The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1999, Volume 45, Number 4
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

by Alexander D. Bevil

Photographs from this article

[Winner of the Joseph L. Howard Award in Business History, San Diego Historical Society Institute of History 1999.]

The working of the earth to create useful and artistic objects is one of mankind’s oldest industries. Among these, glazed ceramic tile making, the manufacture of thin, flat slabs of vitrified clay to cover walls, floors, and roofs, is an ancient profession. Throughout its history, artisans, following time-honored traditions, have elevated tile making into an art form. Introduced to California by the Spanish, tile making was once prevalent throughout the state. This was especially true during the years prior to World War I. Almost every California town had its own cluster of art potteries producing local variants of ceramic tile. Among these was the California China Products Company (CCPCo) of National City. Originally established in 1911 to manufacture fine porcelain products, CCPCo earned nation-wide fame for its design and firing of brilliant, polychromatic Hispano-Mooresque-style faience tile. Their utilization in two landmark San Diego buildings contributed to the popularization of the Spanish Colonial Revival movement of the 1920s. Ironically, the company did not remain in business long enough to reap the rewards of the tile’s popularity. Problems with supply and labor forced its closure in 1917. However short-lived, CCPCo played an important part in influencing succeeding generations of California tile makers.1

Ever since 1875, San Diegans boasted that their county would be the “pottery capital of America.” Despite this unabashed boosterism, San Diego’s nascent ceramics industry remained quiescent for the next ten years. It was not until the development of San Diego’s railroad infrastructure in the mid-1880s that entrepreneurs began to exploit the regions clay resources. The November 1885 completion of a rail link between National City and a transcontinental railroad sparked a building boom in a number of towns along its right of way. That year the Elsinore Pottery and Fire Clay Company (EPFCCo) began manufacturing and shipping fired clay products from its plant near Lake Elsinore. Located in what is today Riverside County, EPFCCo mainly produced pipe, crockery, and refractive tile. However, it did manufacture some art pottery and decorative ceramic tile.2

The first attempt to establish a ceramic industry within the confines of the city of San Diego began three years later. In 1888, Henri and Wilfrida Fairweather operated a crude kiln out of their studio home at 241 17th Street. Christened “New Palissy,” the studio produced some high-quality art pottery pieces. Ever the optimists, local boosters again predicted that San Diego would exceed both Trenton, New Jersey and Cincinnati, Ohio, in the production of high-quality ceramic ware. Placed in stasis by a sudden downturn in the local economy, San Diego’s art pottery industry was dormant for another twenty-three years.3

After the turn of the century, the demand for ceramic products in San Diego steadily increased. Once again, as it had in the mid-1880s, San Diego experienced a wave of speculative growth. Its primary cause was the announcement in 1902 of the United States’ intention of building a canal through the Isthmus of Panama. The canal, scheduled for completion in 1914, would open the entire West Coast to trans-oceanic maritime traffic. Once again, San Diego’s boosters indulged themselves in hyperbole. With the opening of the canal, they argued, San Diego, with its magnificent harbor, would soon rival San Francisco and Seattle. Their optimism, plus aggressive national promotions, attracted a steady stream of newcomers. They in turn sparked a wave of commercial and residential building in San Diego and the surrounding area.4

An important component of this building included the use of ceramic tile and art pottery. Introduced nationally in the 1880s, encaustic or glazed tiles were used in a variety of ways. Found in private as well as commercial building, ceramic tile faced fireplace hearths and mantelpieces as well as on vestibule floors and wainscots. The progressive, health-conscious attitude prevalent in the early 1900s also led to their expanded use in kitchens and bathrooms. Endorsed by doctors, glazed tiles left no corners to harbor dirt and germs. As a result, home designers and builders included ceramic tiles on sink and lavatory countertops, wainscots, and floors.5 In addition to using ceramic tile, many homeowners and business people included decorative and utilitarian objects made from art pottery. A form of ceramic ware, art pottery included earthenware mixing bowls, storage jugs and jars, as well as highly prized porcelain figurines.6

While deposits of pottery-grade clay, feldspar, and quartz were known to exist in San Diego County, their inaccessibility made it necessary to import ceramic products from outside sources.7 The problem, however, was not unique to San Diego. In 1898, Joseph Kirkham, the founder of the Pacific Art Tile near Glendale, complained that most pockets of high-quality clay were often high up in surrounding mountains. Conditions were so primitive that the clay had to be carried down the mountain on mule back to the nearest railroad line.8

In San Diego, several important high-grade clay deposits were also hidden in the rugged surrounding mountains and foothills. One of these, a seam of porcelain-grade kaolin, was on the western flanks of El Cajon Mountain. Discovered in 1906, it was one of several noteworthy finds by prospecting mineralogist John H. McKnight. Thirteen years earlier, McKnight located a bed of non-plastic firebrick clay in Riverside County, the first of its kind to be discovered on the West Coast. Likewise, while on a 1902 business trip to El Paso, Texas, he happened upon an even larger deposit. Forming the El Paso Clay Company McKnight and his partners established a factory on-site to manufacture firebrick.9

McKnight gathered clay samples from the El Cajon Mountain deposit and took them to his Los Angeles laboratory. A trained chemist, as well as ceramist, he spent four years experimenting to develop the San Diego kaolin into viable porcelain products. He found it to be similar in chemical composition to that used to make the famous porcelains of France and China. McKnight eventually produced translucent “eggshell” porcelain that, he claimed, rivaled the renown Beleek art ware. He also fired porcelain high-tension insulators and vitrified sanitary whiteware that was “equal to the best in the world.”10

Based on his results, on April 17, 1911, McKnight, along with his partners Walter and Charles B. Nordhoff, formed the California China Products Company to manufacture high-quality porcelain primarily from the El Cajon deposit. In addition, the company would also manufacture earthenware and ceramic tile from clay deposits in San Diego and Lower California. The first porcelain factory west of Columbus, Ohio, California China Products would also be the only one in America to use clays gathered from its own deposits.11

