What’s a homeowner to do when this toughest of house parts has fallen victim to the whims of fashion?
House Calls By Michael Good
If anything was made to last it’s tile. Wood rots. Concrete crumbles. Iron rusts. Glass breaks. In fact, just about everything made by man eventually turns to dust–everything except for good old-fashioned, high-fired clay. Tough, resilient, impervious to all insults but the hammer blow; tile abides. While the other house parts quake in fear, tile laughs in the face of sunlight, moisture, bugs, earth, wind, fire and volcanoes. Long after we’re gone, after the Huns, Vandals and Visigoths of the future have relegated the United States to the history books, our fireplace tile will live on.
Or it should. In theory, tile is forever; in practice, it’s often the first piece of the history puzzle to go. That’s because this toughest of house materials is particularly vulnerable to the whims of fashion and the lily-livered betrayal of less-sturdy house parts.
Foundations crumble and cause tile floors to crack. Bricks and stucco soak up water and undermine fireplace tile. Wood studs get termite-eaten and develop dry rot and the tile must go so repairs can be made. Bathroom grout turns ugly and cracks and falls out and tile is declared guilty by association, getting thrown out, so to speak, with the bathwater. If the fired clay of the ancients were treated like the tile of today, we’d know a lot less about Rome, Pompeii and Gilgamesh.
So what’s an historic homeowner to do if their original tile’s gone missing? Instead of immediately running off to the tile store, start your search closer to home. If your tile is still there—if you’re replacing it because it’s damaged, or whatever it’s attached to is damaged and the tile can’t be saved—remove a tile and match it. You’ll find the name of the tile manufacturer on the back, which will help your search.
If you don’t know what your original tile looked like, you may still find a sample somewhere around the house. If it’s bathroom or kitchen tile you’re looking for, you might find a piece inside, behind or under your cabinets. If your fireplace has been retiled, the original tile might still be under the non-original. If the new hearth is raised, the original tile is probably underneath. Sometimes extra tiles are stored in the house. Look in the attic, the garage and under the house. Sometimes the outside of the fireplace has been retiled, but the inside firebox still has the original tile. If your fireplace has been painted, you can remove some of the paint with stripper and see what the tile looks like.
If you’re still not having any luck, check out other houses in the neighborhood, especially those that are similar in style to yours. Talk to your neighbors to see if anyone remembers what your tile looked like before the vandals destroyed it. If you already know who built your house, then look at others by the same builder. Builders often used the same tile manufacturer, and the same style, but in different colors. Check out the various bungalow books—there are many local houses in them, some that you’ll probably recognize. These books, such as American Bungalow Style and Inside the Bungalow, are available online, through American Bungalow magazine, in bookstores and at the library.
The most prominent tile manufacturer in San Diego in the years before the Great Depression was California China Products Company. The typical fireplace tiles were six by six, satin-sheen, hand-glazed, and mottled in earth tones of red, mustard, ochre and chocolate. Most of the houses David Dryden and his contemporaries built along 28th Street and Pershing Avenue in North Park used these tiles, and they can also be found in homes in South Park and Mission Hills. Some of the larger, grander houses in San Diego were decorated with Grueby tiles, which are still available from modern tile makers, but for the most part homeowners relied on local manufacturers. It was part of the arts and crafts esthetic to use local materials, and it made sense because shipping from the Midwest and East, particularly of heavy materials like tile, was expensive.
California China Products also made tiles in the Spanish style – they supplied the tile for the fountains in Balboa Park and the train station downtown. Although the buff-colored, matte tiles found in many Spanish and Tudor style houses in San Diego are often called “Batchelder,” they often were made by another Los Angeles manufacturer, Claycraft.
The 1920s were the heyday of brightly colored, romantic and imaginative tile. Unfortunately, some of the color combinations haven’t aged well. Some tile from the twenties is undeniably ugly. In that era there was a brief and ill-considered fascination with white tile for the faces of fireplaces. It was often brick-shaped with pink or blue highlights. This is the rare case where strict historical accuracy might not be such a good idea. Fortunately, there are other, more attractive options that still pass the historical test.
Some more tile tips: Once you’ve got an idea what your tile looked like, try the resources at the end of this article. Similar, or even identical, tiles are being manufactured today. There are warehouses and salvage yards that stock original tiles as well. If you just have a few cracked tiles in your fireplace, don’t despair, you may be able to find a replacement that matches reasonably well, or get one made. A good tile setter can remove a broken tile and replace it.
If you’re remodeling your kitchen or bath, original isn’t quite as big of a requisite, particularly in the kitchen. The tendency of kitchen designers today is to install tiles that belonged on fireplaces in 1915—hand-made tiles with irregular edges that require wide grout lines. Originally, kitchen tile was uniform, with tight, easy to clean grout and a small band of decorative tiles circling the backsplash.
Other considerations: In middle-class bungalows, fireplace tile design was a little less exuberant than homeowners today might imagine. The elaborate patterns with tiles of various sizes and scenes of forest splendor weren’t all that common, particularly in earlier houses. Many fireplaces were simple boxes clad in nothing but six by six field tiles. Baths were tiled in plain white subway tile, with very tight grout lines and perhaps a small band of decorative tile. This is the rare instance when being historically accurate might actually save you money.
During the twenties, however, in Spanish- and Tudor-style houses, as wood trim became less elaborate, tile design became more detailed. In neighborhoods such as Mission Hills, where covenants required that builders spend a minimum amount on materials, both wood trim and tile work could be pretty intense in even the smallest houses.
If your original tile is still in place but looks dirty, you can clean it with methyl chloride stripper—just be sure to test an inconspicuous area first. Tile floors can be cleaned with muriatic acid (although, like stripper, it’s a dangerous chemical and you might want to call in a professional). If your Batchelder-style tiles in your Spanish or Tudor house are dull, flakey or spotted with white deposits, water may have gotten through from the back and ruined the glaze. If that’s the case, no amount of cleaning is going to fix things. Don’t blame your tile—it was the fault of the brick, mortar and unlined chimney flue attached to it. If you decide to design your own fireplace, don’t take this responsibility too lightly. Consult the masters, study the ancients, commune with the tile designers of yore, sketch your layout and arrange your design on the floor in front of your fireplace. Don’t rush. Take your time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. And remember: when done right, tile is forever. Well, in theory.
Classic Tile & Mosaic
International Tile and Bath
Tile Heritage Foundation