Next weekend, visitors will be allowed to make the annual pilgrimage into the Van Briggle Memorial Pottery Building at Colorado College — the masterpiece of one of the first successful female entrepreneurs in Colorado Springs.
The Van Briggle building itself is an architectural marvel, with a remarkable history of business perseverance, vision, ambition and enduring success. But it’s also the story of a young widow in Colorado Springs at the turn of the 20th century who conceived, created and built a manufacturing company that marketed its products throughout the United States. The building and the company it housed for more than 60 years are the product of Anne Van Briggle’s toughness, tenacity and leadership skills.
Anne’s story, so often subsumed to the narrative of Artus Van Briggle’s artistic brilliance, is fascinating in its own right.
ARTUS AND ANNE
Anne Gregory and Artus Van Briggle first met in Paris in 1894. Already accomplished artists in their early 20s, they had ventured to Paris to learn from the masters. They became engaged in 1895, returned to America in 1896 and moved to Colorado Springs in 1899, hoping that the city’s dry, sunny climate would cure —or at least alleviate — Artus’ tuberculosis.
A brilliant ceramic artist, Artus designed, threw and fired hundreds of pots in a backyard kiln. Thanks to financial support from his longtime Cincinnati patron, Louise Story, he was able to fully realize his artistic vision, recreating the so-called “dead glazes” of early Chinese pottery.
The pots drew international acclaim, and the Colorado Springs community took notice. In the fall of 1900, Van Briggle held a pre-Christmas sale, and sold out his entire 300-piece inventory.
“For a hundred years now,” he said at the sale, “the people’s taste has been running to the shiny, ornate things in pottery; now they are going to the primitive, rugged type pottery.”
So celebrated did the young artist become that demand for his wares increased beyond his capacity to supply it, so Anne and Artus sought investors to expand the business.
As the Gazette described it in April 1902, it must have been an easy sell.
“The most important incorporation organized in the city for many years will be announced when papers for the Van Briggle Pottery Company are filed,” the paper reported. “The corporation is backed by the largest capitalists in Colorado Springs, and will not only occupy an important place in the art and industrial aspect of this city’s growth, but give to this city a standing which the famous Rookwood Potteries have given to Cincinnati.”
The original stockholders included Louise Story, Gen. William Palmer, Cripple Creek multimillionaire W.S. Stratton, and half a dozen other city luminaries. A new pottery was constructed on North Nevada Avenue, the workforce increased from three to 17, the wares won major international awards — and then, on July 4, 1904, Artus succumbed to tuberculosis.
After a simple, private funeral ceremony at their home, Anne immediately assumed formal control of all operations at the pottery, becoming the company’s president and artistic director.
“Artus Van Briggle had left a brave and capable wife to carry on the great work he had established,” Dorothy McGraw Bogue wrote in her 1968 Van Briggle Story. “She was qualified and able to direct the office work, to mix the glazes and fire the kilns.”
Given her husband’s incapacity, it’s likely that she had been company president in all but name for at least a year. In any case, the transition was apparently seamless and successful. The business thrived under Anne’s guidance, and its masterful creations continued to win major awards at national expositions. Once again, the pottery needed to expand, and Anne was determined to create an enduring legacy. She sought to build a pottery that would fully integrate architecture, decorative ceramics and business functionality.
She hired architect Dutch Nicolaas van den Arend to design the building. His still-striking design shows Flemish farmhouse and Arts and Crafts influences.
A WOMAN OF BUSINESS
While the building was under construction from 1906-1908, Anne and her assistant J. Emma Kinkead designed and produced thousands of tiles and other ceramics that were incorporated into the building’s exterior and interior. The building wasn’t merely a factory; it was a graceful advertisement of its product.
“Anne was the person who sparked everything,” said Pioneers Museum Curator Leah Davis Witherow. “With those tiles, she created products that people actually wanted to buy.”
Like any good businessperson, Anne was straightforward and unapologetic. Questioned about the pottery’s practice of making multiple editions of popular designs from plaster molds, rather than turning pieces individually, Anne responded in a Gazette article.
“It is better to make a limited number of highly artistic and carefully thought-out designs,” she wrote, “rather than turn out commonplace designs by the thousands.”
Potential customers were urged to tour the building, which included a display room and studios.
“In the construction of the new building,” the Gazette reported in 1908, “the prevailing idea has been to show what effects can be produced both in interior and exterior decoration by the use of the Van Briggle products.”
The sales pitch was subtle and effective, and the company’s manufacturing practices were equally sophisticated.
In an 18-page paper delivered to the American Ceramic Society in 1908, plant superintendent Frank Riddle talked about cost control, inventory and management information systems.
“List all ware going to the stock house at net selling price,” Riddle recommended. “If the net total for the month is not greater than the total expenses for that time, it shows immediately that goods are being sold too cheaply and that the manufacture must either be improved and cost lessened or else selling price raised… a power log [must be kept]. This record shows the number of hours each machine has run for the month. The power required for each machine is known, so that it is very easy to determine the number of horsepower hours each machine has used.”
Leave out the archaic phrases, and the paper could have been delivered yesterday.
The new pottery formally opened on Dec. 3, 1908. In July of that year Anne married Etienne Ritter, a mining engineer she had known for many years. She continued to run the company for the next four years, until leasing and then selling it to Ned Curtis in 1912.
“The [four] years following the new pottery’s opening were years of great quality production in an amazing array of designs and glaze colors,” wrote Kathy Honea in Van Briggle Notes & More, published in 2014.
Anne remained as the company’s art director until 1923, when the couple moved to Denver. Always active in the arts community, Anne was a founder of the Colorado Springs Art Society in 1915 and of the Broadmoor Art Academy in 1915. She died in Denver in 1929.
A LEGACY RESTORED?
Colorado College acquired the pottery building in 1968. It has been restored and stabilized, and now houses the Facilities Service Department. The gracefully ornamented kiln chimneys remain, but Frank Riddle’s kilns were removed decades ago.
So strong was the company’s brand that it endured for another 100 years, despite bankruptcies, fires, the flood of 1935, ownership changes and the vagaries of public taste. Late in 2012, the much-diminished business finally closed, crippled by the Great Recession.
Can it be revived?
“I met [company owner] Craig Stevenson at his storage units the other day,” said Colorado College’s George Eckhardt. “All the molds are there, all the equipment you’d need to produce some of the old designs.”
Could Colorado College be a buyer?
“That’s an interesting question,” said Eckhardt with a smile. “Owning this building and the company could really lead to some interesting things — we’ll see!”
[su_note note_color=”#7db9ff”]If you go: When: Saturday, Sept. 10, 9-11:20 a.m. and 12:30-3 p.m.
Where: Van Briggle Memorial Pottery Building, 1125 Glen Ave.
What: The tours feature multiple exhibitors and presenters and proceeds benefit scholarships and projects for Colorado College students.[/su_note]