Built in 1907–8, the Van Briggle Memorial Pottery Building in Colorado Springs was designed by architect Nicolaas van den Arend to serve as the company’s salesroom, pottery plant, and headquarters. Incorporating more than 5,000 tile and terra cotta components designed by Anne Van Briggle, the building is considered one of the most important tile installations in the United States. In 1968 the pottery company moved and sold the building to nearby Colorado College, which uses it to house the school’s Facilities Services department.
Van Briggle Pottery
In 1899 pottery maker Artus Van Briggle moved to Colorado Springs from his home in Cincinnati to try to recover from tuberculosis. He soon became a staple of the city’s social and artistic circles and began to work with Colorado College professor William Strieby to perfect his pottery and glazes using local materials. In 1900 his fiancée, Anne Gregory, joined him in Colorado Springs. Trained as a painter, she became his partner in the pottery business. In 1901 they opened a showroom and pottery plant on North Nevada Avenue. By that December they had pieces ready for sale, and in April 1902 they officially incorporated the Van Briggle Pottery Company. Initial investors included William Jackson Palmer, Winfield Scott Stratton, and other members of the city’s social and business elite.
The Van Briggles were married in June 1902 and experienced considerable success over the next two years. Their work was generating praise around the country and even around the world for the way it applied Art Nouveau’s emphasis on natural forms to pottery. Van Briggle pieces won medals at the prestigious Paris Salon of 1903 and the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Centennial Exposition in St. Louis. But Artus Van Briggle’s health continued to decline, causing Anne to assume more and more responsibility for the company. On July 4, 1904, Artus Van Briggle died of tuberculosis.
Memorial Pottery Plant
After the death of Artus Van Briggle, the pottery company was reorganized with Anne as president. She continued to produce his old designs and added some of her own while gradually expanding the company’s range of production to bring in more revenue. In 1907 the company started to produce art tiles, and Anne Van Briggle began to plan for a larger and better pottery plant that would also serve as a showcase for the company’s wares and a memorial to her husband.
The new pottery plant was a factory at its core, but the setting and architecture were designed to impress visitors and inspire workers. William Jackson Palmer provided a picturesque site for the building on the west bank of Monument Creek adjacent to Monument Valley Park. To design the building, the company hired Dutch architect Nicolaas van den Arend, who had come to Colorado Springs in 1904 because his wife suffered from tuberculosis. In a nod to the ancestry he shared with Artus Van Briggle, he planned a building that resembled a Dutch farmhouse, with Flemish bond brickwork and a variety of gables and small porches.
Construction started in summer 1907. The building incorporated important contributions from Anne Van Briggle and company superintendent Frank Riddle. Riddle designed two large kilns that sat in the middle of the building and supported a pair of rounded smokestacks that rose from the roof; they made it possible to get better combustion with less smoke. Meanwhile, Anne Van Briggle and her assistant Emma Kinkead worked for more than a year at the company’s factory on North Nevada Avenue to churn out thousands of tile and terra cotta pieces that Van Briggle had designed as interior and exterior decorations for the new building.
By September 1908 the new plant was fully operational. The south-facing building had three basic sections: a center wing and two wings that projected south from either side. The center wing was dominated by Riddle’s two large kilns. The east wing housed the pottery side of the company and included an etching room, greenware room, lab, dryer, damp box, and two studios. Anne Van Briggle’s studio was at the southern end of the east wing and featured a tile fireplace of her own design. The west wing of the building housed offices for the sales side of the company. At the southern end of the west wing was an elaborate salesroom with a tile floor, tile wall panels, and tile fireplace designed by Anne Van Briggle.
On December 3, 1908, the company held an opening ceremony attended by about 600 people. Over the next few years, tourists continued to visit the building to see its architecture, get a free tour, and perhaps buy tiles, terra cotta, or pottery. At the time, the company was the only maker of art tiles between Chicago and Los Angeles, and its building was one of only a few art pottery plants in the country that were open to the public.
Troubles and Change
The expense of the pottery building—reportedly as high as $100,000—took a toll on the company’s bottom line. Despite continued praise for its products, the company could not find a large enough market for art tiles and pottery to stay afloat. In 1910 the company declared bankruptcy, and in 1912 Anne Van Briggle left to focus on her original passion, painting.
Over the next decade the company and the building went through several changes in ownership. A June 1919 fire destroyed much of the building’s central wing, but it was rebuilt essentially the same as the original. In the early 1920s, the brothers Ira and Jesse Lewis finally brought financial stability to the company. They focused increasingly on selling to tourists and made the building’s salesroom the only place to buy Van Briggle pottery.
In 1935 a devastating flood of Monument Creek wreaked havoc on the Van Briggle building, taking out its eastern wall and destroying many company records and original pottery molds. The whole building was filled with several feet of water, which dragged pieces of pottery as far away as Fountain, about fifteen miles south. After the waters receded, the company remodeled the east wing, and by the start of World War II it was attracting about 50,000 visitors per year.
In the early 1950s, plans for what is now Interstate 25 looked as if they would require relocating the pottery’s operations. Owner Jesse Lewis and master potter Clem Hull acquired the recently vacated Midland Roundhouse building and renovated it from a railroad shop into a working pottery. Meanwhile, the existing Van Briggle Memorial Pottery Building was saved when the freeway ended up being routed about a block to the west. The Roundhouse pottery opened in 1955, and the company used both locations until the late 1960s.
Colorado College Facilities Services
In 1968 Van Briggle consolidated its operations at the Midland Roundhouse, which was closer to the city’s main tourist attractions. The company sold the Memorial Pottery Building to Colorado College, whose main campus lay just across Monument Creek. With the help of several large donations, the college spent two years restoring the building’s exterior and renovating the interior to house the Facilities Services Department. The building’s huge kilns were removed and a framework of steel beams was installed to support the distinctive smokestacks above. The original tilework in the salesroom and Anne Van Briggle’s studio remained largely intact.
The Memorial Pottery Building has now housed the Colorado College’s Facilities Services department for more than forty-five years. The college continues to invest in the building’s maintenance and restoration. In 2001 the kiln chimneys were repaired, and in 2006 lightning rods were installed to prevent further damage to the building’s terra cotta.
In 2009 the pottery building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Woman’s Educational Society of Colorado College hosts an annual Historic Van Briggle Pottery Festival that features guided tours of the building.