany in 1854. As a teenager he wanted to be a professional singer because he had a rich baritone voice. His parents recognized early that young Herman was artistically talented so they encouraged him at age 14 to enter the Nuremberg School of Industrial Arts instead of pursuing professional singing. There he discovered his talent and interest in sculpture, and at age 16 began his formal training at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts. When he finished school, he worked as an apprentice with different sculptors throughout Germany. In 1878, at the age of 24, he decided to emigrate to the United States of America because he heard it was a land of opportunity." (http://www.ettc.net/njarts/details.cfm?ID=1005After Mueller emigrated to the U.S., he “settled in Cincinnati and worked for Matt Morgan Art Pottery 1882-1884 and then Kensington Art Tile Co. [of Newport, Kentucky.] In 1885 he did sculptures for the Indiananapolis State House in Indiana.” (Lisa F. Taft, “H.C.M., Friend of H.C.M.: A Discussion of Herman Carl Mueller”, Flash Point, Vol. 5, No. 1, January-March 1992, p. 1)

(From Edwin Atlee Barber, The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States, 3rd Edition, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1909, p. 358)
Mueller worked as a modeler for the American Encaustic Tiling Company (AET) in Zanesville, Ohio from 1887-1894. “American Encaustic’s products were at least the equal of any other manufacturer’s, except in the field of art tiles. To rectify this, [...AET] hired the talented, sculptor-mechanic, Herman Mueller in 1887. The artistic quality of the company’s tiles improved dramatically. Mueller’s fireplace surrounds and classical figure panels are among the finest art tiles ever produced. He [Mueller] also demonstrated to architects the virtues of using decorative tiles in such things as fountains and radiator grilles.” (Michael Sims, “The Tiles of Zanesville, Ohio: America’s Tile Manufacturing Center”, Flash Point, Vol. 6, No. 3, July-September 1993, p. 19)
(From Edwin Atlee Barber, The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States, 3rd Edition, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1909, p. 357)
In 1894, Mueller formed a partnership with the chemist Karl Langenbeck, William Shinnick, Jr. and others and organized the Mosaic Tile Company in Zanesville, Ohio. “Mueller and Langenbeck were responsible for the successful beginning of Mosaic. In the earliest years...they directed all phases of the operation.” In 1895 “they turned their attention to perfecting Mueller’s idea for a new system of manufacturing dust-pressed encaustic tiles [U.S. Patent No. 537703]. Mueller’s idea was to use a standard cell frame, made of rows of interlocking brass strips set at right angles to each other, with 2601 one-eighth inch square cells. The cell frame would replace the expensive separate copper die or mold required for each color in a tile. ...The significance of Mueller’s process was that panels consisting of any number of different tiles, particularly original designs used only once or twice, could be manufactured at a relatively low cost.” (Michael Sims, “The Tiles of Zanesville, Ohio: America’s Tile Manufacturing Center”, Flash Point, Vol. 6, No. 3, July-September 1993, p. 20)
A "mural over the main door of St. Nicholas [RC Church, Zanesville, Ohio] showing Christopher Columbus bringing Christianity to the New World." (Catholic Times, Vol. 58:11, December 14, 2008, p. 10) The tiles were made by Mueller's patented "pseudo-encaustic-mosaic" process in 1898. (Photo courtesy of Michael Padwee)
“This process received a great deal of attention and was used on several major buildings such as the California State Capitol, Sacramento; St. Nicholas Catholic Church, Zanesville, Ohio; and the Moerlein Brewery, Cincinnati. Edwin Atlee Barber cited three advantages [of Mueller’s process]: artistic appearance, great hardness and durability and moderate cost.” (Lisa F. Taft, “H.C.M., Friend of H.C.M.: A Discussion of Herman Carl Mueller”, Flash Point, Vol. 5, No. 1, January-March 1992, p. 15)

