A California artisan leaves a legacy in tiles.
By DEBORA VRANA, Times Staff Writer
The fireplace is a permanent built-in feature of a room. Rugs, wall coverings, draperies and furniture may be changed . . . but the fireplace remains a source of perennial satisfaction. . . .”
–Ernest A. Batchelder, fireplace tile catalog, 1927
When the Realtor said she believed we had a Batchelder fireplace, we were still reeling from the
48-hour offer, counteroffer, acceptance process of buying our first home.
I wasn’t sure who or what “Batchelder” was. Or even if we would like it. But as we sat in the living
room signing the purchase papers, any hint that our 1924 Spanish bungalow might have some
undiscovered value sounded awfully good.
I ran my hands over the tiles, the rough outline of a knight on a horse, a rabbit and a mountain
scene with pine trees and maybe even a lake. The layers of white paint piled on made it impossible to tell.
There was once a time when it would have been hard to find a homeowner in Southern California
unfamiliar with Batchelder tile.
From the 1890s to the 1920s, the Craftsman bungalow homes popular here gave Southern
California a new nickname, “Bungalow Land.” Known for their deep roof eaves, porches and dark
redwood interiors, most Craftsman homes were also known for something else: tiles designed by
Pasadena artist Ernest A. Batchelder.
At his Batchelder-Wilson Tile Co. near downtown Los Angeles, Batchelder and his 175 workers
created luminous shades of brown tile, along with others that had imprints of animals, figures,
medieval motifs and landscapes.
Each was fired with muted colors well suited to the Arts & Crafts style. These tiles grace
many Craftsman homes built here before World War I.
In fact, Batchelder was one of the nearly 30 tile companies, including Catalina Tile and Malibu Tile, operating in California before the Great Depression.
But Batchelder was “Mr. Big,” says Robert Winter, an architectural historian and Batchelder
scholar. “He was very well-regarded, especially in the East.”
One of the nation’s premier tile makers, Batchelder personified the Arts & Crafts style and its
influence on West Coast artisans.
A reaction to the Industrial Revolution, the Arts & Crafts movement promoted a return to a simpler
time of handmade objects, including furniture, pottery and tile. It was especially attractive to a
middle-class yearning for solace in an age of mass production.
Influenced strongly by that movement while an art student in Boston, Batchelder moved to
Pasadena in 1901 to teach at the Throop Polytechnic Institute. By 1909, the New Hampshire native was director of art at the school but was frustrated by the policy changes that would eventually turn the school into Caltech, with its focus on science.
Batchelder struck out on his own. He bought Pasadena property and began to build a home and
workshop where he could set up his own school.
In 1972, historian Winter bought that Pasadena home built by Batchelder for $46,500. Although
worried at the time that a college professor couldn’t afford to spend so much on a house, Winter
remembers that when he walked in the Batchelder house the first time, “I did a mock swoon,” he
said. “It was so amazing.”
The house is filled with tile, and in fact Batchelder made his first tiles in a shack
behind the house in 1910. Tiles can be found in the front walk, the living room
fireplace, in a breakfast nook and in the backyard.
“This house is a museum of tile that goes from 1912 to 1928,” said Winter. The home is now on the National Registrar of Historic Places.
On a Friday morning, as I interview Winter, the doorbell rings and visitors from England ask Winter
if they can come in. What they want most to see is the tile fireplace Batchelder built in 1912 for his wife, Alice Coleman, ostensibly as a wedding present.
Near the top of the 15-foot floor-to-ceiling fireplace are two figures of lions, one holding a shield
with a harp and the other a shield with a hare.
The symbol Batchelder used for himself was often a rabbit, possibly because he was shy, said
Winter. Batchelder gave his wife, a musician credited for the success of the Coleman chamber
concerts in Pasadena, the harp symbol.
Winter is writing a book about the couple called the “The Harp and the Hare.”
Batchelder tile is most prevalent in Pasadena, but it can be seen in homes throughout Southern
California, including in San Diego and Orange counties. It can also be found nationwide, including
in the Plaza Hotel in San Antonio, Lake Yellowstone Hotel, in Yellowstone National Park, a New
York swimming pool and in Union Station in Chicago.
In one of his catalogs from the 1920s, Batchelder himself attributed the beauty of his fireplace to
the fact that “it has strength of character without constantly challenging one’s attention.”
Most of the tile companies, like Batchelder’s, eventually went bust in the 1930s during the Great
Depression. While Batchelder continued to work, the time for his tile was over.
Until now. Interest in tile is on the upswing, buoyed in part by a resurgence of interest in the Arts & Crafts period. That movement is popular now in part as a reaction to the technology revolution,
But at the time we bought our mid-Wilshire-area home, I didn’t know any of this.
After finding out about our fireplace, I started seeing the word “Batchelder” in real estate listings
for homes in our area. I visited a tile store on Sunset Boulevard, where some small 3-by-5-inch
squares of Batchelder tile sold for $100 each. Suddenly, my husband was very interested in our tile.
In fact, having a Batchelder fireplace can boost a home’s value among potential buyers hungry for
antique details that can’t be replicated in newer homes, Realtors say.
“It’s not going to add $20,000 to your home’s value or anything, but the more original details you
can get, the better,” said Lisa Hutchins a Realtor who sells homes in the Hancock Park area.
“Batchelder is interesting because it’s found in the $2-million homes and in the smaller ones. It
wasn’t just for the very wealthy,” she said.
“Some people really appreciate the Batchelder and others don’t know what it is and some say, ‘Oh, it’s ugly,’ ” said Hutchins, who has a Batchelder fireplace in her home. But increasingly, she said, more people understand Batchelder’s value and want to restore the tile.
And so began the slow process of restoring our own fireplace. I bought paint remover to try
stripping clean the first tile, only to find four layers of beige, pink and white paint covering the tile.
As each one painstakingly came alive again, I could see that each tile was slightly different incolor and size.
The more I learned about Batchelder, and the more tile I uncovered, the more I
began to appreciate it. When we sit in our living room, it’s a reminder of those
who shaped the look of homes in this city not so long ago. As Batchelder wrote
in 1916, his tiles possess “all the charming little irregularities” of any handmade
“Like a Persian rug, our tiles lend themselves to any environment and bring distinction to it.”
So you’ve got an old Arts & Crafts tile fireplace.
Maybe you’re one of the lucky ones: No one has painted over it, broken the tiles or covered it with
a marble facade in the last 60 or 70 years.
But you’re more than likely to have some damage. Surprisingly, experts say, it’s fairly easy to bring tiles back to life. “There’s a tremendous resurgence of interest in tile,” said Marie Glass Tapp, who runs Tile Restoration in Seattle, a company that restores tile fireplaces and makes re-creations of Batchelder tile.
Probably the most common problem, said Tapp, is removing paint from tile on Arts & Crafts
fireplaces. For those who want to bring the tiles back, Tapp has some tips:
- Commercial paint strippers will remove much of the paint, but they need to be used with extreme care. Use an alkaline product, never an acidic one.
Always test on a small area first.
Along with the paint, these strippers will probably remove the fine surface seen on never-painted
tile. If you end up with washed-out, dull tile, a coat of paste wax, lightly applied and hand-rubbed,
may restore some of the luster to the tile, but not lost color.
For restoring color or replacing damaged or missing tiles, a restoration specialist can be hired. The Pasadena Heritage Society has a list of recommended workers.
To keep your tile in good shape, avoid abrasive cleaning techniques or metal bristle brushes. Also,
never chop wood on your hearth.
Another good source of information is the Tile Heritage Foundation, P.O. Box 1850, Healdsburg, CA 95448.