“We have to keep them, because they’re Van Briggle tiles,” said Kevin O’Neil, showing off the historic tile adorning part of the 1917 Santa Fe Railway Station, which O’Neil is repurposing as a collaborative workspace called Catalyst Campus.
Clumsily renovated into office space during the early 1980s, the station badly needs a makeover. O’Neil and his colleague Ingrid Richter are keeping the tiles — but in common with many historic tile installations in Colorado Springs, they’re not Van Briggle.
In fact, many Van Briggle tiles aren’t — strictly speaking — Van Briggle tiles either, since they were created after Artus Van Briggle’s death in 1904.
The Van Briggle Pottery created and marketed decorated tiles from 1902 to 1915. Buildings erected between those dates may be adorned by Van Briggle tiles, but not those erected either before or after. And while art tiles adorned many homes and buildings in Colorado Springs, during the 19th and 20th centuries, many came from other potteries.
The first commercially produced ceramic art tiles in America were made by Pittsburgh Encaustic in 1876. Before that date, tile surrounds for fireplaces, floor tiles and other decorative tiles were imported or created by local artisans.
It didn’t take long for American entrepreneurs to supplant foreign imports. Founded in Chelsea, Mass., in 1877, the J. and J.G. Low Art Tile Works quickly captured a significant slice of the high-end market. Their portrait tiles were marketed as stand-alone works of art, while intricately designed wall tiles were installed in many grand houses in Massachusetts, New York and even Colorado Springs.
From 1871 to 1902, thousands of homes were built in General Palmer’s new city. Many still stand today, and none feature Van Briggle tiles — but that doesn’t stop real estate brokers from calling tile in pre-1940 buildings “Van Briggle.”
Do you think your tiles are the real thing? Here’s how to tell.
“Van Briggle tiles are perhaps the most distinctive of this period [1904-1915],” wrote Norman Karlson in his magisterial “American Art Tile 1876-1941.” “The tiles are rustic, handmade and glazed in somber matte colors such as deep browns, blues and greens, often on black backgrounds. Decorative subjects include trees, plants, leaves, flowers and geese.” The glazes are always matte, never glossy.
The J. and J.G. Low tiles, by contrast, always have bright, glossy glazes. In common with tiles from other late-Victorian manufacturers, decorative subjects are often classically inspired and may include female figures, mythological symbols and portraits. Other manufacturers used bright color and bold, striking tile ensembles designed to capture the eye.
By the turn of the century, American tile makers were equal or superior to any in the world. In 1903, Artus Van Briggle exhibited 24 pieces at the Paris Salon and won 15 medals, including two gold. Scores of art tile makers hawked their wares throughout the country, ranging from Ohio giant American Encaustic Tiling to lone eccentrics such as Biloxi’s George Ohr.
Interestingly, Van Briggle wasn’t the only art pottery in Colorado Springs. In 1933, Col. Paul Genter and Cecil Jones experimented with local clays, exhibiting their wares at The Broadmoor hotel and at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In October of that year they leased the former Grace Episcopal Church building at 217 E. Pikes Peak Ave. and started the Broadmoor Art Pottery and Tile Co. The company closed its doors in 1939, having produced many brightly decorative tin-glazed majolica tiles with flower and bird motifs. Whether any adorn local homes is unknown, since very few houses were built in Colorado Springs during the Depression.
But you don’t have to prowl through turn-of-the- century neighborhoods to see a spectacular array of Van Briggle tiles — just head down to the intersection of Uintah and Glen avenues and take a look at the 1907 Van Briggle Memorial Pottery. Built in 1907 by Ann Gregory Van Briggle to honor her late husband, the pottery is ornamented with approximately 10,000 tiles. Designed by Nicolaas van den Arend, the building is revered by historians, art pottery enthusiasts and architects. No Colorado Springs structure so gracefully combines form, flamboyance and function.
Nearly swept away in the 1935 flood, the pottery operated in that location for 60 years, moving in 1968 to the old Midland Terminal at what was then Cimarron and 21st streets.
Now the property of Colorado College, the restored and stabilized building is occupied by the college’s Facilities Service Department. It’ll be open for public tours on Sept. 12 from 9-11:20 a.m. and again from 12:20 to 3 p.m.
Check out the real Van Briggle tiles, and see the difference.