Tiles in the California State Capitol, Sacramento
"The present tile floor coverings are reproductions of tiles that were originally purchased from the Mosaic Tile Company of Zanesville, Ohio and installed in 1896. Visitors can see an example of the original Eureka tile grouping in the Eureka Room, located in the basement of the Capitol... ." (http://capitolmuseum.ca.gov/VirtualTour.aspx?content1=1278&Content2=1374&Content3=1294)
By 1903 “Langenbeck and Mueller became increasingly upset by the [Mosaic Tile C]ompany’s emphasis on commercial considerations at the expense of artistic integrity, and...they left their jobs at Mosaic. Mueller became manager of the designing...department at the Robertson [Art Tile Company] Art Branch in Morrisville, Pennsylvania.” (Michael Sims, “The Tiles of Zanesville, Ohio: America’s Tile Manufacturing Center”, Flash Point, Vol. 6, No. 3, July-September 1993, p. 21)
A Robertson Art Tile Company tile "rug" (lower left) designed while Herman Mueller was the manager of this company's Design Department. The swimming pool is also lined with Robertson tiles according to tile historians Scott Anderson and Judi Wells, who have researched this company's history extensively. (Post card courtesy of http://www.Cardcow.com)
"In 1908 he moved to Trenton, New Jersey and started operation of the Mueller Mosaic Company, at the former location of the Artistic Porcelain Company on Chambers Street and Cedar Lane. The company did well and Mueller, the successful businessman, became acquainted with J.V.B. Wicoff while campaigning for Woodrow Wilson's successful attempt to become President of the United States. Years later, Wicoff asked him to design and install the tiles in the sun porch [of his house in Plainsboro, New Jersey]. In addition, Mueller received an extensive commission from J.V.B.s friend and business associate, Henry W. Jeffers, to design and install the ceramic tile and decorations in the Rotolactor of the famous Walker-Gordon Dairy..." in Plainsboro.* (http://www.ettc.net/njarts/details.cfm?ID=1005)
Tiled Rotolactor Room at the Walker-Gordon Dairy, 1937. (Photo post card courtesy of http://www.cardcow.com)
*["Walker-Gordon Farms of Plainsboro, New Jersey, a subsidiary of the Borden Company, are one of the oldest and largest milk producing farms in the world. The new Rotary Combine Milking System was conceived by Henry W. Jeffers, president of Walker-Gordon, after many years of research, while the milking equipment was developed and installed by the DeLaval Separator Company of New York City. ...The new milking system consists of a revolving platform upon which are placed 50 stanchions. The platform revolves slowly, completing a revolution in 12-1/2 minutes. The platform is housed in a beautiful new building which not only contains the milking system but a complete set of offices and laboratories. The interior of the building is beautifully tiled and in the center of the platform is a large glassed-in observation room, where visitors may observe the milking operation. ...The cows are brought to the Rotary Combine Milker and are conducted to the revolving platform through a tiled passageway. As the cow comes to the end of this passageway, she steps onto the revolving platform and one after another does so until all the stanchions are filled. ...Milking is completed as each cow nears the end of a complete revolution... . The milked cow walks off the platform through a passageway... ." (From http://www.farmcollector.com/looking-back/the-rotolactor.aspx; originally from the December 15, 1930 issue of Farm Machinery and Equipment magazine.) "By June of 1971, the dairy business was no longer profitable and the farm began to raise beef cattle and grow and sell general field crops. Today the Walker-Gordon Farm on Plainsboro Road is a group of 355 single family homes... ." (From James Shackleford, "The Legacy of Walker-Gordon Farms in Central Jersey", January 13, 2011 in http://southbrunswick.patch.com/articles/the-legacy-of-walker-gordon-farms-in-central-jersey)]

"Even with the vast choices in tile at that time, Mueller still felt there was a need for more artistic tiles executed in the Arts and Crafts tradirion of aesthetic beauty joined with high craftsmanship. Some of Mueller's numerous historic installations include the Kelsey Memorial Building and the Crescent Temple in Trenton; the Garden Pier and the Blatt Building in Atlantic City; the Ceramic Building at Rutgers University, New Brunswick; ...all in New Jersey; the YMCA in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, Japan." (Norman Karlson, "Mueller Mosaic Company", The Encyclopedia of American Art Tiles, Volume I, Section 2, Schiffer Publishing Company, Atglen, PA, p. 149)

Mueller Mosaic Tile Inserts. (From E. Stanley Wires' "Decorative Tiles")
Mueller was hired to create a children's mural in the New Jersey State Capitol Building in Trenton. The ceramic State Seal is also attributed to the Mueller Mosaic Company.

One assessment of Mueller's work claimed he "made some of the most beautiful faience tile ever produced in this country. [His]...products consisted of Frost-proof Faience, Flemish Tile Mosaic, Decorated Inserts, Grilles, Fountains and Polychrome Faience Panels." (E. Stanley Wires, "Decorative Tiles", New England Architect and Builder Illustrated, Number 16, 1960)
A Mueller Mosaic faience tile and metal panel. (From  E. Stanley Wires' "Decorative Tiles")
"As a prominent citizen of Trenton who believed strongly in education, Mueller was appointed president of the Trenton Board of Education. While in the position from 1914 until 1919, he was instrumental in establishing this country's first Junior High School." (http://www.ettc.net/njarts/details.cfm?ID=1005)

A page from a reprint of an undated Mueller Mosaic Company catalog, Mueller Tile: Polychrome Faience Tile Emblems, &c. (A reprint by the Tile Heritage Foundation, 1990s)

