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

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


Have you visited El Museo del Barrio recently? It’s really an excellent museum, and it’s located on the Northern end of “Museum Mile” in Manhattan. Even if you have visited El Museo del Barrio, you probably have not been in the 104th Street lobby, and if not, you haven't seen the Grueby children's murals. 

The 104th Street lobby in El Museo del Barrio. (This photo came from an IBI Group url that no longer exists.)

The building that houses the museum, however, did not start out as El Museo del Barrio. The building was conceived by August Heckscher in the early 1920s as a refuge for abused and neglected children. In 1922 the headquarters of the Heckscher Foundation for Children was erected between East 104th and 105th Streets on Fifth Avenue, opposite Central Park.

(“Heckscher Foundation For Children, New York”, Architecture and Building, Vol. LIV, No. 12, December 1922, plate 199)

August Heckscher (1848-1941), a German immigrant, was “a capitalist and a philanthropist. ...He initially worked in his cousin Richard Heckscher's coal mining operation as a laborer, studying English at night. Several years later he formed a partnership with his cousin under the name of Richard Heckscher & Company. The firm was eventually sold to the Reading Railroad. Heckscher then turned to zinc mining and organized the Zinc and Iron Company, becoming vice-president and general manager.” [Besides founding the Heckscher Foundation for Children, he “created playgrounds in lower Manhattan and in Central Park. The Heckscher Playground in Central Park is the park's largest playground. He created Heckscher Park in the town of Huntington and created the Heckscher Museum of Art[, also in Huntington]. The State of New York purchased nearly 1,500 acres in East Islip with money donated by Hecksher to create Hecksher State Park, made famous for hosting summer concerts for 35 years of the New York Philharmonic.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/August_Heckscher

The Heckscher Foundation for Children came about because Mr. Heckscher donated the land on Fifth Avenue to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and then paid for the cost of the building. It was “...the largest single gift made for the benefit of children in [the] city. And it was this that led to his interest in slum conditions, in his fight to end slums.” (“August Heckscher Dies In Sleep At 92”, The New York Times, April 27, 1941, pp. 1, 41) 

“This building [was] free for children who [had] been found by the Society [for Prevention of Cruelty to Children] and who [were] unable to pay. The building [was] not exclusively for the unfortunate as its privileges [were] extended to children who [were] able to pay for the use of the gymnasium, swimming pool and other facilities.

The Heckscher Foundation swimming pool tiled with Grueby/Pardee tiles. The attribution to Robertson in this article seems to be incorrect--see below. (“Heckscher Foundation For Children, New York”, Architecture and Building, Vol. LIV, No. 12, December 1922, plate 203)

"...The building is six stories high with two stories in pent house construction above the roof… . The first story is of limestone and the five stories above of red brick… . In plan the building is H-shaped with a central indentation at the front which forms the entrance court… . The general offices of the Children’s Society occupy the greater part of the main floor. In addition there are several reception rooms for children entering the institution which are decorated with fairy story pictures and there is decorative tile work in the foyers with similar themes.” (“Heckscher Foundation For Children, New York”, Architecture and Building, Vol. LIV, No. 12, December 1922, p. 111)

In 2008 a restoration project was begun to clean, stabilize and move the Grueby murals from the Fifth Avenue entrance of El Museo del Barrio, which now occupies the space, to the 104th Street lobby. El Museo could then “upgrade” and renovate the Fifth Avenue museum entrance and lobby.

The new front entrance to El Museo del Bario on Fifth Avenue designed by Gruzen Samton - IBI Group after the removal of the Grueby murals. (Photo: "Gruzen Samton - IBI Group wins honorable mention in Municipal Art Society 2012 MASterworks Awards", New York Real Estate Journal, Vol. 24, Issue 19, October 16-29, 2012; http://nyrej.com/58308)

One of the conservators described the tiles in the Fifth Avenue lobby as consisting of “...11 central panels (each 2 feet high by 6 feet wide) and 12 side panels (each 2 feet high by 8 inches wide), made of glazed ceramic tiles… . The central panels depict children in allegorical scenes and each side panel shows a single pine tree on a hill. [The panels were made with glazes developed by William Grueby, who worked for the C. Pardee Art Tile Works of Perth Amboy, New Jersey circa 1922, and were installed]...above doorways and interior windows in the main [Fifth Avenue] lobby of The Heckscher Foundation for Children… . Grueby[…]would have transposed the...original sketches onto ceramic panels that were cut into tiles, glazed, fired, and assembled. ...The Grueby tiles are made of coarse tempered, high-fired ceramic. The glazes range from high gloss black to matt blue-black, low gloss yellows, oranges, light blues, pink, and white.” (Sarah Nunberg, “Cleaning Grueby Tile Panels Using Sustainable Methods”, http://www.cac-accr.ca/files/pdf/grueby.pdf

Three of the murals prior to cleaning and moving. (Photos courtesy of Riley Doty.)

