The tile detectives

Special to The Times

It was 3 a.m., that heebie-jeebies hour best spent in sleep, when the tile lover hit the mother lode. His hand-dug pit, which for hours had yielded nothing but soil and rock, suddenly gave way to a layer of broken squares. Kneeling, he grabbed a large one, scoured off seven decades of dirt and stifled a shout. In the glare of streetlights that ringed the industrial compound where he was trespassing, the man beheld the glowing colors and rich design of a vintage California ceramic tile.

The rest of the story — that a garbage truck rumbled up at that very moment, that the tile buff barked his shins as he dived into a row of dumpsters, that the dumpster next to his abruptly lurched, rose 6 feet into the air and was borne away — barely rates a mention.

It was the find — a dumping ground on the site of a long-defunct Southern California art tile factory — and the glorious tile, hundreds and perhaps thousands of them still buried there, that are the point of this man's story. And of his life.

The tile collector, who withholds his name not because he was trespassing but because he wants to keep the location of his dig a secret, is one of a group of collectors whose casual purchase of a single vintage tile soon can become a collection, turn into a passion, then become an obsession.

They hunt through salvage yards and haunt antique stores. They keep track of demolition permits and meet with contractors and homeowners to stage tile interventions. The truest believers, actress Diane Keaton among them, protect tile-rich homes by buying and restoring them to keep their treasures safe.

It's a pursuit that brings joy and despair because, for every tile installation they save, hundreds more are destroyed. Today, thanks to a remodeling boom fueled by TV home makeover shows — Love it! Let's gut it! — these historic treasures, many hidden in private homes and apartments, are vanishing into landfills.

Awareness is growing, but at a snail's pace. Tile lovers fear that by the time vintage California ceramic tile finally achieves the do-not-remodel status that helped preserve the California Craftsman, much of this region's tile will be irretrievably lost.

"It's one of the great catastrophes, that these extraordinary, beautiful homes that reflect an original California style are being replaced by architecture that has nothing to do with California and is, instead, all about grandeur," said Bill Stern, executive director of the Museum of California Design. "It's a crime against culture."

Not just culture, but California culture. The very term contradicts the enduring myth that California, in general, and Los Angeles, in particular, have no culture of their own. Yet Stern's book, "California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism," a photo-rich history of ceramic tile and pottery in the region, proves otherwise.

The California-ization of design began with the Panama-California Exhibition, held in San Diego in 1915. Visitors fell madly in love with the Spanish-Moorish style of architecture created specifically for the exhibition. Hidden courtyards with tiled fountains, arched doorways with tiled stairs, tiles on floors and baseboards, in bathrooms and along fireplaces, all with saturated colors and intricate designs bespoke the sunny climate and exuberant spirit of California.

"This style of building was a completely new invention, an original California creation that focused attention on California as a leader of design and innovation," Stern said.

Demand for tile was instant and constant. Between 1915 and the early 1930s, more than 100 tile factories, including major players such as Malibu Potteries, Taylor Tilery, Catalina Pottery, Batchelder, California Clay Products Co. (CalCo) and Gladding, McBean, sprang up to meet the demand. They mined local clay deposits, trained hundreds of workers and artisans, built enormous factories and turned out miles of tiles to satisfy the needs and tastes of the California building boom. "Between 1920 and 1930, the population of Hollywood went from 23,000 to 230,000," Stern said. "All of those people needed homes and apartments and they wanted California tile."

In fact, they went tile crazy. From the textured nuance of Ernest Batchelder's matte glazes and monochromatic hues to the brilliance and balance of Malibu Potteries' Moorish-inspired designs, California tile took the world — or at least the nation — by storm. Tile factories shipped their wares throughout the U.S., and for a decade California tile went into bathrooms, kitchens, fireplaces, staircases, floors and even walls and ceilings.

And then, in 1929, the tile bubble burst. "The Great Depression hit and the tile era was over," said Brian Kaiser, a tile expert who lives in South Gate.

One by one, tile producers filed for bankruptcy protection or simply closed shop. Companies that survived the Depression went under after World War II, when a glut of mass-produced Japanese imports swamped the market. A shift in taste from highly decorated spaces to the spare lines of Modernism was the final blow. "By the time people started building again, they wanted modern lines, white walls," Kaiser said. "Tile was not something people understood any more. They still don't."

For Kaiser, who has turned the preservation of vintage California tile into his life's passion, this is agony. While house hunting in 1988, he viewed a Spanish-style home for sale in South Gate. Only later did he learn it was the former residence of Rufus Keeler, the genius behind the saturated colors and brilliant designs of California Clay Products, the company Keeler founded. Later, he was hired away by Malibu Potteries.

"I knew absolutely nothing about tile or about Rufus Keeler, and then I went into this house and saw this enormous Mayan fireplace, and that was it," Kaiser said.

Inside he also found intricate, tiled floors, brilliant wall fountains, tiled bathrooms and baseboards lined with wisteria tiles.

