Monday, May 30, 2011

The 1886 Potter Building -- Park Row and Beekman Street

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At around 10:00 pm on January 31, 1882 the editor of the New York Observer, Samuel Irenaeus Prime and his son, Wendell, the associate-editor, were at work in the Potter Building at 37 Park Row (also known as the World Building). Somewhere in the building--which was mainly occupied by printing firms and newspaper companies--a fire broke out.  Fueled by flammable liquids the conflagration quickly spread. Prime and his son escaped down the stairs while Presbyterian minister Charles Augustus Stoddard, who also worked at the newspaper, rushed to secure records and close the safe.

Trapped, Stoddard inched his way along the Observer sign on the outside wall to an adjoining building. Two other men dropped from a signboard at the fourth story and were caught by firefighters. But before the fire was extinguished, twelve people were dead and the building gutted at a cost of $400,000.

The flames had engulfed the structure so quickly that the Fireman’s Herald wrote that the building “made itself notorious the country over for burning up in the shortest time on record,” and its wealthy owner, Orlando Bronson Potter, was brought before a grand jury.

Potter immediately set forth to rebuild. He commissioned architect Norris Garshom Starkweather, whose offices had been in the burnt-out building, to design its replacement. Within two weeks of the fire Potter announced he would build the largest office building in New York and it would be “absolutely fireproof inside as well as outside.”

Estimated to cost $700,000 it would be constructed of “the best bricks, pressed bricks, terra cotta, and iron,” according to The New York Times. “The roof and floor beams will be of rolled iron, and all floors, except the basement, will be laid on iron girders.”

Ground was broken in April 1883 for the eleven-story building. For the first time in New York the hidden structural steel was fireproofed by ornate terra cotta. The Fireman’s Herald praised the effort, saying “the new structure will be famous as the result of much thought and many experiments in order to put up an ideal fireproof building, and it will endure for ages.”

Construction was not without its problems, however.

In 1884, with construction well underway, the Hugh W. Adams & Co. pig iron merchants went bankrupt. “The failure is the result of the individual embarrassment of Mr. Adams in undertaking to carry out the iron work for the new potter Building,” reported The Times. That same year the bricklayers’ union struck and a year later the painters and carpenters working on the building went on strike, further slowing progress.

By the middle of 1885 the cost of construction had risen to $1.2 million – an astronomical amount at the time. Finally, in June 1886, the building was complete.

Street car tracks run down the middle of the streets and horse-drawn drays line Park Row near the newly-completed Potter Building -- photo NYPL Collection
Starkweather had stressed the verticality of his design resulting in a structure that soars skyward.  He married Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, Renaissance Revival and Greek Revival styles, resulting in what the AIA Guide to New York City would a century later dub an “elaborately ornate confection in cast and pressed terra cotta.”

The Potter Building in 1895 - King's Photographic Views of New York
In 1899 the History of Architecture and the Building Trades of Greater New York disagreed somewhat, saying that “as a design [it] is unusual and perhaps excessive in detail, but has great interest in the disposition of its masses.”

The Press occupies the first floor in 1895 -- King's Photographic Views of New Yor
Sitting at the corner of Park Row and Beeckman Street, the Potter Building anchored “Newspaper Row.” Its location, convenient to City Hall, made it a favorite site for the offices of the city newspapers. The New York Observer immediately moved back in along with other newspapers including the Republican Party’s favorite The Press. There were 200 offices in the building leased to other types of companies, such as the Otis Elevator headquarters, the printing paper manufacturer Adams & Bishop Co., The American Art Papers, and the New York Architectural Terra Cotta Company.

"Newspaper Row" in 1936 with the Potter Building at far right -- photo NYPL Collection
Orlando Potter, who was not only active in real estate but a well-known politician, established his own offices in the new building until his sudden death in 1894. Potter’s real estate holdings alone were estimated at about $6 million yet he left no will nor instructions on how to distribute his wealth.

In April of 1929 A. M. Bing & Co. purchased the building, however it was taken over in foreclosure by the Seamen’s Bank for Savings in 1941 for $500,000. A year after the Federal Public Housing Authority leased one and a half floors in 1944, a syndicate headed by Borrok, Steingart Borrok bought the building for $775,000.

In the socially-turbulent 1960s the Potter Building was home to the Congress of Racial Equality.

A century after the Potter Building was a major member of Newspaper Row a two-year conversion to residential use was begun in 1979.

Today Orlando Potter’s ground-breaking fireproof structure is an elaborate fixture in the City Hall neighborhood. Born of a disastrous conflagration that caused fire laws for construction to be reworked, it stands as an early example of calculated fireproof construction.

In designating it a landmark, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission praised “some of the handsomest brickwork in New York City” and gratefully noted that “its original design is nearly intact.”

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