A fireplace surround (Christopher Columbus) found near Atlantic City, NJ about 2001 and attributed to the Mueller Mosaic Company by Sandie Fowler and Wendy Harvey, the owners of Antique Articles, and the authors of Art Nouveau Tiles c 1890-1914.
The Mueller Mosaic Tile Company produced tiles for many building exteriors and interiors throughout the country. A number no longer exist, such as J.J. Gafney's office building in Louisville, Kentucky. When this building was being built in 1909, though, the tiling was considered cutting edge in architectural ornamentation. Clay Record wrote that Mueller Mosaic "...is making a specialty of an entirely new application of faience enamels, and the interior of the same office building in Louisville is to be partially walled with some exceptionally artistic designs... . These enamels are of Roman mosaic of small tesserae, principally representing mediaeval coats of arms. They are also produced in similar panel work of Florentine mosaic, representing classical subjects of numerous types and periods. One of each of these panels is now on exhibition in the windows of Thomas Trapp, jeweler, in the Commonwealth Building, on East State Street [in Trenton]. ...The Mueller Co.'s Louisville order will require many thousand feet of tiling, inasmuch as the building to be decorated is an office building of several stories and the interior is spacious." (Clay Record, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, August 30, 1909, p. 31)
(From https://sites.google.com/site/tileinstallationdb/where-are-they-now)
Other buildings--some in Atlantic City, New Jersey--also had Mueller Mosaic exterior ornamentation. For instance, the Garden Pier was built in 1913, and the side pavillions were decorated with Mueller's "Faience Art Tile", where "...the various colored parts of the design are cut according to the outline, and the various pieces thus formed are covered separately with the enamels. This is based on the style of the Florentine mosaics and is very effective, especially for exterior decorative work." Also, "...[Keith's] Garden Pier Theater...has walls of [Mueller Mosaic] flemish tile and faience, with floor of flemish herringbone tile." ("Fine Ceramic Manufacture", Brick and Clay Record, Vol. 56, No. 10, May 4, 1920, p. 933) The original Garden Pier structures were damaged in a hurricane in 1944 and no longer exist.
The Knights of Columbus building at 1408 Pacific Avenue, Atlantic City was adorned with Mueller Mosaic faience tiles, but in 2003 the deserted building was voted the greatest eyesore in the city, and it remained deserted and boarded-up into 2010. However, Seth Gaines took some excellent color photos of the tile work in 2009.
In 1922 Mueller Mosaic ran a series of ads in Architectural periodicals showing some of the company's faience storefronts.
(From Pencil Points, Vol. III, No. 3, March 1922, p. 47)
Herman Mueller was also called upon to decorate the interiors of private residences. One of these--that of Schuyler Schieffelin in Monroe, New York, designed by architect Bowen Bancroft Smith, and built with cement--was described in the January 1917 issue of Concrete: "...but the principal motif in the decoration of these [interior] cement surfaces is a very original treatment by inserts of special tile. ...It was intended to recall by these tile the foliage of the surrounding hills and Mr. Smith selected oak and maple leaves as suitable for the purpose and designed borders for the several rooms consisting of groups of leaves connected by conventional stems or borders. ...The tile themselves are real works of art... ." (Concrete, Vol. 10, No. 1, January 1917, pp. 11-13)

"It would be impossible to exaggerate the beautiful color of these tiles or the truthful representation and remarkable vitality of their outlines, equalling the most skillful carving. The stems are of exquisite glazed blues and bluish purples, while the leaves themselves have green centers, mottled and speckled as if by fungi, with yellow tips, resembling leaves in the first turning of autumn foliage." (John Taylor Boyd, Jr., "The House of Schuyler Schieffelin", The Architectural Record, Vol. XL, No. 1, July 1916, p. 41) 

"Complete full size details were made [by the architect] showing each individual piece of tile, leaf or stem, and the tile were glued, face downward, to these details, which were...cut into sections...and each indexed and marked for location [in the house]." (Concrete, Vol. 10, No. 1, January 1917, pp. 11-13)
(John Taylor Boyd, Jr., "The House of Schuyler Schieffelin", The Architectural Record, Vol. XL, No. 1, July 1916, pp. 38-39) 
"The hexagonal tiling in the halls, dining room, entrance hall and sun parlor are three inch pieces of leathery reddish color, porous in texture, relieved by frequent but irregularly spaced figured tiles." (John Taylor Boyd, Jr., p. 41)

In a future post I plan to discuss some of the Mueller Mosaic tile installations still existing in New Jersey--Domenico Mortellito's WPA murals in the Newark Subway System; Columbia High School in Maplewood; and Hepburn Hall, in New Jersey City University, Jersey City, among others.

Mueller also created other ceramic ecclesiastic sculptures. I discovered a Mueller Mosaic Company catalog page with an illustration of the faience Shrine of the Little Flower, St. Dominic's Church at 7625 Linwood, Detroit, Michigan.
 I have tried, unsuccessfully, to find out what happened to this Shrine when the Catholic Diocese gave up this building about four years ago. Ren Farley writes on his website, Detroit1701.org: "In 1925, Brewster Congregational sold the church...to the Roman Catholic diocese.  The next year the Catholics opened St. Dominic’s Catholic Church with the Dominican Fathers staffing and managing the parish.  The Catholics extensively remodeled this 1919 church... . The Dominican fathers operated this church until 1999 when they gave up their control.  Priests from the diocese of Detroit took over.  In the fall of 2005, the diocese of Detroit announced that St. Dominic’s parish would be closed and the final Mass was said in this church on November 11 of that year." Hopefully, the fate of this faience Shrine at the hands of the Detroit Diocese will be different than the fate of the Cambridge-Wheatley ecclesiastic faience in Philadelphia's Church of the Transfiguration at the hands of the Philadelphia Diocese.