To process the clay and manufacture their product, McKnight and his partners acquired a five-acre site in National City. Three miles south of San Diego, it had excellent harbor and rail facilities. Two blocks east of San Diego Bay, fronting 12th Avenue, the factory site was already serviced by its own railroad spur track. To take advantage of the harbor, California China Products would erect a private tramway to its own deep-water wharf. Local building contractors Clouse & Goodbody had built a corrugated iron shed on site to serve as a temporary office and tool house. Two larger, 10,000-square foot corrugated iron and concrete buildings were now under construction. They would be outfitted with standard china and pottery making machinery. Next to these, brick masons were constructing six high-temperature kilns around a 50-foot tall smokestack.12

The amount of building material going into the plant’s construction was staggering. Because the site sat on former marshland, the contractors had to lay two floating foundations. Over a foot thick, each twenty-four-foot wide reinforced concrete foundation would have to prevent the plant’s two huge, eighteen-foot diameter brick kilns from sinking into the soft earth. Built with over 30,000 bricks, their furnaces were lined with thousands of firebricks. Twenty thousand additional bricks went into the building of a huge smokestack. Due to the paucity of brick in San Diego, CCPCo had to import brick from Los Angeles. More than two tons of iron straps were also used to reinforce the kilns. Their iron door frames alone weighed over 900 pounds. Reportedly, the kilns’ 12,000-square foot capacity made them the largest tile kilns ever built in the United States at the time.13

In August 1911, CCPCo began shipping kaolin from their El Cajon Mountain mine to its plant in National City. A “glory hole,” the mine was a fifty-foot deep open pit interconnected by open cuts, shafts, and tunnels. Shoveling the powdery white clay into sacks, miners tied them onto the backs of mules. With each animal carrying a 150-pound pack, a line of thirteen mules began winding its way down the mountain. Following the leader along a looping three-mile long rock-strewn trail, the mules reached a point along the dry San Diego Riverbed. Here, handlers transferred the packs onto a large wagon, which was driven westward one and a half miles to the Lakeside train depot. Stacked on a waiting flatcar, they were taken the twenty miles or so to National City. Switched onto CCPCo’s spur track at 12th Street and 6th Avenue, the clay was unloaded into waiting bins. Reduced, mixed, and formed into different shapes, the clay would be fired into high-grade porcelain products.14

Before the clay could be fired, though, a number of problems had to be solved. First, the porcelain kiln was not quite ready for firing. Second, when it was finally fired up, a crack developed in a compressed air pump. The first actual firing occurred on Tuesday, November 14, 1911. Besides porcelain, the batch included yellow earthenware mixing bowls and mantle tile. Well received by the public, California China Product’s porcelain ware was sold under the brand name “Kaospar.” A contraction of “kaolin” and “feldspar,” it was coined by the company’s president and co-founder, Walter Nordhoff. 15

Although possessing a degree in mining engineering from Yale University, Walter Nordhoff had no practical experience in ceramic tile making. A journalist by trade, he had been a foreign correspondent for the New York Herald. Yet Nordhoff was not a stranger to the San Diego area, having arrived 30 years earlier with his father Charles. Father and son were passing through on their way to Lower California as the guests of the Mexican International Company. The trip would have an important part to play in Nordhoff’s decision to co-found the California China Products Company.16

An Anglo-American real estate investment firm, the Mexican International Company held over eighteen million acres of land in the northern part of the Baja California peninsula. As their guest, they escorted the Nordhoffs throughout their holdings. A noted writer, Charles Nordhoff had written one of the most popular and influential books on California: California: A Book for Travelers and Settlers. Published in 1872, it described California as the proverbial “land of milk and honey.” The book’s glowing report, along with a rate war between two rival transcontinental railroads into the state during the late 1880s, helped to stimulate migration to California such as had not been seen since the Gold Rush.17 The directors of the Mexican International Company were hoping that Nordhorff’s new book, Peninsula California, to be published in 1887, would have the same effect on Lower California’s development as his previous book had. For his efforts, the company gave Nordhoff a 50,000-acre tract of a land some fifteen miles south of the port of Ensenada. Fronting the Todos Santos Bay, Rancho Ramajal became the home of three generations of Nordhoffs.18

Charles Nordhoff had asked his son Walter to manage the ranch. Eager to live the life of a ranchero Americano, Walter Nordhoff quit his position at the New York Herald and moved his family to Mexico. Arriving by train in 1890, they stayed overnight at the newly built Hotel del Coronado before taking the steamer to Ensenada. His wife Sarah harbored certain misgivings. She wondered if they made the right decision. Born to a well-to-do Philadelphia family, she definitely did not consider herself of frontierswoman stock. More important, would their three-year old son, London-born Charles Bernard, adapt to life on the Baja peninsula?19

The mother’s fears were completely groundless. Like his father, young Charles relished life at the ranch. Together, they rode the range on horseback, hunted in the chaparral-covered hills, and fished on the bay. Growing up close to the land and sea, Charles developed a free and independent character. His mother’s initial fears about his adapting to ranch life soon turned to apprehension that he was “going native.” Convinced that the only cure would be proper schooling in a “civilized” country, Sarah Nordhoff persuaded her husband to move the family back to the United States. Reluctantly leaving the ranch in the hands of caretakers, the Nordhoffs moved to west Los Angeles. Charles commuted to and then boarded at the Pasadena Classical School for Boys. Hating every moment of the school’s regimented lifestyle, he lived for summer vacation, when he and his father would return to their beloved ranch. Back at Rancho Ramajal, Charles reverted back into a young vaquero. Ten years old, he was already a crack shot. On the whitewashed adobe walls of his bedroom, overlooking his rawhide-laced bed, were the mounted heads of a buck, bighorn sheep, and two antelope. He also became quite a sailor, learning how to handle a twenty-five-foot sailboat on Todos Santos Bay. From the foredeck of the Zarapico, his father taught him how to spear the bay’s giant sea turtles.22

Feeling pressured by the ever-expanding city of Los Angeles, in 1898 Nordhoff moved his family inland to Redlands. However, they would spend their summers at their cottage on Terminal Island near San Pedro. Here the Nordhoffs, with Charles, his younger brother and two sisters, frolicked on the beach or sailed across Wilmington Harbor.21