"You had to be an idiot to stand in that house and not be agog," Kaiser said. "I was so astonished and blown away, I bought the house the same day." He also became a tile activist. As tiled homes all around him were gutted, Kaiser meticulously restored the Keeler home. He spent a week lying on his side, using dental tools to scrape paint from a 6-foot section of tiled baseboard. From beneath layers of white paint, an intricate wisteria mural emerged.

When a house on his street changed hands and the new owner revealed plans to remodel the tiled bathroom, Kaiser tried to intervene.

"It was this gorgeous bathroom with a CalCo ship mural," Kaiser said. "I stood in the front yard and begged them to save it, just begged them."

Kaiser offered to buy the tiles and remove them himself. He thought the owner was persuaded. Several months later, a dumpster appeared in the yard.

"I asked the daughter what happened to the tiles and she said, 'Oh, those things? The workers smashed them all out,' " Kaiser said, shaking his head in disbelief. "Gone, all of them. Gone."

An effort to save extraordinary tile installations in a grand, Beverly Hills mansion recently purchased by a billionaire CEO ended with Kaiser being barred from the property. Kaiser visited the owner and went through what is a familiar drill for tile lovers: bring books of tile history, show photographs of historic tile, plead, cajole, offer money. Nothing worked.

"His wife wanted white marble — what is it with everyone and the white marble these days? — and that's what they did," Kaiser said. "We offered to take out the tile but they didn't want to wait. They were rich enough to get what they wanted, how they wanted it and right away."

And the tile?

"It's gone. All gone," Kaiser said.

But it's not all bad news. Scott Wells, whose Wells Antiques on the Sunset Strip deals almost exclusively in tile, says a growing number of people are becoming tile savvy. As supply dwindles and prices rise, vintage California ceramic tile is becoming a prized commodity. "When I first started out in the business 15 years ago, no one cared about tile and it was really cheap," Wells said. "Now it's become a real collectible and people are paying whatever they need to buy it."

Although local artisans are creating fine reproductions, they can't quite match the originals. The vibrant hues of vintage tiles came from secret glazes, their formulas zealously protected and now lost. Colors like the deep blues and vibrant reds were achieved with the use of now-banned ingredients such as lead, cobalt and uranium.

Vintage tile, while available, is costly. Prices range from $30 to $200 for small, individual tiles, to the thousands and tens of thousands for tiled tables and murals.

"The bathrooms and fountains that people are tearing out when they remodel are worth $20,000 to $40,000," Wells said. But there's a catch. Once removed from the walls, even by professionals, the tiles lose most of their value.

"If they [homeowners] knew that, they might be a little slower with the sledgehammer," Wells says.

And if they knew Cristi Walden of Los Angeles, they might put the sledgehammer away. Walden, a specialist in Malibu Potteries tile and a contributor to the book "California Tile: The Golden Era," is ferocious in her defense of tile. "I don't want to come off as a tile nut, but here's the truth: Don't buy a vintage California house if all you're going to do is screw it up," she said. "Let someone who loves it and is going to take care of it have it. There are plenty of other houses; buy something else."

As an established tile expert, Walden gets calls every week from people wanting to know about the tile in their homes. Sometimes this has happy results, as it did for the family who recently learned that beneath the layers of paint in the living room lay a pristine Claycraft fireplace. "They loved the historical connection and restored the fireplace," Walden said. Others are motivated by money. "I had a call from someone who was working on a house in Beverly Hills and they wanted to take out all the tile in the bathroom because the daughter didn't like black," Walden said. She went over to see if the tile was worth saving and found an enormous Claycraft mural — two peacocks drinking from a birdbath.

"We hired someone to take it out but the family ended up keeping the mural after they learned how much it was worth," Walden said.

More often, however, the tile is lost.

"Every day, and I mean every day, somewhere in Los Angeles someone is tearing out historic and important California tile," Walden said. "Either they don't know or they don't care. We could save it. We could come in with the right tools and with enough time, we could save it. But people don't have the time or patience and this truly important part of our heritage is lost."

Walden pauses for a breath.

"Can I tell you how much that just kills me?"

*


Veronique de Turenne is a writer based in Los Angeles. She can be reached at home@latimes.com. * (Begin Text of Infobox) Is it Batchelder? * How does a homeowner know what tile treasures he or she may have? Discerning the differences among various types of tile is tricky. Even experts sometimes struggle. California art tiles fall into two categories. The Arts and Crafts-inspired "natural" look of tile makers such as Batchelder and Claycraft incorporated raised or incised designs on clay tile bodies, then covered them with monochromatic glazes. Batchelder tiles often depicted landscapes, sailing ships or Mayan motifs. The other type of tile is brighter and more colorful and includes the fanciful designs of makers such as Malibu Potteries and Catalina pottery. If you have questions about tile in your home, it's best to ask the experts. Websites such as http://www.tileheritage.org are devoted to education and preservation. Questions about tile can also be directed to members of the Tile Committee of the Malibu Lagoon Museum, at (310) 456-8432. * — Veronique de Turenne

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