16 East 41st Street: American Encaustic Tile Company
American Encaustic Tile Company Showroom
16 East 41st Street
Rich & Mathesius with Leon V. Solon, 1922 and later
The American Encaustic Tile Company’s (AETCO) showroom on East 41st Street is one of the most important buildings in the history of American ceramics. AETCO was founded in Zanesville, Ohio in the 1870s and by the early twentieth century had become the leading manufacturer of floor and wall tiles in the United States. This showroom was designed in 1922 to display the company’s tiles and, on the street, to advertise its wares to the public. It is, as Christopher Gray has stated, “a virtuoso rendition of the tilemaker’s art.” In the early 1920s, the row house at 16 East 41st Street was sold to AETCO and in 1922 it was transformed into the showroom. Although Rich & Mathesius is the architectural firm of record, the design of the facade was overseen by Leon Victor Solon, a preeminent color theorist who had recently been hired as the artistic director of the tile company (Solon later became a color adviser for Rockefeller Center). Solon, who had trained at the Royal College of Art in London, was especially interested in the use of color in ancient Greek architecture and developed his color theories from his research into this subject.
In an article that Solon wrote about the showroom in the November 1922 issue of Architectural Record he discussed the showroom design: “an opportunity presented itself for developing the value of tile or faïence for color effect in architecture . . . . In the facade, an effort was made to show that architectural detail could be given color interest without any of the garishness which the uninitiated imagine is a predominant attribute of glazed clay products.” The new facade for the showroom was covered in a pale yellow stucco that was then highlighted with multi-colored tiles creating, as Solon noted, “a restrained harmony of russet, black, Tuscan red, rich low-toned blue, cream and gold,” juxtaposed according to Greek principles. On the first floor, coved, round-arch windows were framed in tiles and the main entrance was surrounded by a tile enframement in a Greek fret pattern, capped by a frieze with rosettes, and a cornice crowned with an animal head. On the upper floors, pilaster capitals, cornices, and window frames are embellished with additional tiles. At some point later in the 1920s, additional tiles were added to the first-floor facade. Unfortunately, in the 1990s, a shopfront was cut into the ground floor, resulting in the loss of the lower portion of the windows and much of the late 1920s tilework. Other than this alteration, the facade is largely intact and is still one of the most usual street elevations in New York and an important monument to a major American manufacturer and to the ideas of a significant art theorist.
Gray, Christopher, “Streetscapes/The American Encaustic Tile Company Building at 16 East 41st Street: Terra Cotta Magic With a Polychromed Interior,” New York Times, July 20, 1997, sec. 9, 5.
Solon, Leon V., “The Display Rooms of a Tile Manufactory,” Architectural Record 52 (November 1922): 363- 370, plates.
“Tiles in New York,” http://tilesinnewyork.blogspot.com/2012/06/american-encaustic-tiling-company- part.html (accessed December 2012).