Full Circle

A longtime Manhattan Beach resident knows Metlox not only as a “center” but also as the name behind one of the South Bay’s earliest exports: ceramics.

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  • Written by
    Jan Dennis

One of the most controversial parcels of land to be developed in the downtown Manhattan Beach area was to be known as the Metlox Town Square. The sandy, virgin acreage had been leveled between 1921 and 1922 with the Santa Fe Railway Company’s intention to construct a warehouse and waiting room. However, in 1927, Mr. T.C. Prouty purchased the four acres of this parcel, acting on a strong feeling that the South Bay was to become one of the greatest manufacturing districts in the United States.

Prouty was an inventor, manufacturer and visionary, who in 1921 had organized a California corporation, the Proutyline Products Company, specializing in the development of patents.

Finding a new process for the development of “day-light” signs was a significant undertaking. Ceramic letters were made from selected metallic oxides, harvested from the company’s own mines in the hills and deserts of California. The letters served as an insulated base for the ornate neon tubing. Metlox made signs for such landmarks as the Pantages Theater, Pathe Studios and Warner Brothers Theater in Huntington Park. The company name, Metlox, was an abbreviation of metal oxide.

With the death of T.C. Prouty in 1931, Willis became vice president and signed a contract to sell letter-neon signs in 11 western states. However, the demand for the product diminished during the Depression, and the company took a different direction.

In 1932, Willis introduced the manufacturing of clay dinnerware into the business profile, producing three design lines. The most famous of the lines was “Poppy Trail.”

During World War II, the company diverted from dinnerware to manufacturing items for the war effort, such as shell casings and parts for B-25 bombers and other machines.

Following the war, the Metlox Company was purchased by Evan K. Shaw, former owner of American Pottery. Over the next 37 years, Shaw specialized in the production of quality earthenware, artwork and dinnerware. “California Ivy” was his first item design to go worldwide. At the peak of operation, there were some 500 employees on site, making the business the largest in Manhattan Beach.

The land and facilities had served the Proutyline and Metlox Pottery well until 1987, when a warning notice was issued by the County Sanitation Districts for violating the wastewater ordinance. The discovery of lead, cadmium, silicon and zinc shattered any hope of developing the property.

Due to mounting expenses amidst working to make the land environmentally sound and an ensuing legal battle, Metlox pottery closed its doors on May 31, 1989 after declaring bankruptcy. The wrecking ball soon demolished a memorable landmark and left speculation on future development at the site.

With the exception of a temporary parking lot that the city developed on the north portion of the site and a large depression created by the evacuation of the toxic soil at the south end, the acreage was close to becoming virgin land once again. It has come full circle. By 1996, a new vision was born in the form of the Metlox Center shops and restaurants. Yet a reminder of the original structure remains in the ceramic tiles that greet visitors as they descend the driveway to metered parking below.