Mueller also supplied the tiles used in the First Plymouth Congregational Church in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Mueller Mosaic tiles on the front facade of the First Plymouth Congregational Church. Photo courtesy of Michael Padwee.
I've now come full circle back to Woodhaven, Queens. St. Thomas the Apostle Church is located at 87-19 88th Avenue, Woodhaven, NY 11421.
Map courtesy of Google Maps.
The Church of Saint Thomas the Apostle has been an integral part of Woodhaven and surrounding communities since 1910 and has recently had a needed restoration

for its Centennial Celebration. St. Thomas' Pastor and the Director of Liturgy for the Diocese, Reverend Frank C. Tumino, was very helpful locating a photo of the original altar mosaic, as well as a 6" square, relief tile of the "Madonna and Child" that was rescued when the new mural was installed in the 1950s.

The exterior tile work on the church facade has been restored. According to Reverend Tumino the Church did not have enough funds to reglaze the worn exterior tiling, but they did paint the tiles so they matched the original glazes as closely as possible. The 1950s altar mosaic was cleaned and polished, and a horizontal crack was repaired. But, there is even more than the exterior tiles and the altar tile mosaic. There are twelve "Stations of the Cross" mosaic tile murals that were added at the same time as the new altar mosaic:
(The photography in the video is by Mario Brienza.)

The original Mueller Mosaic altar from a photo taken after a first alteration in which two murals to each side of the altar were removed and the two statues seen here were added. Photo courtesy of St. Thomas the Apostle Church.
A tile from the altar area which was rescued during the 1950s when the new altar mosaic took the place of the original.
Mueller Mosaic created a series of relief ecclesiastical ceramics with similar borders and advertised them as "polychrome mural tiling".
(From Pencil Points, Vol. III, No. 8, August 1922, p. 52)
"The economic depression of the 1930s, Mueller's advanced age, and also the switch in popular decorative tastes to sleeker, less expensive, and industrial produced materials, all contributed to the firm's decline in sales in the mid-1930s. To the end, Mueller stuck by his decision to produce art tiles in the Arts and Crafts tradition. Mueller died in 1941, and the company closed the following year." (Norman Karlson, "Mueller Mosaic Company", The Encyclopedia of American Art Tiles, Volume I, Section 2, Schiffer Publishing Company, Atglen, PA, p. 149)

Thursday, November 15, 2012


Historic American Buildings Survey, Photocopy, Courtesy of New York Historical Society, Poster in the Landauer Collection. 
HABS NY, 31-NEYO,72-3 
 In a review of Justin Kaplan’s book, When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age, Roger Lowenstein stated that “Though the Astors built New York's first great hotels, I would wager that few New Yorkers today associate either the Waldorf-Astoria or Astor Place with the clan that bequeathed the name. By comparison, the names Carnegie Hall and Rockefeller Center still evoke their founders. One reason is that the Astors were rather passive; after the first generation, they were less bloodsucking robber barons than men of leisure with a business hobby. ...Mr. Kaplan is mainly interested in John Jacob IV, Caroline...[Astor’s] son, born in 1864, and his older first cousin, William. Great-grandsons of the patriarch, Willy and John Jacob were bitter rivals and competed by trying to top each other's hotels. William built the Astor (the original had shuttered) on Times Square. "Meet me at the Astor" became part of the lexicon. ...John Jacob answered with the St. Regis, at 55th Street, a mere month later. ...The cousins' hotels, six in all, endured longer [than they did], but most would eventually give way to the wrecking ball. It is a sad footnote to the Astors' eclipse that the present-day Waldorf-Astoria, otherwise unrelated [to the family], bought its name for $1.”
(http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/18/business/yourmoney/18shelf.html?_r=0; Roger Lowenstein, “An Age of Splendor, and Hotel One-Upmanship”, The New York Times, June 18, 2006) The Astor was one of the hotels that did not survive "developers' progress".
“William Waldorf Astor built the 35,000 square foot hotel which was designed by the architectural firm of Clinton & Russell and was constructed by John Downey. The building proper was in the French Renaissance style, carried out in red brick and limestone with a Mansard roof made from copper and green slate. Like a Victorian parlor writ large the Hotel was chock-a-block full of curios, design features and stylistic knock-offs that ranged in theme from Chinese to German Volk, from Louis XVI to Art Nouveau, from WASP American to Native American.” (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma04/ranger/astor_collection/hotel.html)

"The...Hotel Astor was built in two stages, in 1905 and 1909-1910, by the same architects in the same style. On completion it occupied an entire city block at a reported total cost of $7 million. Architects Clinton & Russell had designed a number of Astor commissions; here they developed a very Parisian "Beaux Arts" style completed with green-copper mansard roof. Its eleven stories contained 1000 guest rooms, with two more levels underground for its extensive "backstage" functions, such as the wine cellar.
The Astor was an important element in the growth of Times Square and its character as an entertainment center. In 1904 New York Times publisher Adolph S. Ochs moved his newspaper's operations to a new tower on 42nd Street in the middle of Longacre Square, and Ochs persuaded Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. to build a subway station there and rename it Times Square. The theatre district would soon occupy magnificent new auditoriums along Forty-second Street, and electric lighting transformed this strip of Broadway into the "Great White Way".  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hotel_Astor_(New_York)

“Grill-rooms have been made special features of several clubs, and are...extremely popular. Few clubs have gone to the length of making the grill-room in all respects the thing that the name implies, a place where one may actually see one’s chop or steak grilled on the glowing fire before one’s eyes, but the grill-rooms of several clubs have the cozy charm associated with the name, and in the case of others the old-fashioned union of dining-room and kitchen has been accomplished.

