Terra cotta da vida
Lincoln’s clay factory Gladding, McBean is still firing red earth into everything from sewer pipe to art
You might consider Lincoln to just be another exploding River City suburb north of Roseville, just past Del Webb’s Sun City and the Thunder Valley Casino. But did you know that ancient glacial rivers meandered down from Canada and dumped one of the largest, finest clay deposits in the world there?
As California was calming down in the wake of the Gold Rush, Charles Gladding, Peter McBean and George Chambers staked their own claim in 1875 when they bought 411 acres on what’s now Highway 65, with plans to produce vitrified sewer pipe from that mother lode of clay. Today, just past the Highway 193 turnoff in Lincoln, Gladding, McBean, is still running strong. A cyclone fence circles the company’s lot, which is dotted with hills of red dirt. Towering brick chimney stacks sit atop the buildings.
But there has been a whole lot more than sewer pipes going through Gladding, McBean’s gates. Through May 23, tours sponsored by the Lincoln Arts and Culture Foundation (LACF) offer not only a journey around the venerable plant, but also a view of the annual, always-much-anticipated exhibit Feats of Clay. For the past 16 years, the Gladding, McBean plant has housed this juried LACF competition, which has enticed some of the finest ceramic artists from all over the country. The list of past jurors reads like a who’s who in American ceramics and includes Ron Nagle, Patti Warashina, Michael Lucero, Ken Ferguson and the Sacramento region’s own Ruth Rippon.
This year’s judge, Richard Notkin, who studied under Robert Arneson at UC Davis, sifted through 1,226 pieces by 598 artists to select the 80 works that make up Feats of Clay XVII. Part of the exhibit is displayed in a retired beehive kiln. The rest is exhibited in the “wet clay” building of the plant.
Past shows have focused on the functionality of ceramics, but that’s not the case with Notkin’s preferences. Strongly honed craftsmanship and content earned the first-place ribbon for Philadelphia artist Lindsay Feuer’s “Hybrid Series #4.” In pristine white porcelain, the organic shape gracefully curves and undulates—a hybrid sea creature, with no other function except to be admired.
A funk influence shines in De Kalb, Ill., artist Jen-Yu Lai’s “Expectation #1,” a humorous, tongue-in-cheek piece. The lower half of a figure stands ready, with a drawer pulled out of its abdomen and skinny legs swallowed up in construction boots. You just have to look inside the drawer to see the golden screwdriver and other tools. But the only way to get a glimpse of these pieces and the rest of Feats is to take a tour.
David Luchetti, president of Pacific Coast Building Products, the company that bought Gladding, McBean in 1976, praised the tours for allowing the public to experience the manufacturing of clay products. “Employees have a great time getting ready for this,” he said, laughing. “Makes us clean the place. You know, spring cleaning.”
Visitors are shuttled between neat, seemingly endless rows of huge, stacked red-earth clay pipes to the wet-clay building. This building, where all the clay is manipulated and formed, is old. The handrails on the stairs are polished and silky smooth after 129 years of clay dust being ground in by the oil on people’s hands.
A sort of eeriness grips you: the dark coolness of the clay buildings, the exposed wooden beams, and rows of four-paned windows up high on the walls, filmy from decades of clay dust and from age that creates its own patina—not just on the glass, but on everything. The perfume of rich earth permeates the air.
The first floor reveals the process: from blueprints, photos or imagination, the modeling artist shapes clay to create plaster molds for multiple clay copies (always multiples, in case one breaks or cracks). A recent tour found an artist working on a replacement, pressing and smoothing soft clay to a mold of Franciscan priest Junipero Serra first used for the 1915 Pan Pacific Expo Building in San Diego’s Balboa Park.
Pressing and drying areas take up the second floor, where tables and shelves bend under stacks of plaster molds. The third floor houses the historic studio, where gigantic easels still in use can support huge clay models weighing tons.
Everywhere on each floor, leaning against a support beam or a pile of molds, are bits of history: a Greek bas relief created for a Shriners building, rejected because it cracked in the firing; the clay decorations for a bridge in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan; or the round ceramic seal of New York.
On the main floor, pieces are glazed and finished. Gladding “McChemists” is the plant’s nickname for the staff members who formulate all the glazes, including finished looks that vary from marble to granite, and from blue, green and red to true gold leaf. As with the Balboa Park piece, the plant often receives orders for restoration work of pieces fired decades ago. The chemists test tiles over and over again to get the exact shade.