After graduating from high school in 1905, Charles, following more his mother’s wishes than his own, enrolled at Stanford. College life almost killed him, literally. On April 18, 1906, he was awakened by falling plaster. Dashing out of his bedroom, the walls of his fraternity house buckled and crumbled around him. Unknown to him at the time, Charles was experiencing the Great San Francisco earthquake. Instead of returning home like so many others, he organized relief efforts among his fellow fraternity brothers. Rushing to San Francisco, they set up a soup kitchen to feed those made homeless by earthquake. In his excitement, though, he had failed to notify his family that he was all right. When he finally did arrive home some days later, his distressed mother sought to remove him as far away from danger as possible. Charles would no longer attend Stanford; he was now a Harvard man.22

Far less exciting, the Ivy League held less stimuli for Charles’ academic ambitions than Stanford ever did. Keeping mostly to himself, he was an average student. Almost prophetically the only subject in which he excelled was a course in prospecting and mining. Coincidentally, his father had acquired his degree in mining engineering from Yale in 1879. Charles romantically entertained the though that, once he got back to the ranch, he would prospect for gold.23 After barely graduating from Harvard in 1909, Charles found a position as a supervisor of a sugar-cane plantation at Vera Cruz, Mexico. Everything went well until, infatuated with the owner’s beautiful daughter, he asked permission to court her. Told that she loved another, he left the plantation brokenhearted. It was well that he did. The following year, Mexico, convulsed by revolution, was a dangerous place for foreign nationals, especially land-owning “gringos.”24

Across the Sea of Cortez, revolution rocked the Baja peninsula. In April 1911, rebel forces launched an ambitious campaign to capture the peninsula. After taking nearby Tecate, revolutionaries threatened to march on Ensenada. Many foreign nationals, including Walter Nordhoff, retreated north across the border into the United States. Cut off from his ranch, and its income, he was forced to find other means to support himself and his family. It was during this time of personal crisis that he met John H. McKnight. Asking his son Charles, now back in Redlands, to help organize the company, the three founded and organized the California China Products Company.25

Seeking to produce some of the finest porcelain and earthenware on the West Coast, Walter Nordhoff, as the company’s president, hired some of the best potters, ceramists, and glaziers then working in California. One of the best was Wesley H. Trippett. A native of New York City, he had worked as a metalworker for Tiffany and other New York art studios. Contracting tuberculosis in 1895, he moved to Southern California’s dryer climate. Like the Nordhoffs, he settled near Redlands. Learning of the excellent clay deposits nearby, he founded Redlands Pottery in 1904. The earliest known art pottery studio in Southern California, it specialized in hand-molded earthenware featuring “subjects peculiar to this coast,” such as native plants and animals. Trippett’s ceramic art ware featured a thin color wash. Suggesting a copper or bronze patina, it was a holdover from his metalworking days. Weakened by tuberculosis, however, he could no longer operate the studio. After selling it in 1911, Nordhoff asked him if he would head his company’s art and china departments. Accepting the offer, Trippett would be responsible for designing a line of vases, decorative porcelain, and mantel tile.26

Another brilliant ceramist working for Nordhoff was Walter G. de Steiguer. A graduate of M. I. T., the 28-year-old Missourian was a mining engineer who specialized in ceramic glazes. Close in age and disposition to Charles Nordhoff, they became close friends. The two of them, along with Charles’ younger brother Franklin, hunted, fished, and camped in San Diego’s backcountry. Having a direct involvement with the plant’s operation, all three shared a rented house nearby. An old family retainer kept the three bachelors in check.27

Despite initial delays, California China Products produced its first batch of ceramic ware by November 1911. Their product well received by the pubic, Nordhoff and McKnight hoped to produce porcelain-handled tableware, Beleek and Rockingham-style art pottery, as well as enameled and glazed faience floor and wall tiles. On the utilitarian side, the plant would produce insulated high voltage electrical fixtures, vitrified sanitary ware, and earthenware bowls and plates.28 Unfortunately, a serious problem arose that had a profound effect on the company: the kaolin from El Cajon Mountain ultimately proved to be of inferior quality. The failure of the clay to live up to his expectations may have caused a rift between McKnight and the Nordhoffs. Claiming that his ailing wife needed to be in a dryer climate, in May 1912 McKnight left to supervise the El Paso Clay Company.29

Walter de Steiguer, California China Product’s new vice-president, replaced McKnight and took over the company’s testing laboratory. If CCPCo wished to continue manufacturing high-quality porcelain products, de Steiguer would have to find alternative sources of porcelain-grade kaolin. As an inducement to acquire new sources of clay, CCPCo placed ads in local newspapers asking prospectors to send clay samples to its laboratory for free testing. Adding to the company’s problems was the death of Trippett, having finally succumbed to chronic tuberculosis in 1913. His death, plus the high expense involved in importing kaolin, forced the company to practically cease production of its chinaware. To compensate, Nordhoff redirected his ceramists and potters to use lesser-grade clays and expand the production of matt-glazed enameled faience tile.30 Originating from the tin-glazed ornamental earthenware of Faenza, Italy, faience tile was becoming extremely popular in use as both interior and exterior wall facing. Possessing rich, deep colors, “Kaospar” matt finish faience tile featured a tough, durable surface that could withstand wear, moisture, and corrosion.31

While focusing its efforts on manufacturing ceramic tile, CCPCo’s managers did not entirely abandon the production of ceramic artware. Walter Nordhoff had a unique arrangement with noted local art potters Herman and Kenneth Markham. Formerly of Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1913 the Markhams relocated to National City. After Nordhoff had personally invited them to tour his plant, they agreed to work there. However, their operations were entirely independent of CCPCo’s management. The Markhams produced exquisite mosaic-pattern Reseau and web-like Arabesque ware, receiving a gold medal at the 1915 San Diego Panama-California International Exposition. Two years later, however, they moved to their own studio and kiln.32

Spearheading CCPCo’s transition to faience tile was head tilewright Fred H. Wilde. Director of the company’s tile department since 1911, he was one of the most experienced and respected ceramists in the state. A native of Brosley, England, the fifty-five-year-old Wilde was the son of a Shropshire tilewright who had pioneered the manufacture of vitreous clay tile. Learning his father’s trade, Wilde worked for a time at, Maw and Company where he specialized in dust-pressed floor tile. Coming to the United States 1885, he worked for several tile-manufacturing companies on the East Coast. While working at the Robertson Art Tile Company he helped develop a line of glazes and a popular style of white tile. Dissatisfied in the way the company was being run, he left it in 1903 for Southern California.33

