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

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

American Encaustic Tiling Company--Part I, Tile Showrooms

The New York Showrooms of the American Encaustic Tiling Company


AET factory in Zanesville, OH c. 1912

     The American Encaustic Tiling Company, founded in Zanesville, Ohio in 1877, became the largest floor and wall tile company in the country by the time the Great Depression caused its demise in 1935. In the last decade and a half of the 19th century through the 1920s, AET had a major presence in New York City, not just as a producer of floor and wall tiles, but also as a creator of art tiles and tiles used in architecture.
     AET had its office and showrooms at various locations in Manhattan during these years. However, after Leon V. Solon became artistic director of the company, he created new showrooms at 16 East 41st Street, Manhattan sometime around 1912.


16 East 41st Street c. 1920s and Leon V. Solon (E. Stanley Wires, "Decorative Tiles, Part III, Their Contribution to Architecture and Ceramic Art", New England Architect and Builder Illustrated, No. Sixteen, 1960)
     Leon V. Solon was born in England in 1872 "to a family of distinguished ceramic artists at Stoke-on-Trent... ." Leon was the son of "Marc Louis Emmanuel Solon...[who] had been hired in 1870 from the French national factory at Sevres to become head decorator at Minton's. ...Leon's maternal grandfather, Leon Arnoux, had been a highly accomplished ceramist at Sevres when Herbert Minton hired him to be his art director" from 1849-1892. Leon studied "...classical art...[and] was also trained to understand the practical aspects of contemporary ceramics manufacturing. ...In 1912 Leon became art director at the American Encaustic Tiling Co... . ...Leon's role was to direct the overall development of AET's tile lines." (quotes from Riley Doty, "British Tile Makers in the United States: 1910-1940" in Journal of the Tiles & Architectural Ceramics Society, Vol. 17, 2011, pp. 8-11)


The public domain image above is of one of the AET showrooms in 1918. The tile panel at the rear of the room may be Leon Solon's "Dancing Women" mural. ("Richard F. Bach, "The Art of Display in Up-to-Date Merchandising", Good Furniture Magazine, Vol. X, No. 5, May 1918, p. 292)
     In the 1920s Solon re-designed the AET showrooms. According to Regina Lee Blaszczyk, "...Solon designed the American Encaustic offices as a virtual 'Tile Museum', as a showplace for parading the decorative potential of colorful architectural ceramics. ...If the exterior of the...showroom [the building facade] was the epitome of understatement, the building's interior communicated chromatic splendor that must have bedazzled architects and persuaded many to utilize tiles in their installations. ...This main display area, a virtual symphony in distinctive hues of brilliant blues, greens and gold, was Solon's tribute to maiolica potters of the Italian Renaissance. Here, under the watchful gaze of a pair of black lions, probably modeled after the Greek Nemean Lion, Solon negotiated...contracts." (Regina Lee Blaszczyk, " 'This Extraordinary Demand For Color': Leon Victor Solon and Architectural Polychromy, 1909-1939" in Flashpoint, the Newsletter of the Tile Heritage Foundation, Vol. 6, No. 3, July-September 1993, p. 14)


Photos courtesy of the Tile Heritage Foundation
The lobby

A showroom


A fountain


From Leon Solon, "The Display Rooms of a Tile Manufactory", http://tileresearcharticles.omeka.net/items/show/1
     "The entrance corridor is treated with studied simplicity: a dark Delft blue covers the floor, extending a short distance up the walls...terminating in a rope molding. Two...panels by Arthur Crisp are hung on rough stucco walls. ...[The Reception room] walls are covered with 3x3 inch tiles embossed with a simple Greek fret...colored alternately with red, black, and gold...set at random... . The floor is of large blue-green tiles... . One of the Parthenon metopes, reproduced in faience, is inserted in the wall over the telephone operator's desk. ...The grilles are of faience treated with a vermillion glaze. ...The visitor leaves the reception room through a little vaulted corridor, paved with Tuscan red faience tiles laid at random;...a recess...is decorated with American-Persian tiles... . ...The stylistic treatment [of the main display room] is that of the Italian Renaissance... ." (Leon Solon, "The Display Rooms of a Tile Manufactory", http://tileresearcharticles.omeka.net/items/show/1 )

     Leon Solon's AETCo art department in New York designed the facade and showrooms using a planned glaze color scheme, which is explained in his article. The street entrance and facade were decorated with polychrome faience, including a bear's head over the entrance.

