This Article Originally Appeared
in The White River Journal,
a Publication of the White River Museum in Auburn, Washington
And Reprinted in the Franciscan Newsletter.
by James Elliot-Bishop
|Most people can recognize Desert Rose or Apple
Franciscan dinnerware. The brightly hand-painted dinnerware became a trademark for
Franciscan from 1940 until the present. Desert Rose Franciscan was the largest sold
pattern surpassing such well known patterns as Blue Willow. However, most people do
not realize that the clay and minerals used for Franciscan dinnerware came from mineral
deposits around Renton and Auburn, Washington.
Most people recognize the former Frederick & Nelson Department store in downtown Seattle, but do not know that the facade made of terra cotta was made in Auburn, Washington at the Northern Clay Products Company.
Terra cotta was a cost effective material to use as facing to a building and light weight enough to clad a skyscraper. It was a replacement for brick or granite that faced buildings built prior the turn of the century in the Pacific Northwest. Clay was formed in molds, glazed, and fired at high temperatures for a product that became known simply as terra cotta. Besides the facing for buildings, clay was formed for roofing tiles, sewer pipes, and even garden ware jardinieres. Glazed or unglazed, these products became a backbone industry for such communities as Seattle, Renton and Auburn.
The history of clay, brick, and terra cotta production was a major force in the building of the Pacific Northwest from Bellingham to Portland, Oregon, from Seattle to Spokane and in many cities and towns in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. The Pacific Northwest produced the products necessary to build towns and cities. Prior to the production of clay products in the Pacific Northwest, all clay products were transported at great cost from the East Coast.
The first local clay industry begins around 1905 in Renton and Auburn. In Auburn, a group of enterprising business men started a pottery and stoneware plant which was named Meade Pottery.
In 1906, Samuel Geijsbeek organized the Denny Renton Clay and Coal Company. Geijsbeek is known for his Utopian artware line for the J.B. Owens Pottery Company in Zanesville, Ohio as Manager of the Art Department. He is also known as organizing the American Ceramic Society. The Society is headquartered in Columbus, Ohio and is still very active. He is noted for manufacturing the first terra cotta produced in the Pacific Northwest. Samuel Geijsbeek later was manager of the refractories department of Gladding McBean & Company in Seattle from 1927 to 1930. He died in Kent, Washington in 1943 at the age of 73.
In 1908, after a visit of official of the Winkle Terra Cotta Company of St. Louis, Missouri, Meade Pottery joined with the Winkle firm in forming the Northern Clay Company. Samuel Geijsbeek was the assistant superintendent and chemist for the Winkle Terra Cotta Company from 1903 to 1906 and may have arranged this meeting. The pottery which was located where the Northern Pacific "Y" stood was taken over and the plant moved to it's new site at Third and A Street Northwest. Early in 1910, Paul S. MacMichael became associated with the company and later became President of the local plant.
"The Northern Clay Company dug it's clay from fifty acres of company property along the Green River about eight miles north of the plant. The clay was hauled by wagons to the factory, which consisted of three terra-cotta kilns and one fire brick kiln, along with other buildings for designing, molding and drying terra cotta.
The coliseum Theatre and the Washington Securities Building were clad in the Northern Clay Company's white satin-finished glazed terra-cotta; the Natatorium's ivory white terra-cotta, with the ornamentation on the pilasters and lower portions of the building highlighted by a background of golden yellow and green dolphins above the cornice, was also furnished by the company. Five hundred different shapes and sizes were used and the number of pieces totaled over 7,850. The 1920 terra-cotta contracts for the ten-story Telephone Building and the Washington Mutual Savings Bank Building were won for a combined amount of approximately $50,000. Other buildings using Northern Clay's terra-cotta were the Joshua Green Building, the Securities Building, the Pantages Theatre, and Frederick & Nelson Department Store."(1)
In 1925, the Gladding McBean & Co. from Lincoln, California, the largest producer of clay products on the West Coast, became owner of the Northern Clay Company including the Auburn Plant. Gladding McBean & Co. was chartered in California in 1875 and in 1925 had ten plants in California, Oregon, Washington, Montana and British Columbia, operated two hundred kilns, and employed over two thousand workmen. The name and personnel of the Northern Clay Company was continued after the purchase. Mr. MacMichael remained with the company and became a Vice-President of Gladding McBean. A. Lee Bennett also remained with the company as chief chemist. Later in 1936 he would become Vice-President, Southern Division of Gladding McBean & Co. Willis E. Clark, widely known in the brick and terra-cotta industry in the Northwest was added to the sales force. Sales offices were opened in Seattle in the Dexter Horton Building and in Portland in the United States National Bank Building to handle the product from both the Northern Clay Company and Gladding, McBean & Co.
The plant grew to ten times it's original size, employing from 75 to 100 men and acquiring nearly five acres of land. A payroll of $15,000 was paid out monthly at the plant. Equipment and fixtures were valued at $100,000.00 and the plant produced an average of 250 tons of clay products a month. Such buildings as the Dexter Horton, Olympic Hotel, Northern Life Securities, and the Federal building were supplied with architectural terra cotta.
In 1922, Gladding McBean acquired the Tropico plant in Glendale, California to produce terra cotta products, tiles and dinnerware. The dinnerware line was expanded in 1934 and began to produce the well known patterns of Franciscan dinnerware such as El Patio and Coronado and later to produce in the 1940's, Desert Rose and Apple. Clay was used in the production of dinnerware from the mines of Northern Clay Company.