Arriving at Tropico, a small artist colony outside Glendale, Wilde went to work at the Pacific Art Tile Company. He had previously worked for its founder, Joseph L. Kirkham, while at the Providential Tile Company in Trenton, New Jersey. Having a deep regard for his work, Wilde looked forward to working under him. When he got to Pacific Art Tile, though, Kirkham no longer owned the company. Nonetheless, the new owners hired Wilde as plant superintendent. Unfortunately for Wilde, they had no idea as how to run a ceramics business. Equipping the plant with inferior equipment and supplies, they had been unable to meet an order in over five years. Expecting him to perform miracles, they constantly chided Wilde for the plant’s continued lack of production. Disgusted with having to take the blame for their ineptness, Wilde left the plant in 1909. For the next two years, he owned and operated a small-scale ceramic tile plant before coming to CCPCo.34

Working under a contract system he helped set up, Wilde agreed to produce a specific number of products at a fixed price. CCPCo would supply the raw materials and use of its tile making facilities. It would then purchase and market the goods. Owing to the narrow margin of profit in the ceramic business, this arrangement was better than the company having to pay his salary outright. Collaborating with de Steiguer and others at CCPCo, Wilde experimented with diverse clay compounds, glazes and firings to produce some of the finest tiles ever made in modern times.35

Marketed vigorously by the tile department’s sales manager Eugene Parker, CCPCo’s new Kaospar-brand matte glazed faience tiles were well received. Their rich deep colors, protected by a thick, durable finish, were dust, water, and mar resistant. Practically scuff-proof, the colorful tile enhanced interior flooring, countertops, fireplace hearths, and wainscots. Due to its superior water-repellent qualities, it excelled as a treatment for outdoor porch, patio, terrace, wall, and roof surfaces.36 Impressed by the tile’s excellent decorative and armor-like protective characteristics, architects immediately began to specify Kaospar-brand faience tiles in their project designs. As the orders came in, CCPCo was hard-pressed to keep up with the demand. Three particular orders, while stretching the plant’s tile making capacities to maximum, would secure its place in architectural history.37

The first order was for over 10,000 highly decorative Hispano-Mooresque-style ceramic tiles for the buildings of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Organized on September 3, 1909, the exposition would celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal, and San Diego’s potential. Seeking to evoke the roots of San Diego’s Hispanic past, supervising architect Bertram G. Goodhue envisioned the exposition as a romanticized Spanish city along a tree lined Prado. Although in vogue since the turn of the century, it would be the first use of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture on such a grand scale in the United States.38

Prior to the 1915 Exposition, Mission Revival had been the benchmark of “Spanish” style architecture. Modeled after the adobe and stone Franciscan missions of 16th to 18th century California and the American Southwest, Mission Revival found its way indiscriminately on resort hotels, railroad depots, apartment buildings, and homes. Having reached its apex by 1910, critics, Goodhue included, now debased it as a “bastard architecture.” The fusion of crude, cheap, and temporary frontier building styles, they regarded it as completely inappropriate for the design of modern buildings. If the Spanish had remained in California a few centuries longer, they reasoned, they would not have continued to use it. Rather, they would certainly have built larger, more permanent structures as seen in Mexico and other parts of the Spanish Empire. In the case of the San Diego exposition, it would be as if the Spanish had never left. Interpreted by Goodhue as “Southern California Hispanic,” the building would reflect the historic architecture of Spain, Italy, North Africa, and other Mediterranean countries, albeit adapted to modern use.39

Besides serving as consulting architect, Goodhue designed one of the exposition’s landmark buildings. His design of the California State Building was a free adaptation of several Spanish buildings. Goodhue had borrowed the building’s rib-domed rotunda and side rooms from the parish church of Santa Prisca and San Sebastian at Taxco, Mexico. He also modeled its tiered tower after the Mozarabe and Mudejar cathedral towers of Cordoba and Seville’s Giralda. The California State Building was the anchor to the “Pacific Quadrangle,” the formal walled entrance to the exposition grounds. In the brilliant light of the California sun, hundreds of polychromatic faience tiles shone off the massive sixty-foot high dome, with its vibrant abstract starburst designs, and the 180-foot tower. Now occupied by the Museum of Man, it is regarded as the “Crown Jewel” of Balboa Park.40

The second tile order was for San Diego’s new Santa Fe Railway Depot. Designed by the San Francisco-based architectural firm of Blakewell and Brown, it was completed in 1914 just in time for the opening of the exposition. The largest railway station building in the nation used by a single carrier, it was also the first successful adaptation of Spanish Colonial Revival in a modern commercial building.41

Like Goodhue, Blakewell and Brown designed the Santa Fe Depot in a totally unique Southern California Hispanic style. Borrowing elements from California’s missions, Latin American churches, and Roman basilicas, its most notable feature is also the prodigious use of CCPCo Hispano-Mooresque tile. Inside the station’s cavernous waiting room, along the east and west walls, are tiled wainscots covered in rich geometric patterns of green, blue, yellow, white, and black. In each of their pilasters, set in green and black tile on a blue background, is the famous cross and logo emblem of the Santa Fe Railway. Other decorative features include green leaf and yellow squash flower-patterned tiles, interwoven light blue Moorish strap pattern panels, and an interwoven hexagonal chain of yellow-tinged tile. Framing the composition are twin horizontal friezes of alternating golden-yellow and medium blue stylized ziggurats along the wainscot’s top and bottom. All of these effects combine to give the feeling of viewing a fine Persian rug. Between the wainscots, although worn by eighty-two years of foot traffic, the original matte glaze floor or quarry tiles still perform yeoman duty.42