One of the most famous of New York grill-rooms is that of the Hotel Astor at Broadway and Forty-fourth Street. This apartment occupies a large part of the basement of the hotel, It is long and low with groined ceiling and arched entrances. The decorative effect is obtained by the free use of pictures and figures having a special relation to the West of this continent. Gigantic antlered heads of moose and other wild creatures are disposed about the room, and there are large and small busts of American Indians displayed… .” (E.N. Vallandigham, “New York Grill-Rooms” in House and Garden, Vol. 7, No. 5, May 1905, pp. 265-269)

Drawing of the Indian Grill Room and Basement Floor of the Hotel Astor

“When brothers William and Frederick Muschenheim opened the Hotel Astor to New York City's elite in the fall of 1904, they offered their guests and visitors a unique experience -- the opportunity to sip drinks, sample hors d'oeuvres, and enjoy viewing the hundreds of Native American baskets, ceramics, and artwork displayed in the...'Hall of the American Indian,' which served both recreational and educational purposes, featured artifacts and photographs acquired from Alaska to Mexico by explorers, traders, and scientists. ...Although the Hall's artworks and artifacts were marketed as scientific and cultural representations, the room's primary role was to entertain. Unlike museum pieces, which would have been documented and catalogued, few records of any kind exist that might shed light on their sources and histories. Today, thousands of mysteries swirl around each object: Who made it? Why was this one chosen for display rather than another? What did it mean to the people who created it? What did it mean to the people who gazed at it from the grill room tables of a New York luxury hotel?”
From: T.J. George, “Hotel Astor”, The New York Architect, V. 3, No. 12, Dec. 1909

The ad below clearly shows part of the patterned tile floor designed and produced by the American Encaustic Tiling Company for the Indian Grill Room in 1904.

American Institute of Architects, Philadelphia Chapter, The T-Square Club Year Book and Catalogue, Fifteenth Annual Architectural Exhibition, 1909, unpaginated ad. It is not known how long this tiled floor with its Native American "luck" design existed, but it did not survive the advent of World War II.
There are a number of famous, tiled grill rooms in hotels in this and other cities that deserve mention. We have already discussed the Atlantic Terra Cotta panels designed by Fred Marsh for the Marine Grill Room (demolished in 1991) in the Hotel McAlpin. The Norse Room in the Fort Pitt Hotel in Pittsburgh (demolished in 1967) was paneled with Rookwood tile murals that illustrated a poem by Longfellow, "Skeleton in Armor".
(From: http://tileresearcharticles.omeka.net/items/show/8)
In 1914 the Dutch Grill Room opened in the New Morrison Hotel in Chicago. As you walked into the dining room, you were greeted by "...a large mural decoration of a scene near Antwerp, in blue and white tile, depicting a family of Hollanders in the fields on the shores of the ocean with a sail-boat, clouds, windmill and farmhouses in the distance. ...The grill room...wall design is completed with small panels of blue and white satin finished faience tile which depict cubist scenes in the peaceable land of windmills... . The same color scheme is to be found in the mat finish flint tiling six inches by six inches which is used in the construction of the entire floor. ...The bases of the English oak pillars are...molded Ohio flint tile...and are entirely in white." ("American Tilemakers Excel Foreign Producers", Brick and Clay Record, Vol. XLVI, No. 6, March 16, 1915, pp. 561-562) The "Ohio Flint" tiles were made by the American Encaustic Tiling Company of Zanesville, Ohio, and the Dutch-style tiles were probably made by the Rookwood Potteries in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Picture post card of the Dutch Grill Room. The murals are on the walls.
One grill room that still exists with its Rookwood tiling is the Rathskeller in the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. "The Seelbach...is equal parts historical landmark and architectural masterpiece. It began as the dream of two Bavarian brothers — Otto and Louis Seelbach — in 1869 when Louis came to Louisville to learn the hotel business. In 1903, after several years of running restaurants and gentleman's clubs, the brothers began construction of a new hotel at the corner of 4th and Walnut Street (now Muhammad Ali), creating a lavish, turn-of-the-century Beaux Arts Baroque hotel. Sparing no expense, they imported marbles from all over the world, bronzes from France, hardwoods from the West Indies and Europe, linens from Ireland, and valuable Turkish and Persian Rugs.

Billed as "the only fireproof hotel in the city," the new Seelbach opened in May of 1905 by offering a 5-hour public inspection and drawing an incredible 25,000 visitors. The hotel was so popular, the Seelbach brothers began a 154-room addition in the fall of that same year.

In 1907, the expansion was completed and included the famous Bavarian-style Rathskeller, decorated with rare Rookwood Pottery. Today the Rathskeller remains the only surviving ensemble of its kind."

