The next time you’re at White Rock Lake, take a look at the chandeliers hanging from the ceilings of the Big Thicket building. Or the lanterns topping the stone posts at Plaza Solana. Or the lights along the stone bridge at Garland Road and East Lawther. Each piece of hand-forged metalwork was designed by a member of the Potter family, and more can be found throughout the neighborhood, from the lanterns at Woodrow Wilson High School to the staircase rail at Lakewood Theater.
The business began in Henry Potter’s back yard when he built a set of metal lanterns for his home. As neighbors and local businesses took notice of his handiwork, special orders came pouring in. Henry hired some extra help and in 1924 moved the business out of his back yard and into a factory on Henderson Avenue in what is now called Potter Square.
The venture proved to be extremely successful — and busy. So Potter hired his father to carry some of the load. He also supervised his daughter, Eva Potter Morgan, as she began designing some of the metal art. Potter’s son, Richard Joseph I, didn’t have much interest in the business, but he did help with the sales. It turned out to be Richard’s son and namesake, Lakewood resident Richard Joseph II, who became a “true craftsman” Morgan says.
The younger Richard Potter learned the craft spending his summers and school vacations at his grandfather’s shop on Henderson.
“We didn’t have computers, or rollerblades, or anything. My fun was coming down to the shop and watching the guys work,” he says.
In 1971, Richard finished college and began working for his grandfather. Three months later, Henry Potter passed away. His death filled Richard with anger and regret, knowing that he had so much more to learn from Henry. But he stuck with the family business until his father’s death in 1979.
“I had grown up around this business and had been doing it forever. I always planned on opening it back up, but I took a little break when my father died to do some other things for awhile,” he says.
Richard had experience as a recreational pilot several years earlier, so during his break, he opened a helicopter company for flight training and aerial advertising. His temporary business venture was going well until he crashed one of his helicopters in 1992. It wasn’t too serious, but the close call turned out to be a wake-up call.
Richard took one of the helicopters out the very next day “just to get it out of my system,” he says. “I came back and sold everything — the helicopters and everything. I realized I wanted to open up the [metal] business again.”
Richard had refused to sell his grandfather’s shop on Henderson for more than a decade, despite many interested buyers. So he reopened the warehouse and started cleaning the old machines while his wife Debbie swept the floors and answered the phones.
“He didn’t really need a Girl Friday because at first the calls were coming in drips and drabs,” she says.
One of the first calls came from an original customer.
“It was really wild because the first job was the people from the Wynne Chapel wanting more lights that my grandfather had done 50 years ago. Another church in Richardson wanted a communion set. A Greek Orthodox church wanted lighting fixtures. Right off the bat, it was three jobs for three churches, and people started hearing that I was open again and just came looking for me,” Richard says.
Potter Art Metal Studios Inc. has since moved to a new workshop near Inwood and I-35, where Richard employs 25 welders and designers to hand-forge everything from sconces to staircases.
“I call it extreme metalwork because we go to the extremes and do all kinds of different things,” he says. “Really, we’re a group of artisans.”
Much of the original work still stands in Dallas churches, parks, shopping centers, and hotels. Here in our neighborhood, Potter metalwork adorns parks at White Rock Lake, homes on Swiss Avenue, the Arboretum’s DeGolyer Mansion, and Hutsell homes on Lakewood Boulevard and Avalon Avenue. Richard has reproduced some of his grandfather’s work that has deteriorated or disappeared over the years, including the chandeliers and sconces inside the Big Thicket building, and much of the iron railing and light fixtures in our neighborhood’s historic districts.
Brian and Lynne Boyd’s Lakewood Boulevard home is one these projects. They own Clifford D. Hutsell’s family home from the 1930s and have been restoring it for the past 12 years.
“I’d say about 90 percent of it is original Potter metal — the stair banister, the decorative window screens, the arched gate leading into the courtyard. We have several pieces,” Brian Boyd says. “Richard’s been over to the house several times and enjoys looking at the work. We plan to re-do the original staircase inside the house.”
The Boyds are lucky to have the original Potter metalwork in their home, Richard says, because many of the original owners take their metal artwork with them when they move. But he doesn’t mind having to reproduce his grandfather’s work.
“I love having the satisfaction of building something that is well-designed and well-built and knowing the customers are so happy with the product,” Richard says. “We know they are because they come back after all these years. Or their children come back, and bring their parents who worked with my grandfather.”
He had three more good reasons to forge ahead with the family business — his triplets, Sabra, R.J. and Baron. Now 18, they work for their father and already have deemed the family trade “our business.” They were 3 when Richard’s helicopter accident shook him up, and part of his decision to reignite the torches was to “teach the triplets so they could learn while I’m still here,” Richard says, reasoning that, after all, “metalwork is a lost art.”
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