This week we’re going to check out the Potsdam Civic Center Complex, which was recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
On any given week, I can be found at the Potsdam Civic Center because it contains a few of my favorite things: the Potsdam Public Museum, the Planning Department, and the Potsdam Public Library. I was lucky enough to be involved in the research and documentation to get the property listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
When I moved back to the area in December 2015, I was asked to begin the process of placing the Civic Center listed in the National Register. The idea had come from the Village of Potsdam’s Comprehensive Plan, which had outlined getting the property of the Register. People who are involved in Potsdam’s local government thought it would be good to have someone who had education about the National Register to write the nomination. That’s how I got hired for the consultant project.
While getting this post together, I double checked the New York State’s historic preservation website. They have this online tool called CRIS, which stands for Cultural Resource Information System. The Civic Center Complex is now officially in the system and the super exciting part is that my name is listed as one of the contact people! Last post I mentioned how I work at Lowe’s and I do preservation projects on the side. This morning when I was looking at CRIS, it was nice to see the work that I’ve done actually be there in written record.
It was nominated under two criteria of significance, which strengthened its potential to be listed in the National Register. The Complex is significant in regards to broad patterns of history. In this case the Civic Center is important to local history in relation to local government, community planning and development, and social history. The property was also deemed significant because of its architectural style and development.
A major source that I used for researching the Civic Center New York State Historic Newspapers. The construction process for the Civic Center was reported on extensively. It was a big deal!
The Civic Center was constructed during the Great Depression between 1934-35 to fulfill two needs of the local community: a community center that could offer space for both the Village and Town of Potsdam governments, local organizations, and the Library; and offer relief efforts for the unemployed in the area. The building project was funded through a variety of resources included bonds and Great Depression relief programs such as the Civic Works Administration (CWA) and the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA).
One of my favorite quotes I found while researching the Civic Center was from Mayor Kendall, the person who pushed for the Civic Center. He felt strongly about the project and its overall benefits to the community by stating, “We shall construct this community center with three major objects in view: maximum Potsdam labor, lowest possible cost and the production of a community center in which citizens will take great pride.”i
The Civic Center was officially dedicated on May 23rd, 1935; the event was attended by Mayor Kendall, William E. Flanders, who was a village trustee member, Julius Frank of the TERA office in Ogdensburg, Dixon Ryan Fox, Union College President, and various local officials and community members.ii
Once the Potsdam Civic Center was opened, space was reserved in the basement for various organizations including the American Legion, the Boy Scouts, and the Girl Scouts. The auditorium had a 1,000 person capacity and was used for theater and concerts.iii In 1940, the Potsdam Public Museum was formed and took up residence in one of the stack rooms of the Library in the basement of the Civic Center.iv
The use of the Potsdam Civic Center continued up until February 1942, when The Raquette and the Courier and Freeman both reported that the Civic Center had been taken over by the Army and closed indefinitely to social functions and lectures.v Right before the takeover in February, the Civic Center had been the Red Cross Headquarters where local citizens could donate their time to sewing and knitting, along with other wartime relief efforts.vi By November of 1942, the Army had left the Civic Center, allowing social functions to resume just as they had before.