Part of the Rookwood tiling and faience ornamentation in the Seelbach's Rathskeller
One New York City grill room that is still partially intact-- and that part was declared a New York City landmark in 1992--is the former Della Robbia Bar, aka the "Crypt", and then the Fiori Restaurant in the former Vanderbilt Hotel at 4 Park Avenue. It was built from 1910-1913 and designed by Warren and Wetmore, architects. "...the (former) Della Robbia Bar...is a rare survivor of the...[original] hotel['s] interior. It exhibits architecturally significant Guastavino vaults featuring colorful, glazed tiles and terra cotta manufactured by the...Rookwood Pottery Company. The surviving space comprises the entire original bar (now the front dining room) and two adjacent gallery bays (now the rear dining room) of the similarly decorated Della Robbia Grill Room, otherwise destroyed. Seemingly Rookwood's largest interior commission, the Della Robbia Grill and Bar were typical of the spacious public interiors incorporated into hotels built during the decade before World War I... .
"The most striking features of the design of the Della Robbia Restaurant were its ceramic-tile finish and its thin-shell Guastavino vaults... . ...The final design for the restaurant was composed of a variety of shapes and colors. Arches were faced in a blue background, against which ivory-colored bands of foliated patterns framed flowers of two types, one of which featured grotesque heads; borders of rectangular blue tiles were edged in spindle moldings. Vaults were edged with a field of blue and aqua tiles superimposed with an outer border of ivory rope molding and an inner band of yellow, green and red panels alternating with ivory rosettes. ...The dramatic spatial effect of multiple vaults, trimmed in delicate, colorful terra-cotta patterns, and the glistening surface of salt-glazed tiles decorated with a raised interlocking key pattern and laid in a herringbone fashion (typical of the Guastavino Company's work) were among the features that attracted customers to the Della Robbia Grill Room and Bar.
"In 1965 the hotel was closed... . [The structure was altered, and...t]he basement level and most of the gallery of the Della Robbia Grill Room were stripped of their original character. However, the Della Robbia Bar and the adjacent two bays of the Grill Room gallery were spared; they remain largely intact [and] are entered through an East 33rd Street doorway... ." (Former) Della Robbia Bar (aka The 'Crypt,' now Fiori Restaurant), in the (former) Vanderbilt Hotel, Ground Floor Interior...", New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, April 5, 1994; Designation List 258, LP-1904)

Some of the tilework in the surviving, former Della Robbia Bar.
Photo courtesy of the Friends of Terra Cotta.
Today, the Fiori Restaurant is gone and the "Della Robbia" space at 4 Park Avenue is now occupied by the upscale Wolfgang's Steakhouse, which has a photo gallery that features the surviving Guastavino and Rookwood tilework.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Mikvah Under 5 Allen Street and "Historic Hall" Apartments Revisited

The 5 Allen Street property in 2007. (http://maps.google.com)

In the late 19th/early 20th century many people on the Lower East Side (and poorer people in most places) did not have indoor plumbing. Women, mainly, carried water from the street to their tenement apartments where the water was heated as needed or used as is. Bathtubs were not as common as they are now, and public and private bathhouses for both sexes were used for bathing. One of these privately owned bathhouses was at 5 Allen Street in Manhattan.
5 Allen Street (second--shorter--building on the other side of the Elevated tracks), Identifier:  bpm_0637-a, Municipal Archives photo, 1924, (cropped). (http://nycma.lunaimaging.com/luna/servlet/view/search?fullTextSearch=fullTextSearch&q=Allen%20Street,%20Manhattan&os=100)
This bathhouse was first opened in 1887 and was around the corner from the Eldridge Street Synagogue, the first synagogue built by orthodox Eastern European Jews in the country. (The Eldridge Street Synagogue was built in 1886-87 as a house of worship for K'hal Adath Jeshurun, a congregation of immigrants from Russia, Roumania and Poland. The congregation, founded in the 1850's, was the first Eastern European Orthodox Jewish congregation in America, and its members had worshipped -- as had thousands of New York Jews -- in tenements, storefronts and former churches vacated by earlier settlers on the Lower East Side.) (http://www.nyc-architecture.com/LES/LES010.htm)
In 2001, during an urban archaeology project co-sponsored by the Synagogue and NYU, Dr. Celia Bergoffen, an urban archaeologist, discovered a tiled pool and smaller tiled mikvah, an Orthodox Jewish ritual bath, in the empty lot that had been 5 Allen Street and which was, in 2001, owned by the Synagogue and was being restored.
The excavated mikvah in 2001. Photo courtesy of Michael Padwee
The New York Times reported that “ Its discovery last month behind the landmark Eldridge Street Synagogue casts new light on the day-to-day existence of Eastern European Jews on the Lower East Side at the turn of the last century. It suggests that the practice of ritual immersion may have been more widespread than previously believed. If an otherwise common four-story tenement could have a mikvah in its basement, how many more might there be underfoot?” (David W. Dunlap, “Manhattan Journal; Tale of Past Jewish Life, Told in Tile”, The New York Times, November 4, 2001, http://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/04/ nyregion/manhattan-journal-tale-of-past-jewish-life-told-in-tile.html“Bergoffen said it was not unusual for bathhouses, central to Lower East Side life before apartment bathrooms were common, also to have a mikveh. She said the 10th Street baths[, for instance,] served as a Russian bathhouse beginning in the 1890s. Moreover, she added, it contained a pool that was once a kosher mikveh designed for more than one person at a time.” (Norman Eisenberg, “Mikveh Unearthed in New York”, The Jewish Federations of North America, undated, http://www.jewishfederations.org/page.aspx?id=26969)

