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Architecture Misfit #20: Edward T. Potter

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Another New York post. We can call this one Serious New York, or perhaps New York in the Time of Cholera. The link between poor housing and diseases such as yellow fever and cholera was established in 1820 by a Dr. Richard Pennell but squalid conditions in tenements continued to result in major outbreaks in 1822, 1823, 1832 and 1834 and even larger ones in 1849 and 1866. Gotham Court was a target for early housing reforms. It was nasty.

Untitled 2
Gotham Court

[I have Richard Plunz’s excellent book A History of Housing in New York City to thank for most of the information and all the plans in this post.]


Only around 1850 did there even begin to be a desire to improve things.

1850 reforms

The first results were the Workingmens’ Buildings of 1865. They featured a ventilated access corridor and privy [a room or building with one or more toilets].

Workingmens Buildings.jpeg

It still had windowless rooms – a situation that was to become more common until the first tenement housing legislation of 1879.

Railroad Flat

Lack of legislation led to developments such as The Rookery in 1865. It had three parallel lines of development across five small lots – a denser kind of nasty.


Even so, it wasn’t uncommon elsewhere for rooms to have windows facing walls a foot away.


The first ‘improved’ tenements saw the addition of airshafts giving the appearance of the opportunity of ventilation to inner rooms. Note the diamond-shaped shaft in the example on the left.

air shaft

• • •


Edward Tuckerman Potter 

In 1874 Edward Tuckerman Potter completed his house for Mark Twain that he is best remembered for, mostly because it was for Mark Twain rather than its Victorian Gothic design that, although lovely, was unremarkable for the time.


Mark Twain House was the exception for Potter was essentially an architect of churches. Sixty-six of his seventy-nine known buildings are churches.

The most famous is Nott Memorial Hall at the Union College campus in Schenectady NY (1858-1879).


Nott Hall and Mark Twain House are both National Historic Landmarks but many of Potter’s other buildings are on registers of historic buildings. Potter was comfortable with the styles of the day and had the sense to restrain his taste for Gothic and polychromy to suit the budgets and sensibilities of his client parishes. He had a successful career and retired in 1877 at the age of 46.

• • •

In 1879 a new magazine called Plumbing and Sanitary Engineer ran a competition calling for the design of improved tenement housing. The competition brief was to provide better ventilation, sanitation and fireproofing yet at the same time provide sufficient accommodation to make building the design economically viable as an investment. This was the winning entry by James E. Ware.

Dumbell Apartment

Ware’s proposal wasn’t particularly innovative but it did imply that the size of the airshafts could be doubled by building identical buildings adjacent. Other entries took this as a premise. This next scheme by George Da Cunha was designed to be built in pairs with open galleries around an airshaft which for the first time seems like it could also function as a light well.

George Da Cuhna

It’s probably unfair to remember James E. Ware only as the inventor of the ‘dumbell apartment’ for he did submit another scheme proposing an idea similar to Da Cunha’s but more elegantly solved. It placed ninth.

Ware ninth.jpeg

This next scheme by Robert G. Kennedy connects the lightwell to the street to make it into an alleyway. This increases the volume of air that can move, particularly if the proposal is built in pairs along and across the block.

Robert G. Kennedy

Nevertheless, the competition and Ware’s winning entry came in for some well-deserved criticism.

Ware criticism

This must have stung, for Ware modified his winning entry to provide the internal room with a window. He would have known he was increasing the external surface area of the building and making it less profitable for developers.

Ware revision

What we can learn from this is that it took some timely criticism articulating the changing public mood to remind developers and their architects of their duty to society. Enough was enough. Over the next several years, Potter was to give some thought to how to improve tenement housing. This is what he came up with.

Potter 1.jpg
  • His most radical suggestion was to increase the lot to 37.5′ from the 25′ that was the norm. To compensate, there are now six apartments rather than Ware’s four on a 25′ lot, producing no net change in density.
  • Two of those apartments are now large four-room apartments while the others remain three-room. This is a net space gain.
  • As in the Kennedy proposal, the light wells are now access alleyways with space for planting on the sides of the paths. Integrating the lightwell and access route means no internal area needs to be used to access stairwells. It also means all apartments can be accessed from stair landings.
  • All rooms have windows.
  • All apartments have not only ventilation but cross ventilation.
  • Walls angle windows towards the street increasing views and lessening angles of overlooking across the alleyway.
  • Stairwells are naturally lit and ventilated.

This is what it looked like. The year was 1888.

  • The building was made completely made of masonry, steel, and glass.
  • The stairs were roofed in glass.
  • Some windows had translucent louvres for privacy and others had sun shading devices.
  • Roofs had gardens [!]
  • Each apartment would receive at least one hour of direct sunlight daily. This would be determined by the width of the alleyways and must be what led Potter to propose increasing the lot width. It would also be why the building tapers towards the front.
  • Today, we would comprehend this building as ‘functionalist’ in terms of style but functionalism hadn’t been invented yet as a way to design buildings, let alone labelled a style. (The perforated balustrades are intriguing, using less material to make void into ornament as they do.)

