The House That a Pottery Built

William Day Gates, founder of an important terra-cotta tile and pottery company, built his retirement home in 1927. Decades later, it would take a knowledgeable Arts & Crafts collector to save the abandoned house in Illinois. Chicago architect John Eifler helped guide the restoration: “The house is a terra cotta and pottery catalog!” he says.

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. 

Built in 1927, the house has a simple, symmetrical plan focused on an enormous two-storey room.

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.

The entry doors in the big window center on the fireplace.

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.

The fireplace is the living room’s focal point, opposite the large window and under the upstairs gallery. Fireplace and floor tiles came from Gates’ factory. So did the “Teco green” pottery that owner Tim Pearson collected. 

“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.”

A frieze of landscape tiles ornaments the chimney breast. Said to be very valuable, it had been painted over when Tim Pearson bought Trails End, in 2008. He painstakingly, by hand, removed the paint.

“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.”

Three arches, supported by pilasters and columns encrusted with terra-cotta tiles, form a colonnade between living room and dining room.
In the dining room, a live-edge, white-oak table keeps company with Teco pots. Owner Tim Pearson made the table when the tree came down in a storm; the same tree supplied wood for the chandelier.

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. 

An early photo shows how authentic is the restoration.
The soaring living room has a colorful tiled floor, a huge bow-top window, and, under lofty beams, soft stenciling.

“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!”

• Pearson was a passionate and knowledgeable collector of antique furniture and Teco pottery. Much of his Gustav Stickley furniture and pottery was purchased over the years at the annual Arts & Crafts Conference, at the Grove Park Inn, in Asheville, N.C.

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.

Architect John Eifler wonders how the terra cotta was applied to round columns, between the main rooms; he is glad they’ve survived intact.

“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.

A pretty, tiled bridge spanned a small pond when the house was new. Today, it crosses water released by the geothermal system.

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’.”  

A family photo was taken at the museum at TC Industries. From left: Dominic Lancia, Mandy Lancia, Ben Pearson, and Julie and Tim Pearson.

Read more about the history of Teco pottery:


John Eifler, Eifler Associates, Chicago: 

Jonathan P. Leck, J.P. Leck Design, St. Paul, MN:

wood milling
Adrian Plante, Wood Urban Design

hammered sconces
Jebb Anderson, Coppersmith: see Anderson Art Metal at

Toomey & Co. Auctioneers, Oak Park, IL:

Eastwood Gallery, St. Paul, MN:

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