When, in 1927, William Day Gates built his retirement home, in Crystal Lake, about 50 miles northwest of Chicago, he aptly named it “Trails End.” Gates, the founder and president of the American Terra Cotta & Ceramic Co., apparently used whatever materials were lying around at the factory. He lavishly applied tiles inside and out and even used packing materials in the structure of the house itself.
Gates’ Illinois company made archi-tectural terra cotta for more than 8,000 buildings in the United States and Canada, among them the so-called “jewel- box” banks designed by Louis Sullivan, Chicago’s Carson Pirie Scott & Co. department store, buildings by Wright and by Purcell & Elmslie, and the Wrigley Building. His company also made Teco pottery.
It was therefore fitting that, after Trails End had stood uninhabited and neglected, the house was discovered, in 2008, by a passionate collector of Arts & Crafts furniture and pottery—especially Teco pottery.
“I first worked with Tim Pearson when he hired me to restore the 1911 Frank Lloyd Wright Balch House, in Oak Park,” says Chicago-based architect John Eifler. “Tim, the CFO of a big construction firm, had a huge Teco collection. He was one of the few people who saw this house’s value. It was in very rough shape by the time he found it.”
“It was being sold as a tear-down,” says Julie Pearson. “Tim couldn’t get a mortgage because the house had no heat, no electricity; it was uninhabitable.”
Tim and Julie spent a decade restoring the house, living off-site for the first eight years. John Eifler headed up a project that stabilized the 2,200-square-foot structure; built a new roof; installed copper gutters; added a bathroom; turned two small bedrooms into a large primary suite; installed new electric, heating, cooling, and plumbing systems; and replaced a lot of rotted wood.
“Although the house was a mess, it had its original layout and many key elements were intact,” Eifler says. “An enormous, arched living-room window and several eyebrow windows remained. Much of the wood needed replacement, but most of the original glass survived. As for the living and dining rooms: they are a veritable terra-cotta catalog!”
Gates used his company’s colorful products for the vast living-room floor and the projecting fireplace mantel and surround, for pilasters and columns, to decorate outdoor elements including a small bridge, and as punctuation marks on the house’s exterior.
“The interior is full of tiles dating to 1923,” Eifler says. “But there’s more tile everywhere and even three boxes of blue tile that was never used. Some of the technique is lost: For instance, when you fire clay, it shrinks a little. So how did they make the columns between the living room and dining room? The columns are round, encased in tile, without gaps. We don’t know how they did that.
“The tile that depicts a landscape, over the fireplace mantel, is very valuable,” he continues. “When we first got here, it had been painted over.”
With the help of TC Industries (still in existence but now making steel instead of terra cotta), the company donated over 15 crates of original tile from the catacombs of the factory to finish the bathrooms and make repairs in original material.
With reference to old photos, windows were returned to their original configuration. Walls inside were hand plastered and every inch of the exterior reparged. Interior tile was preserved with the utmost care. The soft stenciling on wood beams is original to the home and perhaps a nod to William Day Gates’ travels. Eifler’s right hand in the work was Jonathan Leck, a Minneapolis-based artisan who builds and sells Arts & Crafts-style lighting fixtures; restores woodwork, stone, and tile; and, as a specialty, has acted as a consultant in the restoration of several Frank Lloyd Wright houses, including Fallingwater.
“This was a beautiful project!” Leck recalls, “—although, when I arrived, plaster was falling off the ceiling. This house is one of a kind. Tim Pearson did a lovely thing when he saved this house.”
Pearson’s furniture collection includes original Stickley settees and Morris chairs, fumed-oak bookcases with leaded-glass doors, through-tenon lamp tables—and a live-edge table he himself built from a white oak that came down in a storm. Furnished rooms make a splendid backdrop for a singular collection of Teco pots, many in the signature Teco matte-green color.
Unfortunately, in April 2020, Tim passed away suddenly of a heart attack. “The loss was insurmountable to family and friends who had just gone in Covid-19 lockdown,” says his widow, Julie, who lives at Trails End today. “I have done my best to honor Tim’s vision and legacy by finishing the restoration of Trails End to fulfill his dream of being termed a ‘preservationist’.”
Read more about the history of Teco pottery:
John Eifler, Eifler Associates, Chicago: eiflerassociates.com
Jonathan P. Leck, J.P. Leck Design, St. Paul, MN: jpleckdesign.com
Adrian Plante, Wood Urban Design woodurbandesign.com
Jebb Anderson, Coppersmith: see Anderson Art Metal at eastwoodgallery.com
Toomey & Co. Auctioneers, Oak Park, IL: toomeyco.com
Eastwood Gallery, St. Paul, MN: eastwoodgallery.com
Clay Squared to Infinity claysquared.com
Handmade & period-style art tile
Motawi Tileworks motawi.com
Handmade art tile for architectural installation
Pewabic Pottery pewabic.org
Heirloom-quality art pottery & tile
Classic Gutter Systems classicgutters.com
Period-appropriate gutter systems & components