Appreciating Golden Era fireplaces

Posted: June 3rd, 2016 | Columns, Featured, PastMatters | No Comments

By Katherine Hon | PastMatters

Do you think those muted brown and green tiles on your fireplace are boring? Are you considering painting over the funky rabbit relief tile that has lost its shine? Do you want the tiles showing bucolic scenes to be marble instead?

Resist the urge to “modernize” your fireplace! Those tiles may be some of the most valuable features in your bungalow.

In 1910, as North Park’s urban development began in earnest, California’s Golden Era in tile-making was dawning. Tile manufacturers in the eastern United States and Europe had been sending their products westward to enhance residences and public buildings since the mid-1870s. But the regional, distinctively Californian industry was launched because of increased demand from a growing state population after 1900. The history and products of the finest tile companies are documented in “California Tile, the Golden Era 1910-1940,” by the California Heritage Museum, Joseph A. Taylor, Editor, published by Schiffer Publishing Company in 2003.

One of the best-known tile-makers is Ernest Batchelder, who bought property on Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco in 1909 and started a school that became a shop for the production of decorative tile. Batchelder originally studied to become a teacher of drawing and manual training at the Massachusetts Normal Art Institute in Boston, graduating in 1899. He moved to Pasadena in 1901, where he taught for eight years at the Throop Polytechnic Institute, which later became Caltech.

Close up of Claycraft Potteries architectural gateway motif tile (Photo by Katherine Hon)

Close up of Claycraft Potteries architectural gateway motif tile (Photo by Katherine Hon)

Batchelder wrote articles on design for Gustav Stickley’s “The Craftsman,” among other journals, and wrote two books. His tiles incorporated images in a variety of themes, including Viking ships, medieval castles, musicians, birds and abstractions. The tiles are highly prized and were popular far beyond Southern California. Robert Winter, an architectural historian who in 1972 bought the Pasadena home built by Batchelder, said the symbol Batchelder used for himself was often a rabbit, or hare, possibly because he was shy. The symbol for his wife, a musician, was a harp.

Another tile company with similar style also frequently seen in North Park living rooms is Claycraft Potteries. Established in 1921 in Los Angeles, the company produced more than 500 design tiles. Fred Robertson, who won gold medals for his work with crystalline glazes at the San Diego Exposition in 1915, was the general superintendent.

The Claycraft style for fireplaces was typified by a single-fired tile with an irregular, buffed and sanded surface. Relief tiles presented idealized visions of California natural landscapes, such as waterfalls in Yosemite National Park; a Sequoia forest with a bear cub; and scenes featuring an oak, sycamore, palm or Torrey pine. A covered wagon drawn by three pair of oxen traversing a desert expanse is tile No. 1056 in a Claycraft Potteries catalog, and a Spanish Mission scene is No. 1022.

Another prominent tile-maker is California Art Tile Company (Cal Art). The California Heritage Museum book notes: “Tiles produced by California Art Tile are among the premier examples of artistic tile produced during California’s Arts and Crafts period.”

James White Hislop founded Cal Art in 1923. The company was located in Richmond on San Francisco Bay. Pictorial tiles show medieval, Spanish, Mexican and traditional Western scenes.

Production of these decorative tiles peaked in the 1920s, and most of the businesses failed during the Great Depression triggered by the stock market crash of 1929. Although Cal Art stayed in business until 1964, Batchelder’s factory closed in 1932, and the last mention of Claycraft Potteries in the Los Angeles city directory is in 1939. But the beauty of Arts and Crafts tile is alive and well on the fireplaces of historic communities like North Park.

Is your fireplace tile original? Send a photo to the North Park Historical Society at and we will post it on our website’s “Community Scrapbook” page.

—Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at or 619-294-8990.

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