Ernest Batchelder: Southern California’s masterful tile maker

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From red Spanish Colonial rooftops to vibrant mosaics to rose pink bathroom vanities, Southern California is filled with tile. Whether big or small, monochromatic or multi-hued, tiles are commonplace here, and rarely are their manufacturers recognized or even considered.

That’s part of what makes Ernest Batchelder such an exceptional case. The tile maker, who died more than 50 years ago, is still known and respected as a brilliant designer and an important contributor to the American Arts and Crafts movement.

As Pasadena architects Charles and Henry Greene were producing innovative home designs that defined California’s signature Craftsman style, Batchelder was close by, making tiles in a backyard studio. Today, many of those tiles are collector’s items, and mantels and fireplace surrounds bearing Batchelder tiles lend historical prestige to otherwise unremarkable prewar homes.

“He definitely commands name-brand recognition,” says former Pasadena Museum of History director of collections Laura Verlaque, who curated a 2016 exhibit on Batchelder’s tiles. “There were so many other competitors who made wonderful tiles, but Batchelder is the one who everyone seems to know.”

The subtle earth tones and romantic imagery of those made by Batchelder are easy to recognize.

“It really almost gives you the sense that it’s carved stone,” says Brett Waterman, host of DIY Network’s Restored. “There’s something that really stands out from other tile manufacturers.”

How did these tiles become so popular? And why are they still treasured features of so many LA homes? Here’s a guide to the history of the tiles and the man who produced them.

The man behind the art

Originally from New Hampshire, Batchelder moved to California in 1901, shortly after completing a degree from the Massachusetts Normal College of Art. He spent most of the next decade teaching art classes at Pasadena’s Throop Polytechnic Institute (now Caltech) and traveling around Europe in his spare time.

In 1910, after a short-lived attempt to start his own art school, Batchelder began making and selling tiles. The business was successful enough that Batchelder soon moved production from his backyard studio to a larger workshop on what’s now Arroyo Parkway. Eventually, his company grew large enough that Batchelder opened up a factory in Lincoln Heights.

The business folded during the Great Depression, but not before Batchelder and his workers had produced countless tiles and designed ornate installations for buildings and homes across North America.

Batchelder eventually returned to the ceramics business, opening a smaller workshop where he manufactured pottery and simple tableware throughout the 1940s.

Tiles “like a Persian rug”

By the late 1920s, Batchelder was producing a wide variety of tiles in multiple color schemes and styles ranging from Art Deco to Maya Revival. But the tiles he’s best remembered for today are generally those with soft color schemes and matte finishes, created in an engobe process.


Knights, flowers, birds, and tall ships can be found on many of Batchelder’s more ornate tiles.
Photo by Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Under this method, tiles were colored using clay slip (a mix of clay and water) and then fired once in a kiln. Most ceramics would then be glazed and fired a second time, but Batchelder preferred the subtle hues created through this single-firing process and used glaze sparingly in his early tile designs.

“Every tile manufacturer will have their own formulation,” Waterman says. “They’re really chemists. They’re mixing different types of mineral with silica to create a glaze or coloration.”

The muted appearance of Batchelder’s tiles could be mistaken for the faded effects of old age, something accentuated by the medieval or pastoral images frequently carved into his tile displays. (Knights, flowers, birds, and tall ships can be found on many of Batchelder’s more ornate tiles.)

The elegant simplicity of the tiles made them well-suited to homes built in the Arts and Crafts style, which was driven largely by nostalgia for a preindustrial era in which the skill of individual artisans was valued over the efficiency of mass production.

“Like a Persian rug, our tiles lend themselves to any environment and bring distinction to it,” wrote Batchelder in a promotional brochure quoted in Batchelder Tilemaker, by architectural historian Robert Winter.

Batchelder’s engobe tiles were distinctive enough to inspire imitations from rival businesses, including Claycraft, California Art Tile Company, and Calco. Along with Batchelder, these companies fostered the growth of a statewide tile industry and a uniquely Californian design style.

