Thursday, September 25, 2014

Rookwood Pottery at West Baden Springs Hotel

There’s something about the atrium at night. The center medallion glows softly, lazily shifting from blue to green to pink, orange and back again to blue. Flashes pop in the dim light – like at a red carpet event. From the “paparazzi” with their Canons to the tourists and their smart phones, this is probably the most photographed area in the state. If the atrium is the lead in this production, without a doubt the Best Supporting Actress in a Feature Presentation is the Rookwood Pottery fireplace at West Baden Springs Hotel. 

Rookwood Pottery fireplace at West Baden Springs Hotel

Highly collectible American art pottery, Rookwood began producing clay pieces that were as pretty as they were useful in 1880 under the direction of Maria Longworth Nichols Storer. Longworth recruited craftsmen from all over the world to incorporate a sophisticated flare to the Rookwood brand making it stand apart from other American companies. In 1902, Rookwood expanded production to include architectural features and installations can be found all over the country, including the Rathskeller Room at the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, the Vanderbilt Hotel and Grand Central Station both in New York City and one entire neighborhood in Dallas, Texas. In 1917, Lillian Sinclair Rexford Cooper commissioned the fireplace for the atrium as part of her “Roman-Pompeiian court” themed renovation.


Hotel in the distance
As you might imagine, this isn’t a run of the mill hearth/mantle combo. Standing an impressive 19 feet long and 11 feet high with a seven foot-long firebox for burning 14 foot logs, this fireplace is just the design element needed to bring warmth, both literally and visually, to the vast space under the dome. Made entirely of Rookwood Pottery, the surround, hearth and over-mantle is an intricately depicted landscape of West Baden Springs, Indiana complete with a detailed replica of the hotel. The clay is silky and smooth, like soap, with vibrant hues that leap off the mantle-less “canvas.” In the upper right section is the hotel’s mascot, Sprudel. He appears to be surveying the land and “willing” the mineral waters to flow into the town.

Sprudel watching from above
It is a complex design and it would have been tricky to mold, glaze and fire that many pieces. George Hibben, director of stein sales for Rookwood, said,"The craftsmanship of the master's work was remarkable considering the lack of control previously. Especially given their size. Now we have computerized kilns.”

According to Riley Humler, Antiques Roadshow appraiser and one of the world’s foremost authorities on Rookwood Pottery, the fireplace at West Baden Springs Hotel “is probably the largest fireplace Rookwood ever built.” Humler has said that the specificity of the piece and its geocentricity to this area would not necessarily detract from the value because of the fireplace’s “grand scale and that it is such a prime example of what [Rookwood] has done over the years.” Not that we would ever sell but Humler estimates it to be worth anywhere from $250,000 to $500,000.

All in three dimensions, words cannot adequately describe just how phenomenal a work of art this fireplace is. Fans of American art pottery will not want to miss seeing the fireplace at French Lick Resort’s West Baden Springs Hotel in person.