[The mikvah and tiled pool were unearthed]...with a Caterpillar 320 hydraulic excavator...operated by Peter Mikes.  On Oct. 16, Mr. Mikes opened a trench. About three feet down, a line of white tile appeared, 20 feet long. This turned out to be a six-foot-deep swimming pool, lined with multicolored tiles in eye-popping hexagons. Two days later, Mr. Mikes opened another trench to reveal a line of round-edged tile. '’It was a small, mikvah-sized pool,' Dr. Bergoffen said, so small it could not be excavated with...the Cat 320. She and a graduate student, Dubravko Lazo, had to finish the work with shovels. The small pool turned out to be five feet deep, ideal for immersion, as required by Jewish law. Nearby was a smaller concrete pool, connected by a short length of pipe, which would have served as the cistern for the rainwater.” (Dunlap article)  “Bergoffen said the style of the tiles suggested that the pool had been built between 1900 and 1920.” (Eisenberg article)

“...Dr. Bergoffen learned that the first proprietor of the Allen Russian Baths [at 5 Allen Street], which opened the same year as the synagogue, was Isaac Natelson, a member of the Eldridge Street congregation.” (Dunlap article) Amy Stein-Milford, a member of the Eldridge Street Synagogue congregation used genealogical research methods to learn about Isaac Natelson and his wife, Gittel (Americanized to “Julia”). “ I learned that Gittel was a Jewish immigrant living on the Lower East Side in the 1880’s. She owned a mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) close to the synagogue. I also did a quick search online… . By doing this, I was able to learn about Gittel buying property at 5 Allen Street, just around the corner from the Eldridge Street Synagogue. This site included the mikvah as well as facilities for ordinary bathing. ...I also learned that Gittel’s husband Isaac was involved in the bathing house business, and owned other rental properties in the neighborhood.” (Amy Stein-Milford, “Researching Mikvah Operator Gittel Natelson”, February 9, 2011, http://www.eldridgestreet.org/blog/2011/02/researching-gittel-natelson/)

I became briefly involved in this urban archaeology project when Susan Tunick, the president of Friends of Terra Cotta and a member of the Eldridge Street Project Board, and I volunteered to try to identify the companies that manufactured the tiles and glazed white bricks in the pool and mikvah. We visited the mikvah site in late November 2001--the pool had been re-covered with three feet of earth as protection against the weather--and we collected and photographed tiles and bricks.
Some of the tiles and tile fragments in the Synagogue office
When we were at the archaeological site “...we noted a course of 6” square blue tiles under the 3” x 6” white wall tiles just above the level of the Mikvah.  These tiles could not be examined, however, as there were no loose examples.  The mikvah, itself, was lined with ceramicized bricks that were heavily glazed in white, one of which we found partially buried a few feet away.  The 20’ pool had been temporarily reburied under about 3’ of earth. According to some photos we saw of the pool, it was lined with colored hexagonal tiles that were different from the colored floor tile fragments we had seen in the Synagogue [see photo above].  These would be inaccessible until the pool…[was] uncovered… [in 2002]. 

"The mikvah and the cistern next to it, which was originally filled with rainwater collected on the roof of the bathhouse and delivered to the cistern via pipes, seemed to have been located in the basement of the bathhouse.  The ceramicized bricks that lined the Mikvah were marked in two lines, 'Sayre & Fisher Co/Sayreville, NJ'. 

"The Sayre & Fisher Brick Company was founded in 1850 in Woods Landing, NJ by James Sayre of Newark, NJ and Peter Fisher of New York City.  (The town name was later changed to Sayreville). Sayre & Fisher expanded until it became one of the largest NJ brickmakers.  The plant closed in the 1960s.
Drawing of the American Encaustic Tile Company reverse
"At the time we were examining the mikvah, the Sayreville, NJ Historical Society Museum was holding an exhibit of the Sayre & Fisher Brick Company.  A letter and calls to the museum, however, went unanswered. [At that time I was hoping to date the construction of the mikvah by using any surviving Sayre & Fisher records in the possession of the Sayreville Historical Society. Another request to the Historical Society in 2012 also went unansered.]

"While digging at the site, we found a small fragment of a 3” x 6” white wall tile that was marked “AETCO” in raised letters. [The image above illustrates]...the full back of a white wall tile.  The raised markings (AETCO, 1/24 and 69) and ink stamped marks are on a partially raised bar between two bars that were raised higher than the central bar.  All three bars inclined down to the back of the tile, and the outer edges of the upper and lower bars also inclined down to the back of the tile.  It was thought that these wall tiles possibly date from a post-1900 remodeling of the baths.  It might help to date the mikvah if we could obtain a blue wall tile. 

"[The drawing above illustrates]...the back of the 3" x 6" white wall tile with the swag decoration.  This tile back had four slightly recessed partial bars and a slightly recessed central square.  The numeral markings are ink-stamped.  Images of the back and front of this tile were emailed to English tile historian Hans von Lemmen, who thought the tile might be of German origin.  Hans searched through his files of tile backs and decorative elements on tiles, but no close match was found.  The identification of this tile still remains a mystery.