“We make fireplaces”

Throughout his career, Batchelder designed tiles for commercial lobbies, fountains, swimming pools, and even bathrooms. But today he’s probably most closely associated with fireplaces.

In Los Angeles, it’s not uncommon for homeowners and real estate agents to refer proudly to a “Batchelder fireplace,” shorthand for those lined with his distinctive tiles.

That’s partly a phenomenon of Batchelder’s own making.

“It might be said we don’t make tiles! We make fireplaces, each tile a unit in a thoughtful scheme,” he wrote in the same brochure.

A 1920s catalog shows that the company offered hundreds of unique tiles designed specifically for fireplaces and mantels, which could be ordered individually or in complete sets.

These sets were evidently easy to assemble—and could be safely shipped to other parts of the country. A cluster of more than 50 homes in Wichita, Kansas with Batchelder fireplaces suggests that Southern California housing developers continued ordering from the company even from afar.


Batchelder fireplaces are found in Craftsman and Spanish-style homes throughout Los Angeles.
Photo by Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Identifying Batchelder tiles

Winter, who lived for several decades in the tile maker’s former home, once estimated that fireplaces and fountains lined with Batchelder tiles can be found in “hundreds” of homes in Southern California and beyond.

The tiles weren’t cheap, but they were affordable enough to be popular with homebuilders constructing houses for the middle class during the Southern California building boom of the 1920s.

Verlaque says that because Batchelder’s catalogs were so detailed, identifying tiles produced by his company is just a matter of matching up the design of a physical tile with one advertised in the catalog. The 1923 catalog is available online and details most of the tiles produced by his company at that point in time.

Those unsure if the tile fireplace in the living room was made by Batchelder can send a photo to the Pasadena Museum of History’s Batchelder tile registry.

“We don’t charge,” says Verlaque. “We look at your photos—it’s me, I’m the volunteer who does that. If I can’t identify it, I try to make a recommendation of someone who can.”

Preservation

Batchelder tiles are fairly sturdy, but since so many of them are in private residences, they are subject to the whims and changing tastes of homeowners.

“Most people today know to not tear them out,” says Waterman. “But, golly, I just got called about one a month ago, in Pasadena. They tore down a 6,000 square-foot house with four Batchelder fireplaces.”

He says another issue is that people sometimes mistake the subtle finish on the tiles for the effects of age and grime—then decide to touch them up or paint them over entirely.

It’s possible to remove paint from the tiles, says Waterman, but it can be a long and difficult process that may even involve removing, soaking, and re-installing the tiles. He says the best way to keep unaltered tiles in good shape is by cleaning them periodically with a wet rag and some dish soap or diluted Simple Green.

Where to see Batchelder’s work

Most aren’t lucky enough to live in a house with a Batchelder-designed fireplace or fountain. But there are still plenty of places in the Los Angeles area where you can spot some of his tiles.

One of his most impressive installations is in the lobby of the Fine Arts Building in Downtown LA. Located right above the 7th Street/Metro Center Station in the Financial District, the dramatic 1920s building was built to house artist studios and offices. Batchelder not only adorned the lobby with multi-colored mosaics and a romantic blue-tiled fountain, but also produced large ceramic sculptures representing different artistic disciplines.

Also in Downtown LA is a former chocolate shop that was one of Batchelder’s earliest commercial commissions. The ground-floor retail space on Sixth Street was designed in the style of a German beer hall and is covered floor-to-ceiling in tile crafted by Batchelder and the handful of workers he employed in 1914, when he received the commission. Sadly, the chocolate shop isn’t open to the public; the building it’s housed in has been looking for a buyer for more than three years.

Batchelder’s work is especially common in Pasadena, where he spent most of his life. A handy map created by the California Garden and Landscape History Society details some of the best places to find it, including at Memorial Park and the Pasadena Playhouse.

And if you’re in the market for a few tiles for your own home, it’s still possible to track down tiles made by Batchelder and his competitors. The tiles frequently pop up on ebay and on the shelves of local antique stores. They can also be purchased from specialty retailers like Pasadena Architectural Salvage and Wells Tile and Antiques.

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