Northern Clay Company -- Auburn (1908-1932)

  • By James Elliot
  • Posted 12/07/2020
  • Essay 21142

The Northern Clay Company in Auburn, later purchased and operated under the name Gladding McBean, was a major producer of architectural terra cotta for the Seattle and Pacific Northwest markets during the first decades of the twentieth century. The plant produced decorative and architectural terra cotta for many of downtown Seattle's iconic buildings -- including the Frederick & Nelson Department Store and the Coliseum Theatre -- and was among the top employers in Auburn prior to the plant's closure in 1932. The Great Depression put a stop to most major commercial construction projects, but the local terra cotta industry survived through the production of industrial ceramic products.

Terra Cotta in the Northwest

Clay formed in molds, glazed, and fired at high temperatures becomes a product known simply as terra cotta. It is a cost-effective material used as facing for buildings and is light enough to clad a skyscraper. In the early twentieth century, it largely replaced brick and granite as a fireproof facing for buildings, something in high demand after the devastating Great Seattle Fire of 1889. Besides facing for buildings, clay was formed into roofing tiles, sewer pipes, and even gardenware jardinieres. Glazed or unglazed, terra cotta was a backbone industry for the communities of Auburn, Renton, and Seattle, and a major force in building many cities and towns in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia, and even produced terra cotta for construction projects in Shanghai. Prior to its production in the Pacific Northwest, clay products were transported at great cost from the East Coast.

The first Auburn-area clay business began about 1905 when a group of enterprising businessmen in Auburn started Meade Pottery. In 1908, after a visit by officials of the Winkle Terra Cotta Company of St. Louis, Missouri, Meade Pottery joined with Winkle to form the Northern Clay Company. The new business, originally located near today's [2020] meeting of Highway 18 and the Northern Pacific Railroad, was taken over and the plant moved to its new site at Third and A Street Northwest. Early in 1910, Paul S. MacMichael purchased the company and later became president of the local plant.

According to Mark Smith in his essay "The History of American Terra-Cotta and its Local Manufacture," "The Northern Clay Company dug clay from fifty acres of company property along the Green River about eight miles north of the plant. The clay was hauled by wagons to the factory, which consisted of three terracotta kilns and one fire brick kiln, along with other buildings for designing, molding and drying terra cotta."

Few residents of the valley know that the terra cotta façade of the Frederick & Nelson building in downtown Seattle was produced in Auburn at the Northern Clay Company. Again, Mark Smith writes, "The Coliseum Theatre and the Washington Securities Building were clad in the Northern Clay Company's white satin-finished glazed terra-cotta; the Natatorium's ivory white terra-cotta, with the ornamentation on the pilasters and lower portions of the building highlighted by the background of golden yellow and green dolphins above the cornice, was also furnished by the company. Five hundred different shapes and sizes were used and the number of pieces totaled over 7,850. The 1920 terra-cotta contracts for the ten-story Telephone Building were won for a combined amount of approximately $50,000. Other buildings using Northern Clay's terra-cotta were the Joshua Green Building, the Securities Building, the Pantages Theatre, and Frederick & Nelson Department Store."

Gladding McBean Buys Northern Clay

In 1925, the largest producer of clay products on the West Coast, Gladding McBean & Co. from Lincoln, California, bought the Northern Clay Company including the Auburn plant. Gladding McBean was chartered in 1875 in California and by 1925 had 10 plants in California, Oregon, Washington (including Auburn, Renton, Taylor, and Mica), Montana, and British Columbia. It operated 200 kilns and employed more than 2,000 workers. The name and personnel of the Northern Clay Company were continued after the purchase. MacMichael remained with the company and was named a vice-president of Gladding McBean. Chief chemist A. Lee Bennett also remained and in 1936 became vice-president, Southern Division of Gladding McBean. Willis E. Clark, widely known in the brick and terra-cotta industry in the Northwest, was added to the sales force. Sales offices were opened in Seattle and Portland to handle the product from both the Northern Clay Company and Gladding McBean.

Northern Clay grew to 10 times its original size, employing 75 to 100 men and acquiring nearly five acres of land at Third and A Street, just outside of then downtown Auburn. The monthly payroll grew to $15,000. Equipment and fixtures were valued at $100,000. The plant produced an average of 250 tons of clay products each month. In Seattle, the Dexter Horton building, the Olympic Hotel, the Northern Life Tower, and the Federal Office Building, among others, were supplied with architectural terra cotta from Auburn. By 1927, Northern Clay Company's name was changed to Gladding McBean, Auburn Plant.

In March 1929, Seattle Star journalist Harry B. Mills visited the Auburn plant and wrote: 

"The parking strip has been planted to grass and holly trees, the latter having achieved a growth of about 12 feet above the ground. While many of the samples are shown through photographs of the finished product as actually used in buildings, still another important exhibit has been set up in a little garden back of the office, with three walled sides, grass and shrubbery. Here panels along the walls [show] many colorful samples and the pillars and garden pieces are seen as they would appear in attractive home surroundings.