In February of 1927, Gladding McBean & Co. took over the Denny-Renton Clay & Coal Co. of Seattle. The purchase included all properties of the Denny Renton Clay & Coal Company which were the Taylor, Washington mines and plant and the Mica, Washington plant near Spokane. Raymond R. Smith, who was the manager of the company's brick and tile department in San Francisco came to Auburn to superintend the Denny operations. Smith was with the Denny plant from 1909 to 1925. Beyond this, there were no changes to the Denny organization.
In 1927, Northern Clay Company's name was changed to Gladding McBean & Co., Auburn Plant, and the Denny Renton Clay & Coal Company's name was changed to Gladding McBean & Co., Renton Plant.
Also in 1927, Gladding, McBean & Co. closed their plant at Van Asselt, Washington, only finishing up some local contracts. The work previously done there was moved to the Auburn plant to which most of the workmen were transferred. The company also had clay pits at Sumas and Cummer, Washington
From an article that was the weekly motorlog appearing in the Seattle Star, March 21, 1929, the Auburn plant was visited by staff writer Harry B. Mills.
"The parking strip has been planted to grass and holly trees, the latter having achieved a growth of about 12 feet above the ground. While many of the samples are shown through photographs of the finished product as actually used in buildings, still another important exhibit has been set up in a little garden back of the office, with three walled sides, grass and shrubbery. Here panels along the walls allow for showing many colorful samples and the pillars and garden pieces are seen as they would appear in attractive home surroundings.
Three clays secured from Green river deposits, one type which is shipped here from California and ground and pulverized fire brick are the main components of terra cotta. These are fed from automatic hoppers on to a moving belt which takes the whole combination into mixing tumblers where water and a small percentage of barium carbonate is added.
When this whole has been thoroughly mixed it is ready for pressing into molds with color added or not as the particular job may call for. These colors are ground right in the plant and the whole world is drawn on for these various glazes. They are ground uniformly on an upper floor, go into tanks and are drawn off on the floor below (the pressing room) as needed.
The pressed product is then fired for 96 hours at an even temperature when it is ready to step out and assume it's place in the structures which house our modern business laboratories.
The very first step is the passing along to the drafting room of the architects drawings or the artist's plans. Oftentimes these creative minds have failed to allow for the peculiarities of terra cotta, and whole plans must be drawn up on the scale of one foot and seven inches to every foot desired in the finished product.
This allows for the shrinkage which comes in the firing of the pressing units. These plans then go into the modeling room. Here under the watchful eye of Louis Shubert, head modeler, a force of four artists work out in actual clay the designs which have been prepared by the drafting room. This oftentimes is very delicate work requiring the use of a human model.
The clay model then goes into the plaster of paris room where it is coaxed by another group of highly skilled workmen to a uniform thickness. From this the cast is made which is used in the pressing room.
On the day of our visit, a set of models for decorative friezes for the Medical and Dental building being erected in Vancouver were drying. The New Orpheum, Medical and Dental building, American Automobile Co., Marlbourough Arms apartments and many other of Seattle newer structures also used these terra cotta decorations."(2)
Louis Shubert, head modeler, came from Austria around 1904 at the same time as the St. Louis Worlds Fair. His daughter Emily was born during the Worlds Fair and her face was used as a model for his terra cotta work.
Louis lived in Seattle near Garfield High School and commuted on the Interurban from Seattle to Auburn daily.
Using his notebook he would sketch out a work order from an architect or builder and detail the amount of the piece would require in modeling. Some of the sketches would have probably been used as a general idea for a terra cotta project. This sketchbook and a photograph album entitled Northern Clay Company Plant Views, 1913 as well as other photographs are in the collection of the White River Valley Historical Society donated by his grandson.
After gradually laying off their employees because of the lack of work and overhead at the plant, the Auburn plant of Gladding McBean & Co. was closed in December, 1932. This was due to the many floors of empty space in the buildings throughout the country during the crisis of the Great Depression. The only building built with terra cotta from 1930 through the 1940's was the Woolworth building in downtown Seattle.
All operations were consolidated with the Renton plant turning out brick with the Taylor plant producing sewer pipe and the Mica, Washington plant specializing in the output of common and face brick. All Washington plants operated on a limited schedule. The Taylor coal and clay mines and the town were condemned by the Seattle Water Department in order to include the area inside an expanded watershed.
Gladding McBean & Co. built new offices and a warehouse on Elliott Avenue in Seattle in 1954 as well as a new lab building for the Renton facility. The company continued to operate as Gladding McBean & Co. until merging with Lock Joint Pipe Company in 1962 to become known as International Pipe & Ceramics Corporation later changing the name to Interpace.
Interpace sold the Lincoln, California Gladding McBean plant in 1977 to Pacific Coast Building Products. The Glendale, California dinnerware & ceramics division was sold to Wedgwood in England in 1979 and the plant was closed in 1984 with production moving to the Johnson Brothers division of Wedgwood.
Gladding McBean continues to produce architectural terra cotta, roofing tiles, and sewer tiles in Lincoln, California, one of the few remaining terra cotta plants in the United States today.
In 1990 Gladding McBean began to reproduce it's line of garden ware with the original molds & methods that have not changed since the plant began. However, the glazes have been reformulated to adhere to new environmental regulations and closely match those made in the past. The plant also has the molds used to produce the architectural terra cotta and has reproduced many pieces in the restoration of our countries terra cotta heritage.