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

Thursday, October 1, 2015


In 1894 Jere T. Smith, the owner of a construction company that built a number of then-famous buildings in New York City, became the sole owner of a tile and terra cotta company in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Since 1888 Smith had been partners with world-renowned ceramic artist Charles Volkmar in the Menlo Park Ceramic Works. By 1894 the partners went their separate ways and Smith retained control of the Ceramic Works.

A Sanborn Map from 1903 showing the Menlo Park Ceramics Works alongside the Pennsylvania Railroad line in Menlo Park, New Jersey.

J.T. Smith was in the construction business with an office on 23rd Street in Manhattan. 

(From an 1893 photo on page 844 of King’s Handbook of New York City …, by Moses King; http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:(King1893NYC)_pg844_JER.T._SMITH_AND_MENLO_PARK_CERAMIC_WORKS,_23D_STREET,_OPPOSITE_MADISON_AVENUE.jpg)

From 1888 on the construction company and the tile and terra cotta showroom shared the same building. Jere Smith advertised that he was the builder of the Equitable Life Insurance Company building on Broadway and Cedar Street in Manhattan 

"The equitable life building was built in 1870 and was the first office building with passenger elevators. The building was destroyed by a fire in 1912." (Photos and quote courtesy of http://www.nyc-architecture.com/GON/GON079.htm)

and the original Metropolitan Life Insurance Company buildings on 23rd and 24th Streets and Madison Avenue in Manhattan (completed in 1893), among others.

"In 1893 The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company made a bold move, erecting its headquarters on 23rd Street and Madison Avenue facing Madison Square – far uptown from the other insurance firms.   
The impressive 11-story structure  invaded a well-to-do residential neighborhood, 
dwarfing the elegant brownstone mansions around the park." 
Picture Post Card courtesy of Museum of the City of New York; 

It is reasonable to conjecture that Smith, being a businessman, handled the business aspects of both his construction company and the ceramic works from his Manhattan office while Volkmar handled the artistic side of the ceramic works from Menlo Park.

(Ads from the Catalogue of the Eleventh Annual Exhibition of the Architectural League of New York, 1896, p. 78a)

In about 1890 Smith built his residence in an area of Oceanport, New Jersey called Port-au-Peck. “Port-au-peck is an unincorporated community located within Oceanport in Monmouth County, New Jersey... . Port-au-peck covers 3.9 square miles (10 km2), approximately half of Oceanport[, ...and it] forms a peninsula jutting into the Shrewsbury River." (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Port-au-peck,_New_Jersey

A period engraved advertisment for the Port-Au-Peck community. Jere T. Smith’s house is illustrated at the top, third from the left, and below. (Courtesy of Gerard Carnevale)

While there was no direct rail line between Menlo Park and Port-Au-Peck/Oceanport/Long Branch, New Jersey in the 1890s, there was a direct rail line from Long Branch to Hoboken, with a ferry ride to Manhattan from there. It was more probable that Smith would have commuted from Port-Au-Peck to Manhattan, rather than to Menlo Park and the Ceramic Works.

(William Walton, “Charles Volkmar, Potter”, The International Studio, Vol. XXXVI, No. 143, January 1909)

When Smith built his house in Port-Au-Peck in 1890, he tiled much of the interior with tiles from the Menlo Park Ceramic Works. I assume that most, if not all, of the tile designs were the creation of Charles Volkmar and not Jere T. Smith.

Charles Volkmar (1841-1914) came from Baltimore. Volkmar had “the great advantage of starting as an artist. ...His grandfather was an engraver, and his father, educated in Dresden, a portrait painter and a skilful restorer… . [Charles studied]...under Barye at the Jardin des Plantes, ...and...with Harpignies...in and around Paris. ...while located at a studio...near Fontainebleau,...he became interested in ceramics through the proximity of a small pottery in which he [...tried] his hand at painting underglaze. His first appearance at the Salon had been made in 1875, with two oil paintings, and he became a frequent exhibitor with paintings, etchings and pottery.” (William Walton, “Charles Volkmar, Potter”, The International Studio, Vol. XXXVI, No. 143, January 1909, p. LXXV)