Three clays secured from Green River deposits, one type which is shipped here from California and ground and pulverized fire brick are the main components of terra cotta. These are fed from automatic hoppers onto a moving belt which takes the whole combination into mixing tumblers where water and a small percentage of barium carbonate is added.

When this whole has been thoroughly mixed it is ready for pressing into molds with color added or not as the particular job may call for. These colors are ground right in the plant and the whole world is drawn on for these carious glazes. They are ground uniformly on an upper floor, go into tanks and are drawn off on the floor below (the pressing room) as needed.

The pressed product is then fired for 96 hours at an even temperature when it is ready to step out and assume its place in the structures which house our modern business laboratories.

The very first step is the passing along to the drafting room of the architect's drawings or the artist's plans. Oftentimes these creative minds have failed to allow for the peculiarities of terra cotta, and whole plans must be drawn up on the scale of one foot and seven inches to every foot desired in the finished product.

This allows for the shrinkage which comes in the firing of the pressing units. These plans then go into the modeling room. Here under the watchful eye of Louis Shubert, head modeler, a force of four artists work out in actual clay the designs which have been prepared by the drafting room. This oftentimes is very delicate work requiring the use of a human model.

The clay model then goes into the plaster of Paris room where it is coaxed by another group of highly skilled workmen to a uniform thickness. From this the cast is made which is used in the pressing room.

On the day of our visit, a set of models for decorative friezes for the Medical and Dental building being erected in Vancouver were drying. The New Orpheum, Medical and Dental Building, American Automobile Co., Marlbourough Arms apartments and many other of Seattle's newer structures also used these terra cotta decorations."

Louis Shubert, head modeler for the Auburn Gladding McBean plant, came from Austria in 1904, originally to produce works for the St. Louis World's Fair. His family recalls that Shubert's daughter Emily was born during the World's Fair and her face was used as a model for his terra cotta work. He later came to work at Gladding McBean. Louis lived in Seattle near Garfield High School and commuted on the Interurban Railroad to Auburn. Using his notebook, he would sketch designs requested by an architect or builder and determine the amount of clay required for modeling. This sketchbook and a large collection of photographs of his work resides in the collection of the White River Valley Museum, donated by his grandson Jerry Requa.

Other notable Seattle buildings decorated by Northern Clay include the Washington Athletic Club, Hec Edmundson Pavillion at the University of Washington, and St. John the Evangelist Parish in Greenwood.

Depression and a Move From Auburn

This rich industry was not to continue forever. In 1929 the stock market crashed -- it was the beginning of the Great Depression. Naturally, new construction came to a standstill. There were floors of empty space in office buildings throughout the country. Lack of work and overhead costs closed the Auburn plant of Gladding McBean & Co. in December 1932. The only local building built with terra cotta from 1930 through the 1940s was the Woolworth building in downtown Seattle. All operations were consolidated with Gladding McBean's Renton plant turning out brick, the Taylor plant producing sewer pipe, and the Mica plant specializing in common and face brick. All Washington plants operated on a limited schedule. The Taylor coal and clay mines as well as the town were condemned by the Seattle Water Department to expand its watershed.

In 1954, Gladding McBean built new offices and a warehouse on Elliott Avenue in Seattle, and a new lab building for the Renton facility. The company continued to operate as Gladding McBean & Co. until 1962 when it merged with Lock Joint Pipe Company to become known as International Pipe and Ceramics Corporation, later changing the name to Interpace.

Interpace sold the Lincoln, California, Gladding McBean plant in 1977 to Pacific Coast Building Products. The Glendale, California dinnerware and ceramics division was sold to Wedgewood in England in 1979 and the plant was closed in 1984 with production moving to the Johnson Brothers' division of Wedgwood.

Gladding McBean continues to produce architectural terra cotta, roofing tiles, and sewer tiles in Lincoln, California, one of the few remaining terra cotta plants in the United States.

In 1990 Gladding McBean began to reproduce a line of gardenware using the original molds and methods that have not changed since the plant began. However, the glazes have been reformulated to adhere to new environmental regulations and to closely match those made in the past. The plant also has the molds once used to produce architectural terra cotta and has produced many pieces used in the restoration and preservation of the country's fine old terra cotta-clad buildings.


"Paper Tells Interesting Story of Local Industry," Auburn Globe-Republican, March 21, 1929; "Local Terra Cotta Shipped to Shanghai," Ibid., June 23, 1922; Impressions of Imagination: Terra-cotta Seattle, Seattle: Allied Arts of Seattle, 1986; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "The Great Seattle Fire, Part 2," (by John Caldbick), (accessed July 24, 2020).  Note: This essay is based on the article "Green River Valley Clay Becomes Architectural Terra Cotta: Meade Pottery & the Northern Clay Company 1905 to 1927," by James Elliot, originally published in the White River Journal, July 1996, edited and expanded for HistoryLink, July 2020.

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