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

September 17, 1989|ADRIANNE GOODMAN | 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 Around Avalon, most of the tiles are authentic but some, succumbing to age or the elements, have been replaced by high-quality reproductions.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.

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