A friend of mine has owned this gigantic pottery tile for over 30 years. The other day I finally asked him what he could tell me about it. The story he told me was fascinating. He began by telling me it weighs just over 40 pounds. It is 20 inches high and 17 ½ inches wide and is 2 inches thick at the border. The front is a cherub in relief in a grape arbor. The back is marked “Rookwood Faience” and what appears to be the number 1561.
Living and working in Chicago during the 1970s, one day at work he learned that the city was going to tear down the famous LaSalle Hotel, a 23-story building built in 1909 on LaSalle Street in the Loop. At the time it was built, it was a very luxurious hotel. The hotel had closed in July 1976. In a few days, the city was going to sell all the remaining contents of the hotel on a first-come, first-serve basis to the public.
A co-worker and fellow pottery buff told him that at one time there had been a Rookwood architectural tile installation in the hotel but that it had been destroyed in a major fire at the hotel on June 5, 1946.
When the hotel was built, Rookwood tiles were used in the Palm Room, an opulent dining room, and the German Grill located below ground level. It’s believed the installation in the grill consisted of a series of these larger tiles with each tile depicting a cherub in the act of making wine. The number of the tiles in the installation is unknown by my friend.
The 1946 fire killed 61 people including a fireman. The hotel was closed for just over a year for restoration, reopening in July 1947.
My friend immediately realized that he would have to get up early to be first in line at the sale, which he was. He thought that perhaps one or more of the famous tiles had survived and he’d rush in and buy it.
When the doors finally opened at 9:00 am in the morning, he rushed in and immediately asked people working there if they remember any tiles for sale. He was directed immediately to a room a short distance away. He told me he was shocked when he entered the room and saw five of these tiles sitting on a table. He checked each one carefully and quickly grabbed the only one that was perfect. The others had minor damage in several places.
He was told they had been discovered stored away in some room in a lower basement.
The price of each tile was $40.
His co-worker was right behind him as they entered the room and she selected two of the remaining tiles. They paid and my friend carried two tiles, a total of just over 80 pounds several blocks to where they worked.
He quickly mentioned the two remaining tiles to co-workers who rushed over and bought to other two. To this day he has no idea what happened to the other four tiles. All he knows is that he has the only perfect tile. It is one of his prized possessions, sitting in his home office where he can enjoy it every day.
The Rookwood Tile Company was founded in Cincinnati Ohio in 1880. Architectural tile was added in 1902. Over the early years of the last century, Rookwood tiles were installed in homes of the wealthy, a few hotels, and other buildings, and public spaces. Most of these installations are still in place today.
My friend isn’t sure but he believes that there are very, very few tiles of this size and weight in private hands today. Now you’ve had a chance to get a closer look at one of the famous Rookwood architectural tiles made just after the turn of the last century.