This spring, Pewabic Pottery founder Mary Chase Perry Stratton would have celebrated her 150th birthday. And while the carriage home in Detroit’s Brush Park neighborhood where she began the now-infamous pottery studio has long since been demolished, the legacy she fired in clay at the same time Henry Ford was perfecting the moving assembly line for automobiles lives on in modern commercial and residential décor.
Just as her thick, richly colored tiles were worked into the 1929 façade of downtown Detroit’s iconic Guardian Building, so too do they adorn the interior and exterior of Comerica Park, where the Detroit Tigers have played since 2000.
Her work was a favorite among Detroit’s society elite, and an historic home featuring a Pewabic tile fireplace still counts such a feature as a selling point. Marsha and Chris Poshadlo’s 1907 Royal Oak home wasn’t originally outfitted with one of these coveted hearths, but they worked with the designers at Pewabic just last year to add an architectural embellishment that is at once historically accurate and a bump in potential resale value.
“The way the tiles surround the hearth makes the whole room look beautiful. It is just amazing work,” says Marsha Poshadlo. “Nothing compares to Pewabic when it comes to an artisanal look.”
A closer look at the company, its founder and its impact on Detroit culture is astounding and humbling. A Victorian woman who acquired four names in her lifetime helped define the arts and craft movement in Detroit.
From 1903 forward, in a Tudor-inspired building she helped design with her architect husband, William Buck Stratton, legions of students and expert potters employ hands-on methods to press tiles and turn lumps of clay with throwing wheels, baking it twice or three times in Revelation kilns. She liked her husband’s building style because, “it looked strong and was fireproof.”
“Mary had a labor-intensive idea that pottery should be beautiful. If hydraulic presses were stamping out car parts, her employees would craft each object by hand. We continue to use many of the patterns she developed on her travels around America,” says Steve McBride, executive director of Pewabic. “We still use the original clay mixer.”
One room on the main floor of Pewabic is devoted to design applications. A team takes customers like the Poshadlos through a slide show of possibilities for fireplace applications and two full-size hearths grace the room, including a Celtic model in varied shades and shapes of green.
“Our designer made two renderings,” Marsha recalls. “It was an absolutely beautiful job that required custom sizing. Everything fit the hearth and surrounds it perfectly. She gave me the name of three people who do custom installations and they did amazing work.”
Up Jefferson near the Dequindre Cut, a two-mile linear park from the Detroit River to Lafayette Street, the giant Orleans Landing apartments are finishing construction. When each of the 278 units are properly framed, they will have a handmade Pewabic tile address. Pewabic tiles will dot the architecture of its community center.
“Pewabic adds a wonderful touch to our buildings, the brand has been around for over a century,” said Richard Baron, a native Detroiter and principle of Cleveland-based McCormack, Baron and Salazar, an urban development firm that has rehabbed the Strathmore Hotel and is constructing Orleans Landing.
With an annual operating budget of $3.5 million and 50 employees, Pewabic’s work is sought-after by leading developers, rock stars and baseball heroes along with families like the Poshadlos.
Pewabic tiles grace rock star Jack White’s Third Man Records in Midtown, accent the Detroit Tiger’s home Comerica Park and add luster to the restored Ransom Gillis House, which was featured on HGTV’s Rehab Addict. All this may not have happened if it wasn’t for tragedy early in Mary’s life.
She was born about as far from bustling Detroit as Michigan’s borders allow, in Hancock, where the town’s copper mine bore the name Pewabic. Her father was a physician and surgeon, who was bludgeoned with an axe handle by a psycho passenger on a train who mistook him for someone with whom he had a grudge. He died several months later and the remaining family moved to Ann Arbor.
To augment the family coffers Mary sold small pieces of art and Christmas cards through a local bookstore, per the docent guide produced by Pewabic. She took art classes with Lily Chase, a friend of her mother’s, for whom she was named. She called Lily, “The enchantress of my dreams,” as she cultivated Mary’s love of colors.
“Few women founded companies in her era,” said McBride, from his second-floor office above the kiln room at Pewabic. Mary teamed up with a neighbor in Petoskey, Michigan, Horace Caulkins, who invented a brick-fired kiln he used to make false china teeth and saw its applications for the even-firing of pottery.
“Mary Chase Perry Stratton was a leader in the arts and crafts movement nationwide,” recalls Gregory Wittkopp, director of Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research in Bloomfield Hills which holds an extensive collection of her pottery made over the years. “Along with George Booth, the founder of Cranbrook, they founded the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts, which would ensure the influence of the individual artisan would not be lost as society adopted more and more technological advances.”
Over time and travels Mary became convinced she could mold the natural resources abundant in the U.S. (copper, zinc, lead and clay) into a viable business model. Caulkins, by then a dear friend, agreed to join the enterprise. They started the studio in a modest carriage house in Detroit’s Brush Park neighborhood behind the recently rehabbed Ransom Gillis mansion in 1903. They moved to the current location in 1907.
In 1918, after 10 years of courting, Stratton and Mary married. She was 51 years old. Together they produced many pieces of pottery and collaborated on many buildings, most notably the Women’s City Club headquarters, the exhibits at the Detroit Zoo and the Scarab Club behind the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Even after Mary’s death in 1961 at age 94, there has never been a hiatus in operations at Pewabic.
Caulkin’s son, Henry, took over the business and deeded the building and property in 1969 to Michigan State University as part of its continuing education program. In 1981, it became a privately funded nonprofit, The Pewabic Society, Inc.
“The reason Pewabic is enduring is that it has always been a combination of creating vases and architectural tile components. Vases fall in and out of favor but tiles in home foyers and fireplaces and accents to buildings continue to be loved by one generation and the next and the next,” Gregory says.
A collaboration with Cranbrook’s Director of Collection, Gregory Wittkopp, ensures that historic pottery will hold a valued place in its art museum, while McBride continues to direct current pottery operations at Pewabic, including bi-monthly exhibitions to introduce the public to contemporary ceramics and artisan crafts. Pewabic’s National Historic Landmark building and retail store is open year-round, seven days a week.
“Throughout the years, people have remarked how good it feels to hold handmade goods. We offer hands-on classes and workshops for all ages so they can experience the process behind this timeless art form,” McBride said.
Meanwhile Chris Poshadlo, Marsha’s husband, crafted a special apparatus with hooks to hang the family stockings rather than harm the tile or the Stickley-inspired fireplace mantel. Nothing says holidays like a roaring hearth adorned with Pewabic, says Marsha.