It was at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 that Volkmar “saw for the first time...French pottery that was decorated with an underglaze ‘slip’. ...Fascinated…, he returned to France...to observe the local potters employing this method. Charles [joined] the Theodore Deck pottery, later taking an apprenticeship at the Haviland factory… .”  
(“The Volkmar Legacy to American Art Pottery”, a booklet published by The Bruce Museum, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1985) “[Volkmar] took up the French technique of barbotine—painting on a vase with liquid clay or slip. [He was o]ne of the most skilled practitioners of this technique… .” (http://www.antiquesandfineart.com/articles/article.cfm?request=953) 

Volkmar moved his pottery from place to place during the last part of the Nineteenth century and prior to his death in 1914. “Charles built a kiln at Greenpoint, Long Island, in 1879 where he produced tiles and vases. He was the first potter to use underglaze slip painting in the United States.” (http://siris-archives.si.edu/ipac20/ipac.jsp?uri=full=3100001~!213244!0)

In 1888 Volkmar moved to Menlo Park, New Jersey where he and J.T. Smith started the Menlo Park Ceramic Works. Volkmar “...used opaque glazes and low relief lines to define compositions, instead of the high line relief commonly employed at the time.” (Norman Karlson, The Encyclopedia of American Art Tiles, Volume I, Region 2, Schiffer Publishing Company, Atglen, PA, 2005, p. 127) While they were partners, their tiles were marked “MENLO PARK/CERAMIC WORKS/VOLKMAR TILES” on the reverse. After their partnership dissolved, Smith took over and the last line in the marking, "VOLKMAR TILES", was changed to “J  T  S”. (Michael Padwee, A Field Guide to the Key Patterns on the Backs of United States Ceramic Tiles, 1870s-1930s, 3rd Ed., 2nd Printing, Jan. 2011, Appendix I; http://tilefieldguide.omeka.net/items/show/49

According to the Tile Heritage Foundation, "Charles Volkmar decorated tiles with opaque enamels to tone with onyx, marble etc., or in old gold or old ivory." (Email to Michael Padwee dated 12/11/12 and titled "Fwd: Volkmar and Poor from THF files") 

37-39 Greenpoint Avenue, Brooklyn. Once the site of the Volkmar Keramic Company. (Photo courtesy of Michael Padwee)

“In 1895 Volkmar...opened the VOLKMAR KERAMIC CO. at 39 Greenpoint Avenue, Brooklyn, producing art tiles and household ceramics, primarily in a Delft-inspired style. The same year, he and artist Kate Cory established VOLKMAR & CORY in the Corona section of the Bronx. The designs produced here were similar to those of Volkmar Keramic--Delft-style American scenes in blue underglaze on a white background. […T]hese pieces [had] ...a greater amount of detail and texture than the traditional Dutch [Delftware] ceramics. [This] work ...won a gold medal at the 1895 Atlanta Exposition. By late 1896, however, this partnership was dissolved. Volkmar continued the pottery alone as CROWN POINT POTTERY, and then as VOLKMAR POTTERY.” (Karlson, p. 127)

“[Volkmar's] son, Leon, was an accomplished potter and [in 1903 they] formed a partnership. When the kiln was moved to Metuchen, New Jersey, the name was changed to [Volkmar Kilns and then] Charles Volkmar and Son. In 1911 the partnership dissolved and Leon moved to Bedford, New York[...and] established Durant kilns… .” (http://siris-archives.si.edu/ipac20/ipac.jsp?uri=full=3100001~!213244!0)  Charles Volkmar died in 1914.

The Jere T. Smith house in 2012. (Courtesy of Google maps)

The Jere T. Smith house still stands, but the exterior has been changed over the years. The interior, however, still has its original tile work--walls, floors, and fireplace surrounds. Below are contemporary interior photos of the Jere T. Smith house.

The entry hall has a mosaic floor, and you can see some of the tile work around the radiator. (All color photos courtesy of Gerard Carnevale unless otherwise noted. All interior photos edited by Michael Padwee.)

A view of part of the entry hall with the mosaic floor and tiled walls.

The dining room.

Detail of the dining room wall.

This house interior may be the only remaining structure with significant interior installations of Charles Volkmar’s tiles--the output of the Menlo Park Ceramic Works from 1888-1894 when Volkmar was a partner. The interior is an historic treasure that should be protected by the State of New Jersey.


I would like to thank Gerard Carnevale for informing me about the existence of this house and for the use of the interior photos.