Stroll through New Orleans’ Lower Garden District and you can’t help but notice the historic tiles marking the name of each street.
They’re uniquely New Orleans and owner of Derby Pottery, Mark Derby, says some date back more than a century: “I think around 1890 or so is when the Belgians were installed, and I think around 1910-20 for the American style.”
The tiles were beautiful, visible, and surprisingly durable.
“It’s something that’s gonna last, be seen and really it’s very stable material,” Derby explains. “Colorfast. It will not change, it’s hard to deface.”
It wasn’t until the 1970s that these sidewalk tiles really started getting damaged. In the process of installing curb cuts for folks with disabilities, construction companies either didn’t know how to preserve the tiles or they just didn’t care.
But that’s starting to change. As part of a $6.7 million Magazine Street upgrade the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development preserved remaining tiles and replaced those they couldn’t … 3,000 to be exact!
That’s where Mark Derby comes in. He’s the only potter in town who produces a suitable replacement.
“We are probably different from most other potters in that we’re the only one that I’m aware of that’s making tile full time or in earnest, seriously.”
The process is time consuming and tedious, piping in each color, allowing time to dry and then filling the rest of the mold with clay.
After a trip to the kiln, Derby’s handmade reproduction is complete, a modern nod to days gone by, ready to dot street corners and homes around New Orleans for another 100 years.