Theodore Potthast Sr., 93, furniture maker at family firm

October 19, 1998|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Theodore J. Potthast Sr., the last furniture maker from the famed Baltimore family whose handmade reproductions were a local tradition for more than 80 years, died Wednesday of heart failure at his Rodgers Forge home. He was 93.

Mr. Potthast began his career as a young apprentice with Potthast Brothers Inc., the venerable company founded in 1892 by his father, John Potthast, and his two uncles, William and Vincent.

The immigrant brothers from Borgholz, Germany, were descended from craftsmen who had made furniture for more than 200 years.

After working briefly for Knabe Piano Co., the brothers opened their business in 1892. The company, which became known for handmade reproductions of Queen Anne, Sheraton and Hepplewhite antiques, opened its first showroom at 507 N. Howard St., and built a factory at 1438 Wicomico St. in 1921.

In 1924, the company moved to 924 N. Charles St., which remained the showroom until the business closed in 1975. At the time, Mr. Potthast said a combination of age, higher costs and a paucity of skilled craftsmen were factors in the closing.

"It was de rigueur for mid-20th-century Baltimore brides to be taken to Potthast's showrooms by their mothers to select dining room furniture," said Stiles T. Colwill, former Maryland Historical Society curator and decorative arts consultant. "Their furniture nTC was always top of the line."

The company made a dining room set for President Woodrow Wilson's post-White House residence; chairs for film director Cecil B. De Mille; a dining room set for the State House in Annapolis in 1914; and 87 pieces of furniture for the Maryland House at the Jamestown, Va., Exposition in 1907. The mayor's desk in Baltimore's City Hall was made by Potthast.

To reproduce exact copies, the company relied on an archive of more than 1,000 detailed drawings and measurements taken from pieces brought in for repair. The Potthasts took wax molds of intricate wood carvings and made plaster casts before the pieces were returned to their owners.

In an atmosphere of saws driven by overhead leather belts and an elevator that was hand-operated, custom-made orders took eight weeks to 10 weeks to complete and were almost completely handmade.

"Their slogan was 'The True Antiques of Tomorrow,' " said Catherine Rogers Arthur, curator of Homewood House Museum.

Born in Baltimore, Mr. Potthast attended boarding school at Mount St. Mary's in Emmitsburg and earned a certificate from the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

He rose from being sawdust sweeper and office boy as a child to plant manager and finally president of the company, which had 80 full-time cabinetmakers.

"He always wanted to be a cabinetmaker," said his son, Theodore J. Potthast Jr. of Riderwood.

Known as a man gifted with charm and a dry wit, Mr. Potthast would arrive at his desk at 5: 30 a.m. and work until 6 p.m.

Mr. Potthast had been a member of Council No. 205 of the Knights of Columbus for 75 years and had been a director and member of the German Society of Maryland. For 40 years, he was a communicant of St. Pius X Roman Catholic Church, where a Mass of Christian burial was offered Saturday.

In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife of 68 years, the former Marie Corcoran; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Pub Date: 10/19/98

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