"Susan [Tunick] also took some examples of the colored tiles [collected previously by Celia Bergoffen], which were in situ.  Susan was going to try to release the tiles from their matrix and clean them by “firing” them--a process which will clean tiles, but also changes them physically.  Once the tiles are released and cleaned, any markings or key patterns can be seen.  (Susan warns, however, that this process should only be used on tiles that can be spared.  The tiles that were fired by Susan did not show any makers’ marks).” ( Michael Padwee, “Tile Back Views” column in Flash Point, Newsletter of the Tile Heritage Foundation, Jan. 2002-June 2003, Vol. 15, Nos. 1 and 2, p. 10.)

I had not thought about the mikvah and pool for a number of years until I decided to write about them for this blog. I tried to find out what had happened to the mikvah after the Eldridge Street Synagogue had been restored. A search of the internet for “5 Allen Street” brought up a number of blog posts that showed a thirteen story hotel being built on the former bathhouse lot.
A hotel being built at 5 Allen Street, August 2012. (Photo courtesy of Michael Padwee)
I asked at the hotel if any pools or baths had been found or preserved in the basement. The answer was “no”. I then went around the block to the Museum at Eldridge Street in the Eldridge Street Synagogue and asked the docents and the people in the museum office if they knew of, or had records of, the mikvah and pool. No one knew what had happened to the mikvah, but the mikvah and the baths at 5 Allen Street were mentioned on the museum’s interactive Lower East Side map.
The backyard of the hotel at 5 Allen Street taken from the fire escape of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. (Photo courtesy of Michael Padwee)
I then emailed Amy Stein-Milford, the author of the article about Gittel/Julia Natelson and the Deputy Director of the Museum at Eldridge Street, asking if she had any information about the fate of the mikvah. Ms. Stein-Milford said the 5 Allen Street property had been sold four or five years ago.
Eldridge Street Synagogue

While I was at the Eldridge Street Synagogue, I took the tour of the recently restored building. Much of the interior was the original ornamentation, or was painstakingly restored. The main entry hall tilework was the original tilework from 1887.
(Photos courtesy of Michael Padwee)

View from the balcony. Kiki Smith's stained glass window (the only new object in the restoration). At near left is a section of purposely-left-unrestored wall.


In my post of July 18, 2012, “Trent in New York--Part III, Historic Hall Apartment House”, I stated that I thought 940 St. Nicholas Avenue was the “Historic Hall” apartment house where there had been, at one time, a number of murals installed by the Trent Tile Company of Trenton, NJ, as well as a “rug” tile floor. I recently learned that this address was incorrect. The true address of the “Historic Hall” apartment house was 928-930 St. Nicholas Avenue, between West 155 and 156th Streets. This building is now an apartment co-op.
928-930 St. Nicholas Avenue
According to the Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide, Vol. 92, No. 2374, September 13, 1913, p. 496, 928-930 St. Nicholas Avenue is a “6-sty elevator apartment house, [the] “Historic Hall,” on [an irregular] plot 124.9 x 126 [feet]... .”
The entry hall/foyer of 928-930 St. Nicholas Avenue
When I entered this building there was a foyer which could have held three tile murals and a fireplace as described in the September 7, 1909 Trenton Evening Times. The first tile mural “...produce[d] a picture of New York City...as it appeared in 1407, true to nature and within a space of five feet six inches by four feet six inches... ." The second tile mural "...reproduce[d] an old print showing Harlem, from Morrisania, in 1647, in a panel of three feet six inches by two feet six inches... ." The third tile panel "...present[ed] an accurate likeness of the trees planted in New York by Alexander Hamilton in 1802, inside [a border] of two feet six inches by nine feet... ." Although there were no tile murals on the first floor of the building, there were mosaic floor tiles in the shape of tile rugs. The newspaper article states that "The floor of Historic Hall, in the main corridor, is to be covered with tile, in the design of a damask rug, in 24 colors, embracing a space of ten feet...six inches by eleven feet. The fine, old-fashioned fireplace, too, is to be of tile, and the words Historic Hall in superior ceramic mosaics are to be placed beneath the...mantel." Although there is no mantel, nor “Historic Hall” in mosaic tiles on the floor, the floor tiles are rug-shaped with patterns consisting of many colors. Could this have been the original tiled floor?

In 1906 the Trent Tile Company had a four page ad published in Sweet's Indexed Catalogue of Building Construction, a to-the-trade publication, which pictured types of ceramic mosaic floors that Trent could design.
("Trent Tile Company", Sweet's Indexed Catalogue of Building Construction for the Year 1906, The Architectural Record Co., New York City, 1906, p. 374)
 (The Tile Heritage Foundation has again mentioned my historic tile installations website and this blog in their E-Newsletter, which has articles about The Spanish Pottery of Los Angeles, a California Clay Products 1931 tile installation in San Diego, and a Rookwood tile discovery in Cleveland, among others. The THF has been a strong supporter of my efforts over the years and is an excellent resource for information about tiles and tile history.)