Ensuring adequate sunlight and ventilation was one of Potter’s preoccupations but not only for tenement buildings. This next image is from a study, published in 1887, showing how to achieve maximum light and ventilation for the new high-rise buildings. These principles first appeared in New York City building legislation in 1916, more fully in 1929.

Potter 3

In 1897 Potter attended the International Congress on Low Cost Housing in Brussels and presented his designs and the model pictured above. It’d be wonderful to know who else attended this Congress. J P Oud probably didn’t as he was seven and the Swiss boy who was to become Le Corbusier was ten. But if, for example, Henry van de Velde attended the Congress prior to his move to Weimar two years later, that would link Potter with European Functionalism and the European Modernism that was to be imported back to the United States thirty years later minus European ideas of social utility, let alone the original American ones.

• • •

Edward Tuckerman Potter died on December 21, 1904. An obituary in The American Architect reports that Potter, ‘possessing independent means,’ was able to retire early and devote himself to ‘travel, the study of music and philanthropy.’ Potter worked in his later years to devise “ways and means of securing to tenement houses and their inmates not only economical and convenient planning, but the best of natural ventilation and lighting. In all tenement and prison reform movements he took an active part, so that, quite apart from his architectural work, he led a satisfying and useful life, to which further grace was added by his musical successes as a composer of sacred and even operatic scores.”

We don’t know what Potter thought of his church buildings but his work to improve tenements showed he viewed philanthropy and social utility as something separate from architecture. It’s still common to think so, even today. By applauding anything we call ‘humanitarian’ if it happens in some other country, we like to think architecture and humanitarianism are merging. They’re not. The two will remain firmly separate until we develop a concept of what a humanitarian architecture is in our own countries. Until that time, we’re just outsourcing gratification as our capacity to produce it hollows out.

Unlike us, Potter’s concerns were not separated across countries but across time. He had to retire from architecture before turning his attention to humanitarian concerns such as improving tenement housing. But at least he did! His interest may have been humanitarian rather than architectural but, once he put his architectural mind to it, he solved the problem quickly and he solved it well. He’s not a hero. He merely freed himself from the professional conventions and stylizations of his time to do what he felt he had to do. As most architects devote much of their energies to aligning themselves with the conventions and stylizations of their times, perhaps he’s a hero after all. Either way,


Edward Tuckerman Potter 

for becoming an architect after retiring from architecture

misfits’ salutes you!




  • Thanks, that’s such an interesting story!

    According to this he was already thinking about tenement houses right after retiring in 1878. It seems there should be more information in “New York 1880: Architecture and Urbanism in the Gilded Age” by Robert Stern but I don’t have it in any libraries where I live.

    I’m also wondering if the idea got any recognition. Just scrolling around NYC on Google Maps, there are some houses that are reverse of Potters plan (the alleyway opening to the back-yard not the street). But all of those are still the typical 25′ not Potters 37’6”.

    • Well spotted! I’m not surprised he was already thinking about it. I’ll keep an eye out for the book – I see it’s still in print. Probably more difficult to find is “Concentrated Residence Studies from 1854 to 1901” that Potter wrote and had published in 1902. That’d be nice to find. In that book I mentioned, Potter is also mentioned as arguing that legislation shouldn’t solely concern itself with tenements but should apply equally to all buildings including upmarket apartments, some of which had begun to use upscaled tenement plans but with elevators in the light shafts. Housing legislation was unified, but it was early the next century. Around that time, Potter did receive some recognition for his pioneering work. and went to the Congress in Brussels. I’m glad I found out about Potter but it does make me wonder what else we might have missed out on with our conventional history of styles that goes Chicago School – Beaux Arts Revival – Art Nouveau – De Stijl – Bauhaus. Potter had used iron columns in some of his churches. It’s a shame we never went from Chicago School to Weissenhof in two moves and in two decades instead of five.

  • It is interesting, in Wikipedia they skip the part of his life when he left “architecture to become an architect” !

    I was wondering, there is a little bit of moorish architecture in his work prior to retirement.

    Thanks for writing this, I enjoy reading your articles.

    • Alaa hello! What you’re probably noticing is the polychrome masonry and yes, it also makes me think of the Mosque in Cordoba. It’s mostly the two colours of stones making the arches that does it. You can see the same thing on the façade of St. Pancras Station in London. That’s from 1868 and the same period Potter was active in. It probably is a Moorish influence. Victorians were enthusiastic travellers and adopters of anything (1) exotic and (2) attractive.