"The panel of the two little Indians [the middle photo of the top three] shows the surrounding light tiles intersected by the mirror black border. The beige ones have a similar variegated quality as in the new installations, but they do not seem to be the exact tiles used originally. Same with the couple with the baby carriage panel and the dinner table  panel." (Email from Susan Montgomery to Michael Padwee dated 12/5/2012, titled "Re: Heckscher/El Barrio")

One of the murals and a pine tree side panel being prepared for extraction from the Fifth Avenue wall and reinstallation in the 104th Street lobby. (Photo courtesy of Susan Tunick and Friends of Terra Cotta.)

Susan Montgomery, the author of The Ceramics of William H. Grueby: The Spirit of New Idea in Artistic Handicraft, wrote: "The Pardee 1924 catalogue shows one wall of the lobby with 3 panels (both Indian scenes plus the one with the girls chasing butterflies). The field tiles are 6-inch Grueby-Hauteville with Chinese Mirror Black trim to make panels, with 4-inch tiles on the pilasters. The floor is also Sand Gray with darker Brindle Gray border. Pierced tiles form a kind of wainscot and although they are not identified, they are certainly Grueby as well. 

A page from the 1924 Pardee catalog. The last line of the paragraph seems to indicate that the panel designs were taken from Grueby's original designs and were not created by the Pardee Company. (Photocopy courtesy of decorative arts historian Richard Mohr)

"Of course, when I say Grueby they are technically Pardee, as [Grueby] had long since sold out to Pardee. He was still alive when this project was finished and is listed as a "manager" with Pardee. ...he lived in Manhattan and [...may have been] involved at the showroom, but probably not as any kind of hands-on supervisor at the factory. He retained ownership of the still secret glaze recipes for which he received royalties. Maybe he approved glazes before they were shipped out.

"The pool tiles are (were? I don't know if they survived*) definitely Grueby/Pardee... . A photo of the pool with non-slip Sand Gray tiles is shown on p. 21 of the 1928 Pardee catalogue. A couple of newspaper articles claim that this was the 'largest indoor pool in the world.' The trim tiles look black here as well so they are probably Mirror Black." (Email from Susan Montgomery to Michael Padwee dated 12/3/2012, titled "Heckscher/El Barrio")

*[I, too, attempted to discover if the pool tiles still exist, but I could not get an answer to my query. (MP)]

Forrest Filler of EverGreene Architectural Arts, helping to conserve the murals: "...the project itself was undertaken by a collaborative team of experts in different conservation and related fields.  I had the pleasure of being part of the interdisciplinary team during this uniquely challenging project.  We started the project in the fall of 2008 during the renovation of the building and I’ve just about concluded our treatment on site [in 2010].  EverGreene was invited to help stabilize, partially conserve, remove, re-install, and complete the conservation of a series of twenty-three William Grueby mosaic mural panels by the C. Pardee Works that were installed in 1924.  ...I assisted throughout the conservation treatments from the initial stabilization of loose tiles, the careful cleaning of surface soiling, the reattachment of broken tiles, the infilling of missing tiles, to the final inpainting of losses." (http://evergreene.com/2010/12/el-museo-del-bario-mosaic-conservation/)

How are architectural art tiles of this magnitude conserved? The 2008 "RFP for the Removal and Conservation of the Lobby Mosaic Murals" from Superstructures Engineers + Architects gives us an idea of the technical history of the original installation and what was required to keep the murals safe during the whole process:

"As part of the new design for the lobby of El Museo del Barrio..., the Grueby mosaic mural panels that adorn the north, east and south walls of the 5th Avenue lobby will be removed and relocated to the south wing of the building. The mosaic panels require cleaning and stabilization prior to deinstallation and conservation and prior to reinstallation." (RFP, p. 1)

"The installation consists of 23 tile panels placed on the north, east and south walls of the lobby. Eleven panels represent scenes from children's fairytales and measure approximately 65" long by 26" wide. Twelve panels 9" long by 26" wide, representing trees flank the large panels on the north and south walls.