"In 1927, Solon lamented the 'dull and lifeless buildings of today' and called for increased use of color in skyscrapers. ...At 16 East 41st Street Solon found the opportunity to put such theories into practice. The interior was a polychromed labyrinth of tile art, with majolica fountains, faience radiator grilles, niches, cornices and even ceilings in intensely shaded red, blue, gold, green and other colors. But for the exterior Solon sought a more subdued, neutral character. On a wall of light yellow roughened stucco, he laid out a polychrome network -- deep, burnt umber door and window enframements on the first floor, brilliant blue and gold heraldic plaques at the midsection and cream-and-blue rectangular patterns of square tile at the attic story. ...A company brochure of about 1930 shows that American Encaustic later tiled the ground-floor stuccoed facade with a wildly mottled pattern of small rectangular tiles." (Christopher Gray, "Terra Cotta Magic With a Polychromed Interior", New York Times, "Streetscapes", July 20, 1997. (http://www.nytimes.com/1997/07/20/ realestate/terra-cotta-magic-with-a-polychromed-interior.html?src=pm)

The front door and part of the remaining tiled facade, 2010 
(Photo courtesy of the author)

     According to Blaszczyk, "Sometime during the 1920s, Solon remodeled his office, on the first floor facing the street, to create another...showcase illustrating the adaptability of American Encaustic tiles to modernistic interiors. Included in this area...were Solon's interpretations of Augustin Lazo's costumes designed for the Carlos Chavez Aztec Ballet which debuted in...1928." (Regina Lee Blaszczyk, op. cit.) Below is one of ten tiles that Solon designed for the Aztec Ballet.

(E. Stanley Wires, "Decorative Tiles, Part III, Their Contribution to Architecture 
and Ceramic Art", New England Architect and Builder Illustrated, No. Sixteen, 1960)

     Along with his own tile designs, Solon encouraged other artists to design tile murals at AET. I plan to discuss some of these murals in another post.

     Although preservationists tried to have the building landmarked in 1993, this failed. It is believed that most, if not all of the tiled interior of the building has been demolished. Part of the exterior faience has also been destroyed by new tenants/landlords over the years. A restaurant now occupies the first floor of the building, and the two window bays to the left of the entrance have been destroyed.

13 comments:

  1. Wow--what a wonderful undertaking your blog is. Lots of work but I am sure it is appreciated by many. Thanks so much.
    Best wishes, Lundy Wilder
    http://www.VillaLagoonTile.com

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    1. Thanks, It is a lot of work, but a lot of fun, too.
      Michael

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  2. Hi There--Delighted to see that you found mt article on Leon Solon in Flash Point. I talk about him again in my new book, The Color Revolution, which is coming out with The MIT Press in September. THe book can be preordered on AmaOn.com. Enjoy! Reggie Blaszczyk www.imaginingconsumers.com

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  3. Thanks, Reggie, I'm planning to order it.
    Michael

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  4. What a pity Michael = that the building and tiling is not valued, i worked on a small mosaic years ago in New York, i know via contacts on Linked in & forums that thousands of square yards of encaustic & geometric tiles are skipped every year ! I have tried to get in touch with people in NY to see if some of the floors could be restored but so far not much interest, i did some consultancy on a job in San Francisco supplied encaustics made here in UK and original Victorian tiles some of which were Minton tiles, i liked the info on your blog, if you ever find a project that needs my skills let me know ? Cheers Steve www.heritagetiling.com

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    1. Hi, Steve--I like the work you've done, especially on the encaustic tile floors (http://heritagetiling.wordpress.com/). I agree, it is too bad that more tile installations don't get restored and protected. Good luck!

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    2. hi Michael that small contract I mentioned has just been installed last month December 2012 by Riley Doty it was at Ravenswood Livermore CA, he has done an excellent job, just wish more floors could be saved/restored, doesn't seem to be much interest either in getting floors restored or in the trades/crafts being interested in this work, nor sadly much in the way of installing reproduction/new floors in the Victorian style, and the few I've seen done have been abysmal in setting out or style !
      Thanks for your comments, my new website is up & running now see here www.heritagetiling.com let me know what you think Cheers Steve - Happy New Year !

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    3. It's a great website, Steve, and I like the work you've done. I certainly hope you get to restore many more tile installations.

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  5. They are tearing off the Encaustic tile today at 16 East 41st Street! So sad! Nothing left. A building with so much character and history is being denuded right before our eyes.

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    1. Sorry I didn't answer sooner, but I was out-of-town and was only able to view the damage this morning. It looks as if all the exterior tilework is now gone except for the bear's head over the door. I guess beautiful tiles are not the in thing with the building owner. It's too bad the City's Landmarks Preservation Commission refused to protect the building when they had the chance a few years ago. Thanks for the heads up on this.

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  6. Love your blog! I've been lucky enough to find the tile with the aztec design pictured here. It's amazing! I'm searching the web for all the info I can find on it, your site has been very helpful.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. I've been looking for photos of all the Aztec designs for a long time. I was hoping to write about them if I could ever find the photos!

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  7. I'm also now looking for the other 9 designs. Is it possible when they mention 10 they don't mean just ten of this design? I'd be happy to send you pics of the front and back of mine, feel free to email me at jrmagon1@yahoo.com. I found it at an old book store in Rockford IL, new owners had taken over the place and cleaned and organized the books in the basement where they found it mixed in with the books. On the back somebody had marked 13.99 on it so they sold it to me for. I had no history on it until finding your wonderful site. I collect Haeger Pottery from the 40's, 50's and 60's. This tile while not haeger intrigued me with it's deco looking AETCO mark on the back and it's simple beauty. From your blog I assume mine was made in the late 20's early 30's? it does have some mastic on the back where it looks like it was pulled off a wall. Thanks again for all your hard work documenting history!

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