The Jewels of Avalon : With Its Colorful, Distinctive Design, Catalina Tile Has Become a Hot Collector's Item

Times Staff Writer

Catalina blue. Descanso green. Toyon red. Manchu yellow.

Decorative tile in those shimmering hues is almost everywhere the eye alights in Avalon--its primitive-style artwork defining and highlighting the Santa Catalina Island town.

Once produced in a factory on the island, Catalina tile adorns the serpentine wall that snakes along Crescent Avenue, the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Gardens, the old Bird Park aviary, benches, storefronts, fountains and numerous homes and buildings around the town.

"Tile is really the jewelry of the city of Avalon," said Richard Thomas Keit, a ceramic artist from Thousand Oaks.

"It's the most distinctive architectural embellishment in town," said Keit, who has reproduced the tile's distinctive styles and colors in restoration projects for various buildings around town, including a striking 18-foot-tall mermaid mural at the entrance to the Casino Ballroom.

For only a decade, from 1927 to 1937, functional tile and decorative pottery were produced by residents at the Catalina Clay Products Co., where as many as 70 workers were employed, doing everything from collecting red clay from pits in the rugged interior to designing shapes and mixing colors, forming the clay into square tile or distinctly shaped pottery, firing it in kilns, and selling it at local tourist shops.

Today the pottery has become a collector's item, prized by aficionados for its distinctive glaze and colors. Around Avalon, most of the tiles are authentic but some, succumbing to age or the elements, have been replaced by high-quality reproductions.

Typically, Catalina decorative tiles depict pastoral island scenes or animals, most commonly brightly colored fish or birds, as in the murals at Bird Park. Other tiles are molded into abstract or Moorish-style patterns, in rounded or star-like shapes. Many emulate the Art-Deco style in vogue in the 1920s.

"The pottery," as the company was commonly known among islanders, had modest intentions when it was begun by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. through his Santa Catalina Island Co. The Wrigley family, which bought the 76-square-mile island through the company in 1919, deeded about 86% of it to the nonprofit Catalina Conservancy in 1975. Today, the company still owns about two-thirds of the land in Avalon and about 20% of the town's buildings.

The pottery's primary goals were to manufacture construction materials for the growing town--which was booming after its incorporation in 1914--and to provide employment for islanders during the Depression, said Lee Rosenthal, a board member of the Healdsburg, Calif.-based Tile Heritage Foundation. Rosenthal has researched the history of Catalina tile and pottery.

Malcolm Renton, who started working for the island company in 1929, said he helped oversee the pottery and other Wrigley operations.

"Mr. Wrigley was trying to make the island as self-sufficient as possible," said Renton.

Gloria Lopez, 77, an island native who still lives there, was one of those employees. In 1930, fresh out of Avalon High School, she accepted a job as a finisher at the factory to collect a $16 weekly paycheck.

"I was glad to get it," said Lopez. Her job involved lifting tiles and pottery into and out of the kiln and occasionally helping designers hand-paint scenes onto the pottery.

"It was a lot of fun but a lot of hard work," Lopez said.

The company, which was located on Pebbly Beach Road, concentrated at first on turning out roof and floor tiles, bricks and drainage tiles that were used in the construction of the Casino Ballroom, other Avalon buildings and Wrigley family homes and projects in Long Beach and in Phoenix, Ariz., Rosenthal said.

Around the early 1930s, the company began manufacturing decorative pottery, including festively decorated jars, vases, dinnerware and pitchers.

"The pottery was almost a cottage industry," Rosenthal said. "The islanders were employed throughout the Depression; it was something that kept the island going, and it was profitable for Wrigley."

Back then, the wares could be found at local tourist shops for a few dollars. The pottery was also shipped to the mainland for distribution to department stores nationwide, where, along with other California pottery, its bold colors and graphics proved a hit with consumers accustomed to the delicate patterns of fine imported china.

In 1937, however, the Wrigleys decided to sell the company, although the reasons for that decision have been obscured over the years.

According to Rosenthal, it was learned in the early 1930s that the red clay on the island was not hard enough to be durable, so the company had begun importing a white clay from Lincoln, Calif. That proved to be too expensive, so the Wrigleys decided to sell the company to the Gladding McBean pottery, a large factory on the mainland.

With the purchase of the company, Gladding McBean also acquired the rights to its molds, and continued to make the pottery under the Catalina name, said Bill Wyatt, the plant historian for Gladding McBean.

