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Detroit’s Pewabic Pottery: a treasure trove of tiles, pottery, and history

Located in downtown Detroit, Michigan, the Pewabic Pottery was founded in 1903 during the Arts and Crafts Movement. Originally located on Alfred Street, it was moved to the current National Historic Landmark location in 1907. It was here that founder Mary Chase Perry Stratton crafted vesselware and crafts using unique matte and iridescent glazes.

Kelsey  Arrington, Gallery Associate, at Pewabic Pottery in Downtown Detroit Michigan
Photo by Roselyn Franke
Detroit's Pewabic Pottery in downtown Detroit
Photo by Roselyn Franke

Beautiful examples of Pewabic Architecture ceramic art may be found in buildings nationwide, including the Main Building Entry and West Façade window of the Guardian Building in Detroit, The National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., and the Rice University Science Building in Houston, Texas.

Upon entering the pottery, Gallery Associate Kelsey Arrington recommends starting the self-guided tour on the second floor Pewabic Historic Museum. Pewabic provides a brochure for the self-guided tour, but guided tours for a fee can be arranged by calling in advance. The museum provides historical information and pictures about the pottery and founder Mary Stratton. Also located on the second floor is the Stratton Gallery which features some of Stratton’s original matte and iridescent vessels, “Tile Friege” c. 1906 - a large 16”x38 ½” tile, a painted plate, and miscellaneous crafts. Her original Revelation Kiln is also on display. Two galleries, Exhibition West and Exhibition East, feature rotating exhibits of contemporary ceramic art. Works of Darien Arikoski-Johnson and Monica Wilson are currently on exhibit until August 24, 2014.

Returning to the first floor, one finds the Pewabic Museum Store where tiles, Christmas ornaments and vesselware can be purchased; the Tile Show Room which features sample boards of the pottery’s famous glazes and tiles; and the Gallery of Studio Artists which features ceramic works of artists that were created in their own studios, not at Pewabic.

Next on the tour is the interesting Fabrication Area where the crafting actually takes place. Dots on the floor guide you through a narrow walkway to the areas, and signs and staff provide a wealth of information. Mary Stratton fired her glazes in the Kiln Room, the first stop after leaving the Gallery of Studio Artists. There are two kilns on the right, and a bisque kiln on the left. The bisque kiln was being loaded with 3x3 architectural tiles by Kiln Technician Chris Mayse. Neil Laperriere, Sr. Kiln Technician, took time to explain how the clay tile pieces were arranged for first firing in the kilns.

In the Clay-Making Area, the same original equipment used by Mary Stratton in the early 20th Century is used to make clay today. Glaze Technician, Alex, explained how the glazes are labeled and strategically placed in the kiln to avoid any undesired transfers from tiles or vessels. The iridescent pieces are fired at a much lower heat level. Alex also explained that most of the clay base used to make the pottery is brought from Southern Ohio, while a small portion comes from Michigan or Kentucky.

The last stop on the tour is the Tile Pressing & Mold Making area. Here, you can watch Presser Technician Kevin hand press an order of tiles from the doorway, as visitors cannot enter this area. There is also an automatic presser, which obviously presses tiles at a faster rate for the larger orders.

When in Detroit, don’t miss this “living treasure”. The Pewabic Pottery is well deserving of a great review, but keep in mind that it is a fabricating facility and therefore is not handicapped accessible. Continuing a little known part of American History, the pottery is “Celebrating a rich heritage, creating a new legacy…” since 1903.