Architect John Eifler guided restoration of the tile-rich house that was the home of William Day Gates, founder of the American Terra Cotta & Ceramic Company. Eifler’s work on Trails End brings him full circle: “I grew up with a kid whose grandfather was Fritz Wagner, the modeler who became vice president of American Terra Cotta,” he reveals.
Louis Sullivan, mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright and often considered the father of modern architecture, figures in this story. At one point he worked at American Terra Cotta with renowned modeler Kristian Schneider. Together they developed the sinuous designs in terra cotta that became known as Sullivanesque ornament.
William Day Gates (1853–1935) was practicing law in Chicago when he returned to the Crystal Lake area of his childhood and invested in a tile works making bricks and drain tiles. In 1887, fire destroyed that factory. Gates rebuilt it, rebranding the company American Terra Cotta & Ceramic—the country’s first manufactory of architectural terra cotta: fireproof, versatile in color and texture, less expensive than stone. It was used to ornament the outside of buildings, from skyscrapers to movie theaters.
By 1895 Gates and company were experimenting with clays and glazes for art pottery. Some sources suggest that firing pots was a way to increase profits, as the pots filled spaces between the large, architectural elements in the kiln. Teco pottery (from a contraction of terra + cotta) was introduced commercially in 1902, gaining immediate favor with Prairie School architects. Just Art Pottery, a collectors’ site, says that architects Sullivan, Wright, and Elmslie designed Teco pots, though Gates himself was responsible for many of the 500 forms eventually produced.
Gates was influenced by the progressive philosophies of the time, including the Arts & Crafts Movement and concern over factory work conditions. According to the Crystal Lake Historical Society, “The factory employed hundreds of local men, many of whom were immigrants from … Sweden, Norway, Ireland, and Germany.” A 1915 newspaper article describes the company and its eponymous town this way: “Terra Cotta is a melting pot where the knowledge of all that is finest in art and architecture, chemistry and science, is through the magic touch of genius, transformed into building materials and pottery that rank among the highest examples of ceramic art.” As with Stickley’s factory, the work was a practical compromise between handcraft and mass production.
The smooth, micro-crystalline, matte glaze often called Teco Green was developed early and independently of the similar glaze used by Grueby. Samples of the ornamental terra-cotta work can be spotted in Chicago, including the Wrigley Building‚ and in downtown Crystal Lake.