Besides the main passenger waiting room, the depot featured other examples of the California China Products’ work. Installed by the, San Diego Tile and Woodstone Company, CCPCo tile could be found on the countertops, floors, and wainscots of the depot’s Harvey Eating House dining room.43 CCPCo’s artisans also designed, and San Diego Tile and Woodstone installed a wall map of the railway’s complete system. Made entirely of faience tile, it depicted the company’s rail lines from Chicago to the Pacific. Bordered by raised tiles, the map consisted of over 280 six-inch square matte glazed colored tiles. Seal brown lines delineated the states served by the railroad, with each state cast in soft, light shades of buff, pearl gray, lavender gray, and green. Small white circled red dots, interconnected by matte black lines, showed the larger cites and important junction points. The names of the cities and towns, projecting slightly from the map’s surface, were in heavy brown-black-colored tile, with those of the states in seal brown. Furthermore, rivers and lakes were cast in light blue, while the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean were colored dark ultramarine blue. Critics likened the map’s multi-hued surface to the Japanese method of cloisonn? decoration, in which the different enamel colors, separated by the thin ceramic ridges, formed the tile’s surface decoration. The map’s artistry and utility soon attracted widespread attention. A visitor to San Diego could use the color-coordinated map to locate his hometown station. Likewise, a traveler could consult the map to find the best way to reach his destination.44 Unfortunately, both the dining room and the tile wall map are gone: victims to “modernization.” Yet, the map’s legacy may linger on. Restorers of National City’s historic Santa Fe Depot (1881) plan to create its own tile map, displaying that town’s own historic rail network on a wall near the depot.45

Despite the loss of the wall map and dining room, architecturally, San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot still holds its own. One of the attributes contributing to its landmark status is the pair of twin-domed towers flanking the south portal’s great entry arch. Covered by zigzag patterns of blue, yellow, green, and white faience tile, the domes shine like fine enameled jewelry. Worked into their design are eight cross and logo emblems of the Santa Fe System. The domes are similar in design and spirit to the California State Building’s great dome. Bakewell and Brown reportedly used it as a model for their own design.46

Concurrent with the production of tile for the San Diego exposition and the depot, California China Products was hard-pressed to fill an equally prestigious order. In 1913, its East Coast agent, Henry Gardner of New York City, called in an order for 4,000 square feet of faience tile. The tile would be installed on the first floor corridor, foyer, and vestibule of the New York State Building at San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The building’s designer, New York architect Charles B. Meyers, specified CCPCo matt glaze-finished Koaspar Faience tile for its rich depth of color, attractive shades, and tough surface coat. The tile’s checkerboard pattern would consist of thousands of six by six-inch square black and white tiles. Each square consisted of sixteen tiles, with a corresponding tile border. Included in the order were round commemorative ceramic plaques, some of which would be placed in the State capitol at Albany, New York, after the exposition’s closing.47

For its part, California China Products was the first ceramic tile factory in the nation to successfully adapt ancient techniques to produce polychromatic ceramic tile on such a massive scale. After many experiments with firing different clay varieties and glazes, CCPCo’s ceramists, tile makers, and glaziers, working with architects like Goodhue, produced an authentic representation of historic Hispano-Mooresque faience tile.48 The production of decorative tile at CCPCo involved a number of intricate steps. Any deviation from the normal pattern could result in the ruin of an entire run. Heated at high temperatures in a “calculator,” the clay experienced a loss of moisture, the reduction of oxygen, and the decomposition of carbonates and other compounds. Boiled in huge 1,200-pound capacity machines, the clay was then subjected to various milling and mixing until reduced to a fine powder. Moistened slightly, the powdered clay passed through a great blower fan that mixed it into the consistency of damp dust. Similar to forming pressed brick, tilewrights dry-pressed the clay under heavy pressure in steel dies. Because tile is much thinner and delicate than brick, the tilers had to hand press the damp clay in metal forms. Using a giant wheel and screw, the clay was subjected to forty tons of pressure per square inch. This process reduced the clay’s moisture content to only 10 per cent.49

Stacked on high racks, the “green” tiles were carried into the plant’s 1,140-square foot drying room. Warmed by an outside heat source, they dried slowly and evenly some forty-to-sixty days to avoid warping. Leather-hard, they were still plastic enough for decorating. Tilewrights again hand-pressed the tiles with wooden patterns, creating various relief decorations bordered by raised lines.50 The tiles were then moved into the neighboring 1,200-square foot sagger room. Packed in protective casings of fire clay or “saggers,” these prevented damage to tiles during firing. Each sagger was then stacked in twelve foot-high rows inside the plant’s “biscuit” kiln. Once filled, the kiln was sealed with an eighteen-inch thick firebrick door. A kiln operator then lit eight crude oil burners in the kiln’s firebox. Compressed air vents pushed the heat upward through holes in the kiln’s walls. A system of bottom vents drew the heat and waste gases out to the plant’s massive stack.51

For the next two days, the operator slowly raised the kiln’s internal temperature to prevent any tiles from cracking. On the third day he turned the burners on full blast. This raised the core temperature between 2,500o and 2,700o Fahrenheit — the heat so intense the core glowed bright orange. Overseeing the firing required great skill and constant vigilance. Once ignited, the kiln developed a momentum and inertia all its own. Similar to a nuclear reactor, the kiln’s core temperature could easily get out of control if it increased too quickly. On the other hand, dropping the temperature below 2,500o Fahrenheit could ruin the entire firing. After thirty-six to forty-eight hours, the burners were shut off. As the kiln cooled, the interior slowly turned black. Once completely cooled, workers dismantled the fire brick door. If the firing went well, the biscuit tile emerged from the kiln a uniform buff color. The ceramist would then rap one of the tiles with a hard object; if he heard a clear ring, it was perfect.52

Though hard, a fired tile’s surface is still porous enough to hold a glaze. Following ancient Andalusian Spanish pottery techniques, glaziers, usually young women, poured “slip,” a milky mixture of suspended clay and water, into the tile’s surface depressions. The depressions’ raised lines prevented the colored slips from blending with each other. Workers then placed the slipped tile back into saggers. This time, however, little racks of fire clay prevented their faces from coming in contact with other tiles. The saggers were then rolled into the gloss kiln where the tile was heated to 2,150o Fahrenheit. Again, care had to be given to maintain this temperature. A variation of twenty degrees up or down would spoil the entire run. Colored by materials in the solution, fluxes in the melted slip formed a natural glaze that bonded closely to the tile body.53

