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Decoding the Nott Memorial
Carl George, professor of biology emeritus, and Robert Uzzo '89 shared a lively interest in the archiecture of the Nott Memorial. One result of that interest was a monograph, as yet unpublished. The following excerpt offers their interpretation of the symbolism of Union's most famous building.
The Man Who Put It Together
Edward Tuckerman Potter, architect of the Nott Memorial, was born in Schenectady on the 25th of September, 1831. His father, Alonzo Potter, was professor of rhetoric and natural philosophy at Union, and his mother, Sarah Nott Potter, was the only daughter of Eliphalet Nott, president of the College.
Edward received training at the freshman and sophomore levels in Philadelphia and then, in 1851, transferred to Union to major in science for his junior and senior years. He studied conic sections, rhetoric, mechanics, chemistry, political economy, French, German, Italian, optics, electricity, moral philosophy, astronomy, and elements of criticism. He did not take any Union course on Euclid and Plato, but this could have been done in his freshman or sophmore years -- a point which will hold some relevence later on.
In 1854 he became an apprentice with Richard Upjohn, a prominent architect in New York City, and he held this role until 1856, when he established his own offices. Edward's first project (1855) was a small Methodist church about three miles south of Rhinebeck, N.Y.; it still stands. His first independent commission for a full structure was the president's house at Union, accepted in 1856. Alumni or Graduates' Hall (early names for the Nott Memorial) is certainly one of his more important and was initiated in 1858.
Given the financial problems with Graduates' Hall, Potter waited until 186l for his first major realized commission -- the First Dutch Reformed Church in Schenectady. This church seems to have set him well on the road of a career in church, and especially Espicopalian, architecture. In all, he planned seventy-nine structures, mostly churches; sixty-six were built, and forty-two survive, assuming, of course, that all of his works have been found.
His buildings are sensitively placed and exposed for good viewing. His churches, especially, are bright with polychrome slate, colorful stone, variegated voussoirs, painted cast iron cresting, polished gray and brown granite columns, and gilded stencilling of ceilings and walls; textural with quarry-faced ashlars set off with dressed belt courses; and ornate with elaborate fenestration, finely worked capitals, dated kneelers, textual inscriptions both inside and out, crocketed gables with finials, and fancy door hinges.
Imbued with architectural symbolism within the Episcopal tradition, Potter seems to explore symbolism to discover and be fascinated with proportionalities, among these the ad quadratum, the Golden Section (the ratio of 1:1.618), and the significant yet delicate positioning of hexalphas and pentalphas, using Victorian-Gothic as the vehicle of his expression. The nature of his work may be viewed as more symptomatic of an even larger and all-encompassing plan -- that of the universe as an orderly, integrated macrocosm. Potter had a systematic, Pythagorean approach to his architecture, and his churches were constructed as integrated, coherent, systemic entities that were his echo of the universe.
A Fascination With Stars And Ivy
The Nott Memorial tantalizes with many questions, and certainly one of them is, "What is the significance of its primary decorative feature, the thirty-two hexalphas of the slated exterior of the dome and the 709 illuminators?"
Six- and five-pointed stars -- hexalphas and pentalphas -- are almost invariably worked into the stone, glass, wood, and slate of projects designed by Potter. Because he wanted to avoid "meaningless ornamentation," it seems clear that the symbols mean something. But because he left little guidance regarding the symbolic implications of his work, we must play detective.
The hexalpha was widely and distinctively used by Potter. The First Dutch Reformed Church (1862-63) of Schenectady, in its original execution, bore a stone hexalpha finial about thirty inches in span on the gable of the consistory. Hexalphas of identical form about twelve inches in span were also carved into the lower left and right corners of the wooden alter.
St. John's Episcopal Church (1867-69) in East Hartford, Conn., All Saints' Memorial Church (1868-72) in Providence, R.I., the Church of the Good Shepherd (1867-69) in Hartford, Conn., Trinity Church (187l-74) in Wethersfield, Conn., and St. John's Church in Yonkers, N.Y., provide other examples of Potter's use of the hexalpha.
Let us now turn to the architect's use of the five-pointed star, or pentalpha.
The First Dutch Reformed Church Of Schenectady carries a pentalpha on each of the two mullions of the ground level windows of the tower. The stars, about five inches in diameter, are in relief within an encised circle. Christ Episcopal Church (1863-64) in Reading, Pa., Packer Hall (1866-69) at Lehigh University, St. John's Episcopal Church in East Hartford, Conn., St. Paul's Memorial Church (1866-70) in Stapleton, N.Y., the Church of the Good Shepherd in Hartford, and the Caldwell H. Holt Memorial Parish House (1894-96) in Hartford are other buildings where pentalphas figure prominently.
Most of Potter's institutional works also carry another five-pointed motif -- the ivy, Hedera helix. This ivy motif, with an emphasized pentagonal quality, insinuates everywhere; it twists in and about the dates of the kneelers and Potter's delightful monograms, and it appears in the iron cresting, the massive door hinges, the stencilling, the carved wood of the interiors, many of his splendid capitals, the textual bands of the arches, and on many of the unique details such as the gargoyle-like ship hulls and textual kneelers of the Colt Parish House in Hartford.
The Stars And Ivy Are Symbolically Important
Three generalizations regarding the stars and the ivy emerge:
The first is that these design elements are used in most of Potter's buildings.
The second is that these design elements are used in places of architectural prominence and symbolic importance (such as kneelers, corbels, imposts, mullions, plinths, key voussoirs, alters, and central windows). In the Nott Memorial we must accept that the use of the hexalpha in the roof slating and the pentalphas in the illuminators is much more than, as Potter has already said, a "meaningless ornament."
