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Minton Tile in American Buildings

on October 6, 2011 – 3:31 am

[Minton Tile Design c.1851]

Minton, founded in England in 1788 by Thomas Minton, was one of the best-known British manufacturers of porcelain and pottery. The “Minton” name has also been associated with fine ceramic and encaustic tile. In the early 1800s, Thomas Minton’s son, Herbert, developed and patented manufacturing processes to create “encaustic tile” with the pattern and color of the tile encased in the depth of the tile. Encaustic tiles are unique because their decorative designs are not glazed on the surface, but are inlaid patterns created during the manufacturing process. The process pours colored slips (liquid clay) into deep molded patterns. When fired, the tiles are durable and prevent the loss of color and design over the years.  These tiles were produced in a variety of sizes, mostly square or octagonal in shape, and almost any design could be custom-made for a special purpose or to fit a particular space. Encaustic tiles were produced in large quantities beginning in the mid-19th century, primarily for use in floors. Encaustic tile and unglazed geometric tile were especially popular in the United States for commercial architecture, with the firm of Minton & Co. as one of the major producers.

U.S. Capitol Bldg.
Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress

Beginning in 1856, and continuing for five years, richly patterned and colored tile floors were installed in the extensions of the United States Capitol. In the Old Capitol (finished in 1826) stone pavers were used in corridors and other public spaces, such as the Rotunda and Crypt; but for the floors of the extensions, encaustic tile was chosen for its beauty, durability, and sophistication. The original encaustic tiles in the Capitol extensions were manufactured at Stoke-upon-Trent in Staffordshire, England, by Minton, Hollins and Company. Installed by the import firm of Miller and Coates of New York City, the cost of the tile ranged from $0.68 to $2.03 per square foot. In the 1920s, the Minton tile in the corridors in the first and second floors of the House Wing was replaced with marble tile. However, during the 1970s, a new restoration project began with a search to determine a source of similar encaustic tiles in order to restore the original appearance of the building. Due to similar ongoing searches by the Houses of Parliament and the Smithsonian to reproduce these materials for their floors, it was discovered that H & R Johnson Tiles Ltd., located at Stoke-on-Trent, England was a successor company to the Minton Tile Co. and had possession of many of the original hand tools and forms in a private museum at the company’s manufacturing site. Nevertheless, it was not until 1986 that the first acceptable replacement tiles were delivered to Washington. The restoration process to install exact replica tiles at the U.S. Capitol is an ongoing program which has begun on the first floor of the Senate Wing, where the effects of 130 years of wear and tear were most noticeable.

Original Minton tiles in the decorated underground
component of Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace Arcade.

In 1869, more than 15,000 patterned encaustic tiles manufactured by the Minton Tile Company were used to create New York’s Central Park Bethesda Arcade making it the only known example of Minton encaustic tiles used in a suspended ceiling. The Arcade’s ceiling is divided into 49 panels, each panel containing 324 tiles. Each panel features repeated stylized floral motifs and geometrical forms in earth tones, cobalt, and forest green. There are two distinct panel designs that differ only in their central medallion—25 panels bear a small central rosette medallion and 24 panels bear a large pinwheel medallion. Within a century, the 50-ton ceiling weakened and the tiles deteriorated. Fortunately, the tiles were preserved and placed in storage in the 1980s. Over 20 years later, the Arcade was restored in 2007 through the efforts of the Central Park Conservancy and is now open to the public.

Old Executive Office Building
Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress.

Minton tile floors are also found in three rooms within the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in D.C. Originally the Old Executive Office Building, this historical landmark was built between 1871 and 1888. Minton Tile Company tiles, manufactured in Stoke-on-Trent, England, were also used to surround many of the original fireplace hearths. The tiled floors are found in the following rooms: Room 308 (formerly the Department of State Library) completed in 1876; Room 474 (formerly the Department of Navy Library) completed in 1879; and Room 528 (formerly the Department of War Library) completed in 1888.

Furthermore, the west foyer of the White House had a Minton tile floor installed in the 1880s. When this style fell out of fashion, the floor was removed and replaced with marble in 1902. Minton tiles are also found at the Smithsonian Institution’s Arts and Industry Building. Likewise, glazed tiles made by Minton were used in 1888 for the floor and walls in two rest rooms in the Secretary of War’s office suite.

Minton tile also covered the floors of many residential entryways, porches and other rooms, and like many Victorian decorative elements, Minton tile became a symbol of social position and good taste. Minton tile patterns from 1878 are featured here.

Victorian Christmas