The final part of the tile making process involved applying the glaze coat. Dippers coated the tile’s decorated surface with an opaque glaze solution. Fired again, silicates in the glaze fused into an extremely hard, glossy vitreous coating, providing a practically indestructible, water and fireproof surface. Unlike earlier matte finish tile, their glaze was devoid of reflective “highlights” that obscured surface designs in reflective sunlight. After cooling, defective pieces were removed. Sorted, packed into crates, the tiles were stored in the plant’s warehouse, awaiting delivery.54

CCPCo-brand faience tile practically revolutionized Southern California’s architectural landscape. As mentioned previously, its introduction coincided with the emergence of the Spanish Colonial Revival movement in Southern California, the southwestern states, and Florida. The tile’s brilliant colors, luster, and durability met the demand for the movement’s colorful interpretation of Hispano-Mooresque architecture.55 Ironically, despite their initial success, the Nordhoffs were never able to capitalize on the demand their own tile created.

Several factors led to CCPCo’s failure. The first was the perennial problems involved in acquiring and shipping raw material, which had become more and more difficult and expensive to find and ship by rail. The second involved the training and retention of skilled workers. Due to the war in Europe, workers were attracted to the higher salaries offered by the growing number of war-related industries. Thirdly, both Walter and Charles B. Nordhoff never really considered tile making as their life’s ambition. Charles in particular regarded the business as too confining. Unlike most entrepreneurs, he thought little of the pursuit of fame or fortune, which was, to him, somehow, vulgar. In the fall of 1916, he left the company and sailed for Europe. Charles would rather seek his destiny as a volunteer ambulance driver in the French army, than in selling tile. Besides, he never got used to the clay dustÐit always made him sick. In the fall of 1916, he left the company and sailed for Europe. Charles survived the war as a decorated fighter pilot.56

After the war, Nordhoff and fellow pilot Captain James Norman Hall co-authored the history of the Lafayette Escadrille. Cashing in on the book’s royalties, they relocated to Tahiti, where they wrote a series of island-related articles for Harper’s Weekly. Their interest in the island and its history resulted in a series of historical novels depicting the 1789 mutiny on board the H.M.S. Bounty and its aftermath. All three novels, Mutiny on the Bounty, Men Against the Sea, and Pitcairn’s Island, became best sellers, and the basis for a major motion picture in 1935.57 Nordhoff eventually returned to California, where he and his second wife settled in Santa Barbara. During the 1930s, Nordhoff worked for a while in Hollywood as a scenario writer for the movie The Tuttles of Tahiti. He died in his sleep on April 11, 1947, the victim of an apparent heart attack.58

Walter Nordhoff’s association with the California China Products Company only lasted for one year after his son had left for France. To fill the gap left by his departure, he hired Rufus Keeler as plant superintendent. Formerly of Gladding, McBean & Company of Lincoln, California, Keeler, a ceramic designer, worked at CCPCo until 1917.59 With the entry of the United States into the war in April of that year, the plant could no longer get its supply of fuel oil. Disgusted, Walter Nordhoff sold out his interests to the company’s trustees. They in turn sold most of CCPCo’s equipment as part of a stock exchange to the West Coast Tile Company [WCTCo] of Vernon, California. The largest producer of white tile ware on the West Coast, WCTCo’s plant at 52nd and Alameda streets began to produce and market polychromatic faience tile under the “Kaospar”/”WCTCo” brand. Two years later, the American Encaustic Tiling Company of Zanesville, Ohio, took over West Coast Tile Company’s operations. In doing so, American Encaustic subsequently acquired the use of CCPCo’s former molds, presses, and glazes, as well as the rights to the “Kaospar” trade name.60

Free from the tile making business, fifty-nine year old Walter Nordhoff retired. Although he still owned the ranch in Lower California, Mexico was still wracked by open revolution. Like his son, he also chose to retire in Santa Barbara, where he too began to write. Quietly, in 1933 he published The Journey of the Flame. Regarded as a modern classic of California literature, it was published under the pseudonym, Antonio de Fierro Blanco [Anthony of the White Brand]. The modest Nordhoff did not want to trade on the names of his more famous father and son. Another reason was that the novel told of three centuries of customs, manners, and change in a ranch like Rancho Ramajal. Because of this, he did not wish to jeopardize his tenuous hold on the property. Walter Nordhoff passed away in his Santa Barbara home in 1937. He too is buried at Redlands.61

And what of the others associated with California China Products Company? Walter de Steiguer remained a close friend of the Nordhoff family. He also helped to perpetuate the myth of Fierro Blanco by being credited as the novel’s English translator.62 Whether or not he made a contribution to the tile making industry after CCPCo remains a mystery.

Fred J. Wilde left CCPCo in late 1916 to become director of the pottery department at the Arequipa Tuberculosis Sanatorium. Founded in 1911 north of San Francisco, the department offered pottery classes that provided therapeutic occupations for women convalescing at the Sanatorium. At Arequipa, Wilde changed its emphasis from vases to Spanish-style tiles, no doubt influenced by his work at CCPCo. He remained there until its closure in November 1918, after which, he moved to Glendale to retire. His retirement was somewhat short-lived, in 1922 the Pomona Tile Manufacturing Company enticed Wilde to come work for them. The senior ceramic engineer stayed with the company until retiring again in 1940. Fred H. Wilde died three years later of pneumonia.63

Wilde’s replacement at California China Products, Rufus Keeler, left that company sometime in 1917. Relocating to Huntington Park, a Los Angeles suburb, he formed his own ceramics company, Southern California Clay Products, which specialized in the production of chemical storing stoneware, vats, and containers. One of the few suppliers of such goods, the business flourished. In 1921 or 1922 Keeler went on to found the California Clay Products Company in nearby South Gate. Better known as CALCO, the plant developed an exceptional variety of glazed, unglazed, and decorative art tiles. It is not known what effect, if any, Keeler’s short-lived association with CCPCo had on their design. In 1926, Keeler sold his interests in CALCO to co-found another tile company, Malibu Potteries with May Knight Rindge. Malibu Potteries became a well-known producer of decorative tile for many homes, businesses, and public buildings throughout Southern California. In 1931 a disastrous fire ravaged the plant, and in the midst of the Great Depression, Keeler decided not to reopen the factory. The following year, he returned to South Gate where he collaborated with Dr. Andrew Malinovsky. Tragically, a lab accident led to Keeler’s death due to heart failure in 1934. With his death at age forty-nine, California lost one of the finest ceramists in the country.64