A third point is that the stars have also been used apart from their conventional Christian applications. Packer Hall at Lehigh University displays the pentalpha, and the Nott Memorial uses both the pentalpha and the hexalpha; both are academic and not ecclesiastical buildings. The First Dutch Reformed Church further affirms this point in
another way; as Potter noted, "In designing the details of this church, no received religious symbols could be used, this being expressly forbidden by the Synod of Dort."
But What Are The Symbols Saying?
The architect's own writings shed only a teasing light on the matter. He remarks, in his booklet on the First Dutch Reformed Church of Schenectady, that " . . . those who are determined to see symbols in everything will of course do so. For them there will be a hidden meaning in . . . the Hexalpha which crowns the consistory . . . in the very pattern of each slate, and in every form and line."
Much later, in the twilight of his career, he takes evident pride in publishing a letter to him dated July 28, 1903, by John
Shendan Zelie, a retiring minister of the same church, in which Zelie remarks, "I ought to speak of all the symbolism which you introduced into that church. The unobtrusiveness of it has always been to me one of the most precious things in the church. It was there, always there, but in such a way that it waited to be found out and did not force itself upon anybody."
And so our detective work leads us into the history of the hexalpha and pentalpha, and we quickly encounter the mathematicians and geometers of the Renaissance, enthralled with the Golden Section; in turn, these scholars direct our attention to Euclid, Plato, and Pythagoras.
Especially relevant is Euclid's division of a line in "extreme and mean ratio" -- later named the Golden Section by Paccioli and currently referred to as Phi. The irrational (or incommensurable) number 0.6180 is the mathematical expression of the ratio; the arms of the pentalpha divided by the sides of the body of the central pentagram is a nearly ubiquitous expression of the relationship. It is also important to note that the angles of the pentalpha are thirty-six, seventy-two, and 108 degrees.
The hexalpha, composed of two interwoven equilateral triangles, is thus
linked to Phi through the icosohedron, a polyhedron of twenty equilateral triangular faces constructed by interpenetrating three rectangles having sides in the ratio of Phi.
In the Nott Memorial, the ratio of the height to the face-to-face diameter of the main drum is 0.62. The ratio of the combined height of the upper structure from the edge of the hip roof to the foot of the metal work of the lantern to the diameter of the main drum is 0.62. The calligraphic band is 0.62 upwards of the distance from the lower edge of the hip roof to the base of the lantern. The distance of the column centers to the inner wall vertices divided by the distance of the columns centers to the center of the primary floor is 0.62.
With this inspiration in mind, we enlisted the help of the Buildings and Grounds staff (who operated a cherry picker so we could photograph the great arches of the Nott Memorial at the right level and distance) and Professor of Photography Martin Benjamin (who gave us splendid blowups for analysis). With these elegant photographs and an ancient manual on the construction of pointed (Gothic) arches, we determined that the arches have an exquisite design -- each span line is divided into left and right parts, and these, in turn, are twice divided into "extreme and mean ratio" (remember Euclid).
After this division, perpendicular lines are drawn upwards to intercept an extension (rising at sixteen degrees from the horizontal) of a prominent edge of the footing stone. Lo and behold, the intercepts are the "centers" basic to the construction of the three arch sections of the windows. Further, we discovered that the joints between the two sets of voussoirs converged on two points established by constructing squares on the four parts of the divided span lines.
Why would Potter take such obvious delight in such a creation? We have one suggestion. In Book Six of The Republic, Plato divides a line in quite the same manner as on our photograph, indicating that our search for understanding is represented by four sections -- the outermost being the realm of shadows and reflections, the next our world of realities, the third the world of mathematical description, and the innermost near the center of the window the forms -- and presumably the good and true at the end of the line -- or center of the window.
The Nott Memorial is thus transformed and enlarged. It has become a monument to our search for Truth and the Good. The message can be seen from any direction ans it seems an appropriate and important one for our academic community. This may seem a flight of fancy, but we are somewhat reassured because Potter uses the Greek word pistis as a relief device on the eastern facade of the Colt Parish House in Hartford, and this is the word Plato uses for one of the four sections of his divided line.
A Pythagorean Temple
A central element of the Pythagorean philosophy is that there is a profound numerical order, unity, and harmony in the Universe (the macrocosmos) as symbolized by the icosahedron and the hexalpha, and in man (the microcosmos) as a refinement, a distillation, an analog of this grand plan.
The hexalpha probably emerged most strongly as a symbol of harmonious duality and in particular the ten primary contrasting qualities of Pythagoras -- the limited and unlimited, odd and even, male and female, one and the many, right and left, rest and motion, straight and curved, light and darkness, good and bad, and the square and the oblong. In essence, the hexalpha and icosahedron represent the union of complementary forces.
In this light, it is highly appropriate for the dome of the Nott Memorial at a college called Union to bear its array of hexalphas and pentalphas. The Nott Memorial may be viewed as a Pythagorean Temple of the Muses and a beacon leading us toward the Truth and the Good.
We must not presume that Potter's symbolary for the Nott Memorial has been exhausted by this brief account. The arches of the four doors need analysis; the five floral tile arrays of the central field of the encaustic tile are enigmatic; the 112 windows of the oculus may have their message as well; and the lights of the original illuminators probably have more to say. Yes, there is additional work to do on decoding the Nott Memorial.
Landau, Sara Bradford. 1979. Edward T. and William A. Potter. Garland Publishing Co., N.Y. 490 pp.
Potter, Edward Tuckerman. 1868. A statement of the considerations influencing the design of the First Dutch Reformed Church, Schenectady, N.Y. (erected A.D. 1862-63) with an appendix containing a short description of the building. Baker and Godwin, Printers. 32 pp.
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