Keeping Pace with Making our Place

June 05, 2019

Steve McBride wore a wide smile as he quietly watched Pewabic Designer David McGee set the last tile in the fountain face: “I’ve waited four years for this.”

It was the almost-final touch on renovations to the National Historic Landmark’s courtyard, a space McBride had long wished to make more inviting.

Last autumn, his wish was granted thanks to the Southeast Michigan Placemaking Pilot Initiative. The William Davidson Foundation provided funding to Project for Public Spaces (PPS) to administer a capacity-building program for its grantees focused on placemaking activations. Through this effort, PPS provided design services and implementation funds to Pewabic for the new courtyard.

For Pewabic, that meant an opportunity to forge ahead to create an outdoor space where customers, architectural clients, students and staff could stay a while — reflect, even — not to mention it opened up more room to accommodate workshops and other gatherings. The June 2018 award came as the nonprofit had already initiated efforts to enhance the area with a mural detailing its history, designed and executed by Michael Burdick and Kelly Golden. Now the rest of the courtyard had an opportunity to follow suit with its own improvements to better convey the 116-year-old pottery.

“Pewabic’s not just about the things that we make, it’s about quality of life,” McBride explains. “The courtyard’s really about what life can be like when you surround yourself with nature and art. We wanted to create an environment that better reflects our mission – to enrich the human spirit through clay.”

PPS met with staff, trustees and students to get a sense of how best to reimagine the space and make it a more widely used and enjoyed area on campus. They assessed what worked and what didn’t. Sure, the gravel courtyard was OK for most events, but not ideal. A temporary tent helped during the warmer months, along with picnic tables that gave the space a summer camp vibe. It wasn’t awful, but it could be so much better, says McBride.

The most obvious alterations came with resurfacing the main area of the courtyard with pavers for better accessibility and stability for everyone, and ditching the tent for a beautiful wood pergola, complete with clear corrugated patio panel roofing to allow diffused light in while keeping the rain out.

Then came new furniture and even a fire pit, before finally the small fountain that Pewabic hopes will also work as an example for customers who may want to add one to their own space, with Pewabic tile installed, of course. In the early 20th century, Pewabic tile was incorporated in fountains throughout metro-Detroit, perhaps most notably Belle Isle’s James Scott Memorial Fountain and the Rainbow Fountain at Cranbrook. Though significantly smaller than those landmark fountains, this sweet fountain feels like a subtle nod to Pewabic’s history in just the right way.

Soon it will be circulating water as guests circulate through the Pewabic House & Garden Show, when the courtyard will transform into a biergarten Friday and Saturday, complete with live music. Don’t be surprised if you spot McBride out there, surveying the fun and maybe even looking around to figure out where he can squeeze in a pizza oven.

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