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Roving Rube

Terra Cotta

July 3, 2003

Potter Building, 38 Park Row












1883-84, Norris G. Starkweather; New York City Landmark.
Boston Terra Cotta Company. Brick with terra-cotta ornament. Office building converted to apartments.
(Source: "Terra-Cotta Skyline", by Susan Tunick).

The Rube had always thought of this as a just a spectacular red building, but up close (2-jpg), one sees the ornamental details are brown -- not brownstone, of course, or they would resemble melted fudgsicles after 120 years, but more of our resilient new friend, terra cotta. The Rube would not have thought of using red and brown together like this, but it works great, and he noticed the combination on one or two other buildings on subsequent walks.

The preceding O. B. Potter-owned building on this spot was destroyed in a terrible fire, and Mr. Potter was determined to make this new one fireproof. Guess what was used for fireproofing?

The metal used in early skyscrapers was best protected from fire when it was surrounded with a fire-resistant material. Although brick, plaster, and cement were tried, porous terra-cotta blocks proved to be the most suitable material for fireproofing. This method was especially effective when an air space was left between the pieces of terra cotta and the structural member they encased. ("Terra-Cotta Skyline", p. 21)

Potter went on to found the New York Architectural Terra Cotta Company and house it in this building.

The burning of the previous building is the climax of Jack Finney's historical romance, "Time and Again", about a man who travels back in time to 1882 NYC. Reading it again, the Rube remembered why he takes so many pictures:

... here the wall had fallen, and we looked into the emptiness of what had been the inside of the building ... it was already passing into -- not even history, but oblivion. At this moment a swarm of artists would be hard at work under gaslight, over at Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper a couple of blocks to the west ... carving out the woodcuts of the fire that would appear in a week or so. The girl beside me, and most of the city, would look at their work for a few moments, recreating the sensation. But I understood as they could not how quickly the men now carving those wooden blocks would be gone, together with the entire population that would look at them ... Here and there a last few copies would yellow in files, turning into something quaint and faintly amusing; and this vanished building and awful fire would be gone from all human memory ... I knew a time when this building and fire were as though they'd never been, and so I had the feeling now.































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