I was just around here, I know, but I forgot that this was the corner I actually wanted to write about. It’s one block up from the Park Row Building. And it’s so much prettier! Do you know when you see a building that just sings so loudly of its time period? Simply looking at it makes you feel you understand a little bit of how these people must have lived? And no doubt about it — these people really lived. They had beliefs, in things material. But maybe that’s the red brick talking, which I would call the color of our golden past. Which time period does everybody want to go back to? I’m guessing the 1880s to the 1920s, or somewhere in that range. Good red brick country.
The Potter Building fits that bill nicely. It was finished in 1886, the era just preceding the development of full-on skyscrapers. Before 1870 most big commercial buildings in New York were built along the lines of an Italian Renaissance palazzo, four stories with a mansard or towered roof. As the technology that would lead to skyscrapers developed – steel-frame construction and elevators – the architectural possibilities for office buildings increased. There was more you could do with them. The Potter Building’s facade was a mixture of many different styles, including Queen Anne, Neo-Grecian, and Colonial Revival motifs. Now do I really know the difference between those types of things? What stands out stronger to me is the terra cotta relief, used extensively on the exterior. Now do I know a lot about terra cotta? Well let me ask you something: do you?
Terra cotta served the dual purpose of being a relatively inexpensive building material and an almost fire-proof one. This was especially important to Orlando Potter when he was putting up his building. Potter had initially bought the lot at Park Row and Beekman Street in 1857, and erected the five story Park Building, right next door to the original New York Times Building which had opened in 1851. Park Row at that time, up until the 1920s, was the center of newspaper publishing in the city, and went by the moniker of “Newspaper Row.” The Park Building eventually became the home of the New York World, founded in 1860, and was known as the World Building there after. It burned down in a fire in 1882 in which several people died. An account of the day called it “notorious the country over for burning up in the shortest time on record.” Potter began his new building on the same spot almost immediately after the fire, eager to make sure the same fate didn’t occur. It’s cast-iron frame, surrounded by brick and terra cotta, made it as fire-proof as the times allowed.
The possibilities for terra cotta were so great, and so underdeveloped in New York, that Potter started his own New York Architectural Terra Cotta Company in 1886, the same year the Potter Building opened. He must have been doing something wrong though because his new factory in Long Island City burned down completely the year it opened, although he rebuilt it again right away. I guess he was the type to take it all in stride. It seems like he was good at diversifying, expanding his options. He first made his money as president of a sewing machine company. Sewing machines! That used to be a hot racket. Shirt collars, vacuum cleaners, ball bearings, newspapers. Things that you could pick up in your hand. The Potter Building today has been converted into a cooperative, with loft apartments, like a lot of the old office buildings in the area. There are larger office buildings now, where people make more money working at more abstract things – a world away in a certain sense from the old red brick days. They’re still humans though, you know what I mean? I’ll bet they still take lunch breaks. They wonder what they’re going to eat.
(Originally posted July 3rd, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)