Inside the kiln building, it’s another world, with the natural gas roaring through the kilns to make them a red-hot 2,000-plus degrees. It’s where the true terra cotta—which means baked earth—is realized.
A three-story tin-covered building as big as a city block—topped by those round, towering chimney stacks—houses 22 beehive kilns. They’re round, domed-brick draft kilns, and most of them are about 25 feet high and spread 35 feet across. Wood-fired until 1899, when they switched to natural gas, the beehive kilns take about three weeks to fire: one week to warm up, one week to fire up to cone 7—or 2,260 degrees—and one week to cool down. Roof tiles and architectural and garden-pottery pieces fire from three to five days in two shuttle kilns, and the kilns are all in different stages of firing at any given time. Urns, planters, benches and fountains, some originally designed in the 1920s and 1930s, often fill the kilns. Some styles can be purchased in the plant store during the tour or ordered through LACF.
Pooling an initial $12,000 investment, founders Gladding, McBean and Chambers started out manufacturing only sewer pipe. But, by the 1890s, the company expanded to offer fire and enamel brick; roof tiles; and garden pottery, including vases, flower pots, fountains, bird baths, benches and tables.
Yet, Gladding, McBean became world-famous for more: decorative ceramics that embellish numerous buildings, including San Francisco’ s St. Francis and Mark Hopkins hotels, war memorial and opera house; Stanford University; Tokyo’s Mitsubishi Banking Hall; Chicago’s Wrigley building; and Sacramento’s City Hall.
Gladding, McBean is the only remaining major manufacturer of architectural terra-cotta products to survive the Depression, and it now employs about 250 people—a third of its early-1900s staff. Projects in recent years have encompassed 176 handmade and 14,000 machine-made pieces for the McGraw-Hill building in New York. The Gladding, McBean mark runs throughout Public School 40 in New York, adorned with 674 pieces of handmade and 4,799 machine-made embellishments. Guarding St. Cecilia’s Music Society in Michigan are two ceramic cherubs fired in Gladding, McBean kilns. Gladding, McBean also produced the huge urns that grace the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
“There is no other plant in the country that can do all this,” proclaimed Randy Fritts, the chairman of Feats of Clay, who has served as a tour volunteer for 15 years. Fritts estimates that about 14,000 people have trekked though the plant since 1987.
But the most poignant and emotional project is the recent renovation of Curtis High School, a 100-year-old campus in New York City.
“The school sits on a knoll overlooking the Hudson,” said Bill Padavona, the general manager of Gladding, McBean. The school location also offers a perfect view of where the World Trade Center towers once stood. In 2001, before that tragic September day, the Gladding, McBean crew actually visited the school site and then toured the towers, riding an elevator to the top of the south building.
“Now, when we visit the job site,” Padavona continued, “we always stop to look east to Lower Manhattan and remember the warm April afternoon we spent atop the World Trade Center.”
Feats of Clay XVII runs until May 23. Admission to the exhibit is by tour only, Wednesday through Sunday, from 9 a.m. to noon. Tours run about one hour. Tickets are $7 per person, and reservations are required. No children under 12 are allowed, and, because it is a working plant, no open-toed shoes are allowed. Call LACF at (916) 645-9713 for reservations and more information.
The clay fever doesn’t just stop with Feats of Clay or the Gladding, McBean plant, though. Because Lincoln is surrounded by clay, it’s no wonder that every third Saturday in May, the town closes off its town center, Beermann’s Plaza, for the annual Clay Fest. This free event spotlights clay, in all its incarnations, with hands-on workshops for children and demonstrations by artists.
In past years, LACF sponsored the event, although last year’s festival was backed by the Kiwanis Club. But this year, the Clay Fest is fired up by the Sacramento Potters’ Group.
“We’ll have 35 artists at this year’s Clay Fest,” said Anita Lowe, spokeswoman for the group, “but not just ceramics. We’re including those who do their art by fire—glass and metal artists, too.”
Tours of Feats of Clay XVII at the Gladding, McBean factory will be offered during the Clay Fest every 20 minutes on a first-come, first-served basis.
The Clay Fest is a free event on May 15, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information and directions to Beermann’s Plaza in Lincoln, call (530) 878-8034 or (916) 645-9713.