A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

July 1996




Green River Valley Clay
Becomes Architectural Terra Cotta
Meade Pottery & the Northern Clay Company
1905 to 1927

The Desert Rose and Apple patterns of dinnerware by Franciscan have long been recognized by many as symbols of quality. However, few know that the clay and minerals used to produce the brightly hand painted dinnerware came from mineral deposits around Auburn and Renton, Washington. Even fewer know that the terra cotta facade of the Frederick and Nelson building (as well as many others) in downtown Seattle was produced in Auburn at the Northern Clay Company.


Northern Clay Products Company
Northern Clay Products Company building in Auburn.
Image from hand colored post card.
WRVM # 163


Clay formed in molds, glazed and fired at high temperatures became a product known simply as terra cotta. It was a cost effective material used as facing for buildings and was light enough to clad a skyscraper. It replaced the brick and granite that faced buildings built prior to 1900. Besides facing for buildings clay was formed into roofing tiles, sewer pipes, and even garden ware jardinieres. Glazed or unglazed terra cotta was a backbone industry for the communities of Auburn, Renton and Seattle, and a major force in building many cities and towns in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. Prior to its production in the Pacific Northwest all clay products were transported at great cost from the East Coast.

The first local clay business began about 1905 when a group of enterprising business men in Auburn started Meade Pottery.

In 1908, after a visit by officials of the Winkle Terra Cotta Company of St. Louis, Missouri, Meade Pottery joined with Winkle to form the Northern Clay Company. The new business, originally located near today's meeting of Highway 18 and the Northern Pacific railroad, was taken over and the plant moved to its new site at Third and A Street Northwest. Early in 1910, Paul S. MacMichael purchased the company and later became President of the local plant.


"The Northern Clay Company dug 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)

Gladding McBean & Company Moves to Auburn, 1925
In 1925, the largest producer of clay products on the West Coast, Gladding McBean & Co. from Lincoln, California bought the Northern Clay Company including the Auburn plant. Gladding McBean was chartered in 1875 in California and by 1925 had ten plants in California, Oregon, Washington (including Auburn, Renton, Taylor and Mica), Montana and British Columbia. It operated two hundred kilns, and employed over two thousand workers. The name and personnel of the Northern Clay Company was continued after the purchase. Mr MacMichael remained with the company and was named a vice-president of Gladding McBean. Chief chemist, A. Lee Bennett also remained with the company and in 1936 he became vice-president, Southern Division of Gladding McBean. 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 and Portland to handle the product from both the Northern Clay Company and Gladding, McBean.


Paul S. MacMichael
Paul S. MacMichael, President of Northern Clay Company
and later Vice President of Gladding McBean.
WRVM # 2453

Northern Clay grew to ten times its original size, employing 75 to 100 men and acquiring nearly five acres of land at Third and A Street, just outside of then downtown Auburn. The monthly payroll grew to $15,000. Equipment and fixtures were valued at $100,000. The plant produced an average of 250 tons of clay products each month. In Seattle, the Dexter Horton Building, the Olympic Hotel, the Northern Life Tower, and the Federal Office Building, among others, were supplied with architectural terra cotta from Auburn. By 1927, Northern Clay Company's name changed to Gladding, McBean, Auburn Plant.

In March 1929 the Seattle Star's staffer Harry B. Mills visited the Auburn plant and made these observations:


"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 in 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's newer structures also used these terra cotta decorations." (2)


Louis Shubert, head modeler for the Auburn Gladding McBean, came from Austria in 1904, originally to produce works for the St. Louis Worlds Fair. His family recalls that Mr. Shubert's daughter Emily was born during the Worlds Fair and her face was used as a model for his terra cotta work. He later came to work at Gladding McBean. Louis lived in Seattle near Garfield High School and commuted on the Interurban to Auburn. Using his notebook he would sketch designs requested by an architect or builder, and determine the amount of clay required for modeling. This sketchbook and a large collection of photographs of his work resides in the collection of the White River Valley Museum, donated by his grandson Jerry Requa.


Northern Clay Products Company
Louis Shubert (?) working on architectural terra cotta
at the Gladding McBean plant in Auburn.
From the Requa Collection.   WRVM # 163

 

The Depression Takes Its Toll...
This rich industry was not to continue forever. In 1929 the stock market crashed -- it was the beginning of the Great Depression. Naturally, new construction came to a standstill. There were floors of empty space in office buildings throughout the country. Lack of work and overhead costs closed the Auburn plant of Gladding McBean & Co. in December, 1932. 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 Gladding McBean's Renton plant turning out brick: the Taylor plant producing sewer pipe and the Mica 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 expand its watershed.

In 1954 Gladding McBean built new offices and a warehouse on Elliott Avenue, and a new lab building for the Renton facility. The company continued to operate as Gladding McBean & Co. until 1962 when it merged with Lock Joint Pipe Company 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.


Northern Clay Products Company
Frieze for a church entry, made at the Gladding McBean plant, Auburn.
From the Requa Collection.   WRVM #1021P


In 1990 Gladding McBean continues to reproduce a line of garden ware using 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 to closely match those made in the past. The plant also has the molds once used to produce architectural terra cotta and has produced many pieces used in the restoration and preservation of our country's fine old terra cotta clad buildings

by James Elliott
owner of Elliot's 20th Century California Pottery,
editor and publisher of the Francisan Newsletter

Sources:
(1)  Impression of Imagination: Terra-cotta Seattle, Allied Arts of Seattle, Inc. 1986

(2)  "Paper Tells Interesting Story of Local Industry," Auburn Globe-Republican, March 21, 1929.