Through pioneering ceramists and tile makers like Keeler, Wilde, and de Steiguer, the California China Products Company has made its mark on California’s tile heritage. Despite its brief six-year life span, CCPCo was one of the most innovative tile manufacturers in California. Its matte finish faience tile set the standard for succeeding generations of tilewrights. Incorporated in two San Diego landmarks, CCPCo’s Kaospar brand Hispano-Mooresque tile helped to spark the Spanish Colonial Revival movement of the 1920s. More than a trivial footnote, the California China Products Company’s legacy should be regarded as an important page in the history of California’s once vibrant tile making industry.


1. Joseph A. Taylor, “Creating Beauty from the Earth: The Tiles of California,” in The Arts and Crafts Movement in California: Living the Good Life, Kenneth R. Trapp, ed. (New York: Abbeville Press, 1993), 109-113; and Hazel V. Bray, The Potter’s Art in California, 1885 to 1955 (Oakland: The Oakland Museum, 1980), 1.

2. Bruce Kamerling, “The Arts and Crafts Movement in San Diego.” in The Arts and Crafts Movement in California, 215; James N. Price, The Railroad Stations of San Diego County: Then and Now (San Diego: Price & Sieber, 1988; revised 1989), 7; and Lee Gustafson and Phil Serpico, Santa Fe Coast Line Depots: Los Angeles Division (Palmdale: Omni Publications, 1992), 138.

3. Kamerling, “The Arts and Crafts Movement,” 215.

4. Richard F. Pourade, The History of San Diego, vol. 5, Gold in the Sun (San Diego: The Union-Tribune Publishing Company, 1965), 34.

5. Jan Jennings and Herbert Gottfried, American Vernacular Interior Architecture: 1870-1940 (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1988; reprint, Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1993), 74 and 100.

6. Waldemar F. Dietrich, The Clay Resources and the Ceramic Industry of California, Bulletin 99 (San Francisco: State of California Division of Mines and Mining, January 1928), 26-31.

7. Frederick J. H. Merrill, Geology and Mineral Resources of San Diego and Imperial Counties (San Francisco: California State Mining Bureau, 1914), 56.

8. Taylor, “Creating Beauty from the Earth,” 111.

9. “China Ware Equal to Belleek,” National City News, 22 July 1911, 1.

10. Ibid.

11. State of California, “Articles of Incorporation of the California China Products Company” (Sacramento: Office of the Secretary of State, 10 June 1911), 2; and “The California China Products Company,” San Diego Union, 12 January 1912, 5.

12. “To Manufacture Floor and Wall Tiling, National City News, 21 June 1911, 1; “Construction to Be Rushed,” Ibid., 17 June 1911, 1; and “Enlarging China Factory,” Ibid., 14 June 1912, 1.

13. “Enlarging China Factory,” National City News, 14 June 1912, 1; “Big Brick Stack,” Ibid., 24 May 1912, 1.

14. Paul L. Briand, Jr., In Search of Paradise: The Nordhoff-Hall Story (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1966), 147; “Installing Machinery in California China Products Factory,” National City News, 12 August 1911, 1; and Dietrich, Clay Resources, 201-202.

15. “Factory in Readiness, National City News, 28 October 1911, 1; “Great Factory Rising on Bay Front Site,” Ibid., 18 November 1911, 1; “Big Brick Stack” and “More Machinery for Pottery,” Ibid., 31 February 1912, 1; and “‘Kaospar’ Adopted and Registered As Trademark of California China Products Company,” Ibid., 18 November 1911, 1.

16. “Personal,” San Diego Union, 9 October 1881, 3; and Lawrence Clark Powell, California Classics: The Creative Literature of the Golden State (Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1971), 19.

17. Richard F. Pourade, The History of San Diego, vol. 4, The Glory Years (San Diego: The Union-Tribune Publishing Company, 1964), 95, 100; “A Veteran Journalist,” San Diego Union, 15 July 1901, 5; and Powell, California Classics, 18.

18. Powell, California Classics, 19.

19. Briand, In Search of Paradise, 130-132.

20. Ibid., 133.

21. Ibid., 137.

22. Ibid., 138, 144.

23. Ibid., 144.

24. Ibid., 145.

25. Ibid.; Articles of Incorporation, 2; and “China Ware Equal to Belleek,” National City News, 22 July 1911, 1.

26. Karen J. Weitze, “Utopian Place Making: the Built Environment in Arts and Crafts California,” in The Arts and Crafts Movement in California, 80; Leslie Greene Bowman, “The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Southland,” in The Arts and Crafts Movement in California, 199-200; Kamerling, “The Arts and Crafts Movement,” 218; “Pottery Expert Heads Art Department,” National City News, 13 January 1912, 1; and “Enormous Value in Clay Products,” National City News, 30 December 1911, 1.

27. “McKnight Leaves,” National City News, 11 May 1912, 1; Briand, In Search of Paradise, 146; and Kamerling, “The Arts and Crafts Movement,” 21.

28. “Great Factory Rising on Bay Front Site,” National City News, 18 November 1911, 1; “The California China Products Company,” 1.

29. “McKnight Leaves,” National City News, 11 May 1912, 1.

30. “McKnight Leaves,” 1; “Clays & Spars,” National City News, 3 February 1912, 6; Briand, In Search of Paradise, 147; and Kamerling, “The Arts and Crafts Movement,” 218.

31. “Kaospar Matte Glazed Faience Tile,”National City News, 22 August 1914, 3; and Noel Riley, Tile Art: A History of Decorative Ceramic Tiles (Secaucus, New Jersey: Chartwell Books, 1987), 47.