Numbered tile panels in the Fifth Avenue lobby. "The panels are numbered from one (1) to eleven (11). Panels one (1) to three (3) and nine (9) to eleven (11) are sets of three (3) scenes each. These are numbered as 1A, 1B and 1C[,...etc.]". (RFP, pp. 3, 4)

The original positions of these panels were documented by Superstructures in the RFP while they were still in place in the Fifth Avenue lobby. (The photos, however, are not clear enough, nor can they be sharpened, to accurately show which panels are where.)

The following photos show the condition of each mural in 2003 and again, being prepared for conservation/removal, in 2007.

North wall murals numbers one (1) and two (2) in 2003 and 2007. (RFP, p. 5)
North wall murals numbers three (3) and four (4), 2003 and 2007. (RFP, p. 6)
East wall murals numbers five (5) and six (6), 2003 and 2007. (RFP, p. 7)
East wall murals numbers seven (7) and eight (8), 2003 and 2007. (RFP, p. 8)

The murals, after re-installation, as they appeared in December 2012 and January 2013:

This photo shows three "Cinderella" panels on the sidewall to the left and the first panel on the right, and parts of three "Putting on the Ritz" panels to the right. (Photo courtesy of Michael Padwee)

This shows the first panel on the left wall and the first Cinderella panel. (Photo courtesy of Michael Padwee)

Chidren playing at eating a meal. (Photo courtesy of Robert W. Switzer)

Three panels depicting the prince fitting the slipper on Cinderella's foot; Cinderella and the "pumpkin" coach; and the marriage of Cinderella and the Prince. (Photos courtesy of Robert W. Switzer)

The four "Putting on the Ritz" panels. (Photo courtesy of Michael Padwee)

"The four panels above--the remainder on the long wall--depict children playing dress-up and the particular dress-up they are playing is prospectively “Putting on the Ritz” (1929), couples dressed to the nines and promenading up and down the Avenues, this theme is all mixed together with a theme of domesticity and having a baby." (Email from Richard Mohr to Michael Padwee, 21 June 2014; Individual panel photos courtesy of Robert W. Switzer)

Some of the "story" panels are separated by panels depicting pine trees and/or panels consisting of black-tiled frames.

This shows the beginning of the "Boys will be boys" panels. These panels are in the same order, here, as in the 1924 Pardee catalog page reproduced above. (Photo courtesy of Michael Padwee)

(Photos courtesy of Robert W. Switzer)

There is a contemporary Grueby color chart which illustrates the color palatte from which these murals were derived.

Grueby color chart from the 1928 Pardee catalog. (Courtesy of Tile Heritage Foundation, Richard D. Mohr and Vance Koehler)

Richard Mohr writes that the "chart appears to present all the glazes that were in play on decorated tiles when Pardee took over Grueby [ca 1919], since the chart illustrates all and only the colors used in the score of custom designed narrative murals that Pardee executed for the 1922 Heckscher Foundation for Children… . [In addition,] in the 1928 catalogue, captions for illustrations of tile installations refer to additional Grueby colors not mentioned on the chart — for example, Holland Brown and Sand Gray; but these were not used on decorated tiles; they were used on what Pardee called “flint tiles.” These were mass produced field tiles to be used for floors, wainscots, and walls. […The color] Hauteville, a tan,...was used as wall and wainscot cladding. For example, it was used as the general wall covering in the lobby housing the Heckscher Foundation murals."

"One of a score of Grueby faux mosaic murals at the Heckscher Foundation (1922), now El Museo del Barrio, 5th Avenue at 104th Street, Manhattan. This is one of four panels in which children enact the story of Cinderella. Note the brilliant use of mirror black to represent glass — in the window at left, the famous slipper at center, and two picture panes at right." (From a privately circulated article: Richard D. Mohr, "A Grueby Color Chart -- And Others", pp. 1, 2, 4; Photo courtesy of Robert W. Switzer)

These Grueby tile panels are part of our architectural heritage and have been recognized as worth conserving by El Museo del Barrio. The 104th Street lobby is accessible, and we should all consider it as part of the museum's permanent collection.


I would like to thank Riley Doty, Larry Mobley, Susan Montgomery, Susan Tunick, Richard Mohr, Robert W. Switzer and the Tile Heritage Foundation for their help in the preparation of this article.