Rosenthal said Catalina pottery was produced on the mainland for about two years, although it was marked "Catalina Island Pottery," rather than "Catalina" or "Catalina Island," as it was marked when made on the island.

Kris Williamson, an Avalon collector who coordinates a display of the pottery at the Santa Catalina Island Co., said a combination of factors contributed to the pottery firm's demise, including a waning interest in Southwestern and Art Deco-influenced design.

"A lot of potteries at the time were faltering and going by the wayside," Williamson said.

Forgotten Treasures

Although the tile remained highly visible on buildings, Catalina pottery was largely forgotten as the years went by, tucked away in the back of cabinets, packed up in boxes or given away.

"Locals didn't think much about it," Williamson said. "It was in their cupboards, and their mothers had it and their grandmothers had it, and nobody thought of it becoming a collector's item."

Lopez said she collected a few pieces during her three years as a tile company employee, but didn't give much thought to their value.

"I foolishly gave it all away, because I went into the service and I didn't know if I would come back," Lopez recalls. "It was one of those things you didn't think was going to be that valuable."

Now, the tiles are back in vogue, historians and dealers say, and the increase in interest has led to escalating demand--and prices.

'Deep-Rooted Nostalgia'

"There's been a general increase in all the California pottery from that period," said Keit, the ceramic artist whose interest in tiles began during visits to Avalon as a boy, when he would make pencil rubbings of the elaborate patterns. "It's kind of a deep-rooted nostalgia for something of aesthetic value that has a local cultural significance to it."

The prices now commanded for Catalina pottery once used as everyday dinnerware are astounding to some longtime islanders.

A price list published by the company on Sept. 15, 1930, listed 6-by-6-inch decorated glazed tiles for sale at 25 cents each, plates for about $2, and vases from $1 to about $20, said Joe Taylor, president of the Tile Heritage Foundation.

Now, some vases are as much as $100, collectors and dealers say, and rare items, like a casino-shaped candy box or elaborate plates decorated with raised-relief sea horses or marlins, cost as much as $1,000. A 6-by-6-inch tile can cost $100 or more.

"It's a hot collector's item, people are scrambling, the prices are outrageous," said Patricia Moore, director and curator of the Catalina Island Museum, which maintains an exhibit of Catalina pottery.

Aficionados on Lookout

At a popular pottery sale and exhibition at the Glendale Civic Auditorium each year, "people are running around like crazy trying to collect all the Catalina (pottery) they can," Williamson said.

Al Nobel, who produces the Glendale pottery show, scheduled for Oct. 21 and 22, said the demand for Catalina and other American art pottery, as it is called, "has just gone ape" in the past 20 years.

"Nobody could have cared less" in the late 1960s, but now, Nobel said, "I can't believe the prices of the things."

Among the most sought-after items in the Catalina line are wooden and wrought-iron tables, whose tops are embedded with the tiles. Such tables cost about $25 when they were manufactured, but now sell for $1,000 or more.

Mary Le Masurier, co-owner of Keith's Pottery in Manhattan Beach, said it is difficult even to find original pottery in antique shops today.

The tiles are so renowned and so valuable that some people go to illegal lengths to get them.

At the Bird Park aviary, for example, which once housed a collection of exotic birds, tiles have been chipped away by would-be collectors. At the Catalina Visitor's Country Club, one valuable tile was even torn out of the wall of the men's room, said Taylor, of the Tile Heritage Foundation.

Often, such purloined tiles are damaged and prove unmarketable, collectors say.

"People make what I think is the unmistakably stupid mistake of trying to pry tiles off the wall with screwdrivers," artist Keit said. "It's a real shame."

The prospect of losing bits of history to vandalism is "really scary," Taylor said. "I think people who live on the island are very respectful of what they have and what their traditions are. . . . It's probably just tourists who are coming on the island for the weekend and cruising around."

Too Much to Protect

Because the tile is so ubiquitous in Avalon and is, in effect, public art on so many buildings around town, collectors and historians fear there is little that can be done to prevent attempts to pry it from buildings.

Its monetary value aside, sentimentality toward Catalina may also contribute to the pottery's popularity among collectors and tourists alike.

"I think Catalina is one of those places that is somewhat romantic and people that go there have a good time," Rosenthal said. "A lot of them like to have something that's from the island that brings back good memories."

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