TARPON, FLA. - A remarkable installation of nearly 1,200 matte-glazed Grueby
tiles has been preserved in its entirety in Cleveland, Ohio. Thanks to the
cooperative efforts of a private educational foundation based in Florida,
the owners of a 1900 lakefront mansion and two well-known Arts and Crafts
dealers on both coasts, all of the tiles were carefully removed from the floor,
walls and ceiling of a small bathroom and will be conserved for future exhibition.
John Gibbs and Jerry Ritola admired the elegant bathroom when they purchased their Cleveland home in the mid-1990s, but they were unfamiliar with Grueby's work. They did recognize that the extraordinary tiles transformed the small space, approximately 6 by 8 feet with a 7-foot ceiling, into an airy garden retreat for its occupant. Tall white, butterscotch and pale yellow irises rose 36 inches from watery beds of lily pads on all four walls. On the floor, flowering pond lilies bordered a green path of three-inch hexagonal tiles. Above the irises and extending across the ceiling, soft blue tiles created the illusion of a summery sky overhead.
Design details confirm the care that went into this custom project. For example, the repeating pond lily pattern, which was available by 1905 through Grueby's catalog, is paired with special inside and outside corner tiles that visually carry the border around the room and the built-in bathtub. The original quality of the tile work and its near perfect condition make it a rare survivor.
On a trip to San Francisco, Gibbs and Ritola recognized that the green glaze of a Grueby vase was similar to that on their bathroom tiles. It was later confirmed that virtually every surface in the room, including the ivory-colored moldings and door and window surrounds, was produced by the Grueby Faience Company of Boston.
Believing that this tile installation was historically significant in Grueby's production, Gibbs contacted independent Grueby scholar Susan J. Montgomery. She noted that another elaborate Grueby bathroom, known through a published 1914 photograph, incorporated irises and pond lilies in a tiled shower surround. Although the details of the two designs vary, they are clearly related projects.
After they decided to renovate the bathroom, Gibbs and Ritola were determined to preserve the entire installation intact rather than split up the iris panels into individual units. They contacted David Rago Auctions, Lambertville, N.J., to find a special purchaser. Comparing the Cleveland bathroom to perhaps Grueby's best-known tile commission, the mantel facings and bathroom dadoes of the Massachusetts estate Dreamwold, Rago said, "...while the tiles at Dreamwold served as accents to room interiors, the iris bathroom used Grueby tile for all four walls, floor, and ceiling."
Rago called Rudy Ciccarello, the driving force behind the Two Red Roses Foundation in Tarpon Springs, Fla. Ciccarello had already endowed the private foundation with the extensive personal collection of fine decorative arts from the American Arts and Crafts movement. He had committed the foundation to an ongoing acquisition plan, with the ultimate goal of making the pieces available for public exhibition.
Ciccarello was undaunted by the scale of the ensemble or the costly and complex challenge of recreating it on another site. "There are other significant Grueby pieces in the foundation's collection," Ciccarello stated, "but this beautiful bathroom is the most intact. It was irresistible." Tile installation expert Larry Mobley of Cohoctah, Mich., was hired to painstakingly chart and remove each of the hundreds of 6 by 6 and 3-inch hexagonal tiles, as well as the ceramic window and door moldings and porcelain fixtures. After conservation, the elements will all be reunited, according to the original design scheme.
While many important Arts and Crafts interiors have been altered or destroyed over the last century, this discovery proves that at least some of them survive unscathed. The quality and condition of this rare find provides hope to scholars and collectors alike that significant artifacts from the period remain to be found and saved for future generations.
All queries should be directed to the Two Red Roses Foundation, 1650 East Lake Drive, Tarpon Springs FL 34688;
telephone, 727-487-3670 or fax, 727-943-2404.
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