Our neighborhood boasts many generous and talented sons and daughters, past and present. These are the men and women who enrich our lives and the lives of future generations. Some of their legacies are sweeping and widely celebrated; others are more subtle treasures.
One of these civic contributions is in the area of visual art. We tend to either take this for granted or believe we have to go to a museum to view it, either here or as far away as New York, Paris or St. Petersburg.
But if we’re really observant, great art is right in front of us – as close as the picturesque railing we’ve walked past a hundred times.
From the seemingly humble beginnings of a blacksmith’s forge, one man has given us a public treasure, and his family continues that legacy today.
Henry Cornwell Potter’s metalwork artistry has made a significant contribution to the unique architecture in the Park Cities.
“Mr. Henry” turned his hobby of making small metal lanterns into a thriving business in 1922. Many homes, churches, parks and public buildings in our neighborhood feature Potter’s lanterns, grills, stair rails, andirons, gates, fences and doors. A few of the places to appreciate Potter’s art are the Inwood Theater, Highland Park Shopping Village, Highland Park United Methodist Church, SMU, Highland Park Town Hall, Versailles Park gazebo and Highland Park Presbyterian Church.
Potter was born in Dallas in 1892. When he was 12 years old, he began making small metal lanterns as a hobby. Two years later, he studied with the German craftsman Alfred Tetze. Beyond this brief tutelage, Potter was largely self-taught in metal work.
After living in Fort Worth for several years, Mr. Henry and his wife moved back to Dallas in 1922 and resumed his metal work hobby in his garage.
His ornate, wrought iron lanterns attracted the attention of friends and neighbors. They placed orders for these lanterns, but the business really took off when Mrs. Potter showed one of the lanterns to a buyer at Sanger Brothers Department Store downtown. The Sanger representative was impressed and ordered 100.
This small business became Potter Art Iron Studios, later Potter Art Metal Studios, and moved in 1924 to North Henderson. In addition to running his business, Potter taught metalwork at the Dallas Art Institute from 1924-1928.
The business always has been a family affair. Mrs. Potter was promoter and advisor. Henry was principal designer but, as the business grew, an artist was needed to render shop drawings and layouts. Cousin Billy Potter served for 25 years in this capacity. His drawings and illustrations are part of the collection now housed at the Hamon Art Center at SMU.
Mr. Henry’s father and brother worked in the studio during the World War II years, when it was a war plant making aluminum parts for military aircraft. Mr. Henry’s son, Richard Joseph Potter, joined the business after returning from the war. Henry’s daughter, Eva Jane Potter Morgan, joined the business in the design department after graduating from SMU.
Potter Art Metal Studios is still thriving today on North Henderson. Richard Potter continues his grandfather’s legacy by creating new pieces and restoring old ones. The Studios employ artisans who work on forges exactly like blacksmiths of old. From massive chandeliers and doors to communion sets and chalices, craftsmanship is preserved here.
Most of the designs are ancient and timeless – when Richard travels, he sees identical designs all over the world. The texture is forged into the metal, creating an almost life-like object.
A few months ago, Richard noticed that the torchieres, his grandfather’s original designs, in front of the Dallas Police Department were missing pieces and in need of restoration. He received permission from Mayor Kirk to take them down and is now in the process of replacing and repairing them. He calls projects like this his “little gift to the city.”
The father of 10-year-old triplets, Richard hopes that one of them will want to join the family business someday.
Eva Potter Morgan is preserving her father’s heritage by donating 1,600 renderings and illustrations to the Hamon Arts Library, the Jerry Bywaters Special Collections Wing at SMU. Eva wanted the collection to remain in Dallas in an institution that could provide adequate care, as well as making it accessible to researchers. Many of the renderings are in fragile condition but are, themselves, true works of art.
Also included in this collection are invoices documenting the studio’s transactions. Mrs. Morgan is still documenting the location of works manufactured by her father’s studio, and this information will be included in the collection when it is completed. Many people who own these treasures may not be aware of their value; in this way, Eva hopes to educate those with a personal link to the Potter legacy.
If you are interested in the Potter Metal Studio Collection’s drawings, contact Sam Ratcliffe, 214-768-2303, or Ellen Buie Niewyk, 214-768-1859, in Bywaters Special Collections at SMU’s Hamon Arts Library.
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