The Civic Center continued to be used for a variety of events including dances, theater, concerts, science fairs, public meetings, Village and Town Offices, cooking demonstration, and even used for graduation commencement for both Clarkson University and the Potsdam Normal School.vii
In 1945, Clarkson University celebrated its 50th Anniversary. The event occurred on October 8, 1945 and had many notable guests including former President Herbert Hoover, Fleet Admiral Ernest King, and Joseph E. Davis. King was the second most senior officer of the US. Navy during World War II, while Davis was a former US. Ambassador to Russia. The three men were all given honorary degrees from Clarkson. The ceremony was broad-casted over a nationwide 90-station hook-up through the National Broadcasting Company. There was a parade through the Village of Potsdam, where the guests of honor all watched the parade from the steps of the Civic Center.viii
Another interesting use of the Civic Center was in 1965, when students from the local colleges and the newly formed Potsdam Human Rights Committee used space in the Civic Center to hold a “Selma Sympathy Rally” in March of 1965. The Rally included a fundraiser for the Civil Rights Movement, a “hootenanny,” and a showing of a documentary film on the Movement. Along with these events the Rally also included a talk by the Reverend John H. Teeter, an Episcopal priest, who was active in the Civil Rights Movement and had participated in the demonstrations in Selma.ix
The Potsdam Civic Center is a two-story, three-unit, “L” plan building with the front facade facing east towards Park Street. The front facade has three main entrances, from left to right, they are: the Potsdam Public Library, the Village of Potsdam Municipal Offices, and the Potsdam Public Museum. The roof line for these three units is asymmetrical. The left unit has a hipped roof, while the center and right units are both side-gabled low pitched roofs. The walls of the right and center units are constructed with a stone veneer: Potsdam Sandstone with brick backing; while the walls of the left unit are built of rough ashlar Potsdam Sandstone.
The Potsdam Civic Center was designed by the architectural firm Lansing, Greene, and Bisnett, based out of Watertown, NY. The building is unique to the area given the fact that the Center was constructed using recycled sandstone from the prior town hall that had stood on the same location. The town hall had been condemned prior to the 1930’s. During the Civic Center project, it was initially assumed that the town hall could be repaired and connected to the church. Then it was discovered that the town hall was a hopeless case and had to be torn down. Luckily, the sandstone was used in the new project and it helped to save money. The building also incorporated the Universalist Church, which had been donated to the project for the specific use as a Library.
For this reason the Complex combines two different architectural styles. The portion of the property that was once a church was built in 1876 and has Gothic features: pointed windows (called lancet windows), decorative cornice, roof pitch, and you can still tell where the steeple once was located. The rest of the property follows a Neoclassical design with the central entryways with Tuscan order columns (Tuscan is the style of columns seen on each portico). These similar entryways help to unite all three sections of the complex together.
The interior of the Potsdam Public Museum has remained mostly intact. The biggest difference is the Potsdam Public Library moved locations within the complex. It started out being in the portion that had once been the Universalist Church. In the 1970’s, the auditorium that had been located in the left block of the complex was remodeled into the library. The Potsdam Public Museum, which had been located in the basement of the Library since the 1940’s, was moved upstairs into the now vacant space.
Amazingly enough the Potsdam Civic Center Complex still looks like it did when it was completed in 1935. Today it still houses the Library, the municipal offices for the Village, is used as a meeting place for various community groups, and since 1940, has housed the Potsdam Public Museum. It’s amazing the a building that is 81 years old still is being used for the same purposes it was intended for without much change!
The Civic Center Complex is the tenth nomination for the Village of Potsdam; it was recommended for listing in the State Register in March 2016. It was officially nominated to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places May 2016. In total St. Lawrence County has 77 nominations on the register.
For more information about the National Register of Historic Places see my previous post:
If you have any questions just leave a comment in the section below! Thanks for reading!
i “Prepositions are Carried,” Potsdam Herald-Recorder, March 23, 1934.
ii “The Old and New in the Civic Center,” Courier and Freeman, May 29, 1935.
iii Archives Potsdam Public Museum, Civic Center II A. Box 1.
iv Marguerite Chapman, “Every Community Needs and Wants a Museum…Here’s How Potsdam Got Hers,” The Quarterly 6 no. 2 (1961): 5.
v “Civic Center Closes Doors to Social Life,” The Raquette, February 20, 1942. “Potsdam Civic Center Taken Over By Army,” Courier and Freeman, February 11, 1942.
vi“Big Response to Red Cross Plea,” Potsdam Herald- Recorder, January 23, 1942.
viiArchives Potsdam Public Museum, Civic Center II A. Box 1.
viii“College Aiding as Clarkson Plans 50th Anniversary,” The Raquette, October 5, 1945.
ix“Students Co-ordinate Efforts with Community in Civil Rights,” The Raquette, March 19, 1965. “Selma Eye-Witness to Address Rally Sunday; Village Drive Set,” Courier and Freeman, March 18, 1965.