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The way of clay: a brief history of Gladding, McBean

By: Leona Reber Special to The News Messenger
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On May 1, 1875, the Gladding, McBean kilns began a journey that now spans more than a century. Firing up in a large, cavernous building on the edge of Lincoln, the factory began producing vitrified sewer pipe to feed the voracious needs of the first California building boom. A chance discovery of premium clay deposits in Lincoln led founders Charles Gladding, Peter McGill McBean and George Chambers to invest $12,000 in the venture. It was a wise business decision, as the factory still creates and ships sewer pipe and more throughout California and far beyond. By the 1890s, the factory expanded its offerings to include firebrick, roof tile, enamel brick and garden pottery, such as huge decorative urns, statuary, drinking and decorative fountains, birdbaths, benches and tables. As Art Deco became popular, the factory expanded its product line again, offering sensuous statuary in the genre. Its early pieces have become popular collector items, selling for large amounts at auction and in upscale antique stores. Dishware, which was also made at the factory for a few years, is also collectable. Architectural terra cotta came next and these works of art have made Gladding, McBean popular. Lincoln itself reveals the factory’s impact. Many plant workers’ homes display urns from the factory and the ceramic fountain in Beermann Plaza, said to be built at the exact center of Lincoln, is a product of Gladding, McBean. The fountain is such a part of Lincoln that, when the city sought a logo to use on its stationery, promotional items and website, a stylized version of the fountain was chosen. Many buildings in town also carry the factory stamp including the baseball stadium, the Carnegie Library, City Hall and the McBean Park Pavilion. Outside Lincoln, examples of Gladding, McBean’s work can be seen at Stanford University in Palo Alto, the Mid-Continental Tower in Tulsa, Okla., the Waikiki Beach Hotel in Hawaii, the Mitsubishi building in Tokyo, the Wrigley building in Chicago, the Opera House in San Francisco and hundreds of other worldwide locations. Factory artists often are called upon to replicate portions of their handiwork following natural disasters or other types of damage. Gladding, McBean, or “the Pottery,” as it is affectionately known by locals, has employed generations of residents. The original employees were Italian and German craftsmen who immigrated to this country to work in the factory. Many of their families still live in the area – some working at the same place their great grandfathers did. As the world celebrated the new millennium, Gladding, McBean celebrated its own milestone, throwing a birthday bash in the park to mark its 125th anniversary. Hundreds of current and former workers gathered to reminisce. In 2001, artisans from the factory were honored as Master Craftsmen in a ceremony in Washington, D.C.. The factory has changed hands, expanded and modernized. Fuel had changed from wood to cleaner-burning natural gas, but many of the old methods are still employed. Each spring, for the last 24 years, GMB has partnered with Lincoln Arts to put on Feats of Clay – a cutting edge ceramic exhibition which is held within the factory walls. The show became international in 2007. According to Claudia Renati, Lincoln Arts Executive Director, as many people take the tours for the historic significance of the factory, as come to enjoy the artwork displayed.