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Backesto Fountain sits modestly in the Western edge of Backesto Park along North 13th Street. Barely larger than a person and long since an active fountain, you have probably driven by it hundreds of times without ever noticing it. Yet the Backesto Fountain is at the very geographic, cultural and historical heart of the Northside Neighborhood.
The clay fountain is a jewel, the symbolic face of Backesto Park, located between Empire and Jackson, North 13th and North 15th Streets, in the center of our neighborhood. It displays a cross inscribed, "Backesto Park. Donated to City of San Jose by Ana E. Backesto in memory of her busband, Dr. John Pierre Backesto." The fountain, installed in 1922, dates back to the founding of the park nearly 80 years ago. Yet the most exceptional thing about the fountain is that it is emblazoned with beautifully decorative Arts & Crafts tiles manufactured here in San Jose by one of the most prominent tile makers of the era, Solon & Schemmel.
"Albert Solon, together with his partner, Frank Schemmel, began a distinctive tile manufacturing career back in the early 1920's in San Jose, California," wrote Northside resident Jeanne Lazzarini in the Summer/Fall 1995 edition of Style 1900, a quarterly journal of the Arts & Crafts movement. "Withstanding the test of time... exquisite examples of Solon's magnificent work appear throughout the West; a testimony to the abundant popularity of his unique decorative tile artistry."
During the 1920s, Solon& Schemmel tiles were incorporated into schools in Oakland and San Francisco, war memorials in Berkeley, theaters in Los Angeles, YMCA buildings in San Diego and Honolulu, and even the Hearst Castle in San Simeon. The tiles can still be seen on classroom buildings at San Jose State University. However, Lazzarini wrote, "the Backesto Fountain... is the oldest dated S&S installation."
Solon & Schemmel were part of a distinctively California aesthetic craft. At the turn of the century, Lazzarini observed, "California offered perfect clay soils and a new place to create hand-finished work reflective of the then recently popular Mission Revival, Spanish Revival, and innovative American Arts and Crafts bungalow architecture... With abundant valleys rich in clay soils, California attracted imaginative artists from all over the world, eager to explore different methods for making and using tiles."
Solon was an Englishman who had emigrated to Northern California in 1908. He taught ceramics and physics at the old San Jose Normal School (now San Jose State). Solon was introduced to Schemmel by Ernie Curtis - the man who designed Backesto Fountain. The partners opened their tile factory in 1920 near downtown San Jose. According to San Jose State archivist Jack Douglas, "Each tile installation became a ceramic masterpiece and soon stairs, floors, fountains, fireplaces, mantles, archways and wall treatments all over California were adorned with [Solon's] ornament."
Solon & Schemmel's business outlasted them, and continues today on Pomona Avenue in San Jose in the incarnation of Stonelight Tile, one of only three California tile manufacturers from the 1920's to have survived. The tiles have seen a revival of interest, including among movie stars and royalty, like Barbra Streisand and the King of Saudi Arabia, who "were known to frequent the San Jose factory, enthusiastically snatching up the beautifully handcrafted Stonelight tiles," Lazzarini wrote.
Of course, you don't have to be royalty to enjoy the beauty and history of Solon & Schemmel tiles. The earliest extant example is right here on the Northside. The Backesto Fountain "is a treasure," Lazzarini said in a telephone interview. "A lot of people go by it and just don't realize it."
Listen to Backesto Fountain audio commentary from Joe Golda and Nat Robinson.
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