Normally, stumbling across a pile of brick debris is an unwelcome surprise when you work at a National Historic Landmark. But last Wednesday was anything but normal for Steve McBride, executive director of Pewabic. What began as an unassuming June morning turned momentous for the 115-year-old pottery, when McBride found himself peering through a fresh hole in the wall. Through it, a work crew from Sachse Construction looked back from a freshly painted building, as though they were time travelers sent from Pewabic’s future. With several unceremonious and swift swings of a sledgehammer, workers had connected Pewabic’s historic building to its brand new 2,500-square-foot tile-pressing studio expansion.
Years in the making, this moment – and the ones to follow – are the culmination of seeds planted and nurtured by the imaginations, funding and support of donors, members, customers and employees. The last major expansion to the fabrication area came in 1912 to add the clay-making machine still in use today. That happened under the careful watch of founders Horace Caulkins and Mary Chase Perry (who later married the building’s architect William Buck Stratton), and on Wednesday one couldn’t help but imagine those watchful gazes were at it again.
Perry Stratton, an unabashed believer in the handcrafted ideals of the Arts & Crafts Movement, grew Pewabic’s footprint twice. This expansion will enable Pewabic to reduce production time and provide its artisans greater workspace, natural light and better ventilation. The move also frees up space in the historic building to improve the visitor experience for tours and demonstrations and to better accommodate glazing, the process Perry Stratton most enjoyed, as proven by her iridescence.
The afternoon after the workmen broke through the wall, McBride and Marketing Manager Amanda Rogers wanted to get a sense of how the newly designed blush iridescent faceted tiles will look incorporated into the expansion’s brick façade. At that moment, the bricklayers happened to be setting in place the final brick. The pair watched quietly as the workman carefully smoothed the mortar, making the building’s impending completion palpable.
Now is a momentous time in Detroit: from new projects like Little Caesars Arena and the QLine to recent announcements of the dreamlike rebirth of Michigan Central Depot. Pewabic’s story is more akin to The Little Engine That Could, having survived the Great Depression and the deaths of its founders, among other large-scale challenges that easily could have closed a business. Instead, Pewabic thrives as it continues to epitomize handcrafting in Detroit.
In a week or two, Sachse will hand over the keys, so to speak, to let the next stage begin: the arduous task of moving equipment into place and making necessary adjustments. Then, around the time summer draws to a close, Pewabic will welcome trustees, donors and friends to see where Detroit’s history builds its future. Stay tuned.
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