32. Kamerling, “The Arts and Crafts Movement,” 218-219.

33. Lynn Alison Downey, “Fred H. Wilde: His Life and Work,” part I, Flash Point 1 (January-March 1988): 1, 4.

34. Lynn Alison Downey, “Fred H. Wilde: His Life and Work,” part II, Flash Point 1 (April-September 1988): 1, 5 -6; and Taylor, “Creating Beauty from the Earth,” 111.

35. “Tile Expert Arrives,” National City News, 30 September 1911, 1.

36. “Kaospar Matt Glazed Faience Tile, 1; “Los Angeles” The Mantel Tile and Grate Monthly (November 1912): 23; and “A Western Factory Invades the East,” Ibid., (March 1914): 10.

37. Richard W. Amero, “The Making of the Panama-California Exposition 1909-1915,” Journal of San Diego History 36 (Winter 1990): 22; “Colored Glazed Tile at the Exposition,” The Architect (June 1915): 220; and “A Western Factory Invades the East,” 10.

38. Virginia S. and Lee McAlester, A Field Guide to American Houses (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989, 418; David Gebhard and Robert Winter, A Guide to Architecture in Los Angeles and Southern California (Santa Barbara: Peregrine Smith, 1977, 699; “Tile Work at the San Diego Exposition,” The Mantel Tile and Grate Monthly (April 1915): 33; and “Colored Glazed Tile at the Exposition,” 220. Goodhue had previously adapted Spanish-baroque and Islamic styling in his designs of the Holy Trinity Church at Havana, Cuba, the Hotel Colon, Panama, and the gardens of the Gillespie House, Monticito, California. See: Amero, “The Making of the Panama-California Exposition,” 6.

39. Pourade, Gold in the Sun, 187; “Colored Tile at the Exposition,” 220-221; “Tile Work at the San Diego Exposition,” 33; Gebhard and Winter, A Guide to Architecture, 697 and 699.

40. Amero, “The Making of the Panama-California Exposition, 22; and Pourade, Gold in the Sun, 255 and 257.

41. “An Architectural Triumph,” The Mantel Tile and Grate Monthly (May 1915): 12, 15.

42. Ibid., 12-13; John Bakewell, Jr., “The Santa Fe Station, San Diego,” The Architect and Engineer of California 41 (April 1915): 38; and Richard W. Pelouze, “Trademarks of Tile on Santa Fe Railway Depots,” part 2, Tile Heritage, vol. 2 (Fall 1995): 9.

43. Pelouze, “Trademarks of Tile,” 10.

44. Bakewell, “Santa Fe Station,” 47; “An Architectural Triumph,” 17; “Map of Santa Fe System, San Diego Depot,”The Architect (June 1915): 238-239; and “Map of Santa Fe System, San Diego Depot,”The Mantel Tile and Grate Monthly (June 1915): 23-25.

45. Bruce Coons, interview with author, National City, 1997.

46. Bakewell, “Santa Fe Station,” 41 and 46; and “The Santa Fe Station, San Diego,” 12-14.

47. “New York City,” (December 1913): 24; and “Pacific Coast Firm Duplicates Moorish Tile,”(May 1916): 28.

48. “An Architectural Triumph,”12-14; and “Colored Glazed Tile at the Exposition,”221 and 237.

49. Riley, Tile Art, 12; Dietrich, Clay Resources, 16; Briand, In Search of Paradise, 145; “Installing Machinery in California China Products Factory,” National City News, 12 August 1911, 1; and Robert Halley, Jr., “Charles B. Nordhoff’s Speech on the Manufacturing of Faience Tile Delivered to the San Diego Architectural Association,”11 January 1913. Typewritten Transcript Sent to the Editor of Southwest Contractor and Manufacturing. San Diego Historical Society Research Archives and Library, 1.

50. Riley, Tile Art, 13 and 46; and Halley, “Charles B. Nordhoff’s Speech,” 1.

51. Riley, Tile Art, 13; and Halley, “Charles B. Nordhoff’s Speech,” 1-2.

52. Halley, “Charles B. Nordhoff’s Speech,”2; and Briand, In Search of Paradise, 145-146.

53. Halley, “Charles B. Nordhoff’s Speech,”2-3; Dietrich, Clay Resources, 15.

54. Halley, “Charles B. Nordhoff’s Speech, 3; and Pelouze, “Trademarks of Tile,” 11.

55. “Colored Glazed Tile at the Exposition,” 220.

56. Briand, In Search of Paradise, 85, 148.

57. Ibid., 198, 316-321.

58. Ibid., 358, 359, 364; and Powell, California Classics, 30.

59. Joseph A. Taylor, “Rufus Keeler: A Tile Wizard Almost Lost Forever” Flash Point 2 (January-March 1989): 1, 8; and San Diego City and County Directory, 1916-1917.

60. “Vernon Becoming Unique Clay Products Center,” Southwest Builder and Contractor, 30 November 1917, 9; Steven R. Soukup, “The California Collector,” Flash Point 9 (October 1996-June 1997): 18; Kamerling, “The Arts and Crafts Movement,” 219; and Taylor, “Tiles of California,” 112.

61. Powell, California Classics, 17-18, 20-21, 30. Writer’s ink seems to flow in the Nordhoff’s blood. After CCPCo’s closure, his son Franklin became a rancher in the Santa Maria Valley north of Santa Barbara. One year before his death in 1956 at age sixty-two, Franklin published Fruit of the Earth, a book of sketches about ranch life on the West Coast and Rancho Ramajal.

62. Powell, California Classics, 21.

63. Lynn Alison Downey, “Fred H. Wilde: His Life and Work,” part IV, Flash Point 1 (January-March 1989): 5; and Kenneth R. Trapp, “The Arts and Crafts Movement in the San Francisco Bay Area,” in The Arts and Crafts Movement in California, 149-152.

64. Taylor, “Rufus Keeler,” 1, 8-9.


A historian currently working for California State Parks, Alexander D. Bevil has written several award winning articles for the Journal of San Diego History regarding San Diego’s architectural history. His current article on the California China Products Company was the result of a generous grant from the Tile Heritage Foundation. Located in Healdsburg, California, it is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting an awareness and appreciation of ceramic surfaces throughout the United States. Mr. Bevil hopes to continue his research on San Diego’s contribution to California’s ceramic products industry in order to produce a directory of historic brick, tile and art pottery companies.