Revolutionary Cast-Iron Architecture

Building With Cast Iron

Street-level cast-iron facade painted green, engaged columns with capitals define large glass display windows
Cast Iron Store Front at 575 Broadway, New York City. Scott Gries/Getty Images

Cast-iron architecture is a building or other structure (like a bridge or fountain) that has been constructed in whole or in part with prefabricated cast iron. The use of cast iron for building was most popular in the 1800s. As new uses for iron became revolutionary, cast iron was used structurally and ornamentally, most notably in Britain. In the early 1700s, Englishman Abraham Darby revolutionized processes for heating and casting iron, so that by 1779 Darby's grandson had constructed Iron Bridge in Shropshire, England — a very early example of cast iron engineering.

In the United States, a Victorian-era building might have its entire facade built with this new product of the Industrial Revolution. Having an understanding of what cast iron is, tour this gallery of images, which surveys the widespread use of cast iron as a building material.

U.S. Capitol Dome, 1866, Washington, D.C.

top part of multi-leveled dome with columns and portals and elongated windows with a cupola and statue at the top
Cast Iron Dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Jason Colston/Getty Images (cropped)

The most famous architectural use of cast iron in the United States is familiar to everyone — the U.S. Capitol dome in Washington, D.C. Nine million pounds of iron —  the weight of 20 Statues of Liberty — were bolted together between 1855 and 1866 to form this architectural icon of American government. The design was by the Philadelphia architect Thomas Ustick Walter (1804-1887). The Architect of the Capitol oversaw a multi-year U.S. Capitol Dome Restoration Project completed by the 2017 Presidential Inauguration.

The Bruce Building, 1857, New York City

corner building, 5 stories, cast iron facade of George Bruce's 19th century printing business.
254 Canal Street, New York City. Jackie Craven

James Bogardus is an important name in cast-iron architecture, especially in New York City. The well-known Scottish typographer and inventor, George Bruce, established his printing business at 254-260 Canal Street. Architectural historians assume that James Bogardus was enlisted to design Bruce's new building in 1857 — Bogardus was well-known as an engraver and an inventor, interests similar to George Bruce's.

The cast-iron facade at the corner of Canal and Lafayette Streets in New York City is still a tourist attraction, even for people unaware of cast-iron architecture.

"One of the most unusual features of No. 254-260 Canal Street is the corner design. Unlike the contemporary Haughwout Store where the corner turns on a column which reads as an element in either facade, here the colonnades stop just short of the edges of the facades leaving the corner exposed. This treatment has certain advantages. The bays can be narrower than in a conventional design allowing the designer to compensate for the unusual breadth of his facades. At the same time it provides a strong framing device for the lengthy arcades." — Landmarks Preservation Commission Report, 1985

The E.V. Haughwout & Co. Building, 1857, New York City

Photo taken in 2011 of two cast-iron facades of Haughwout Store in New York City
Haughwout Building, 1857, New York City. Elisa Rolle via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license (CC BY-SA 3.0) (cropped)

Daniel D. Badger was a competitor of James Bogardus, and Eder Haughwout was a competitive merchant in 19th century New York City. The trendy Mr. Haughwout sold furnishings and imported wares to the wealthy beneficiaries of the Industrial Revolution. The merchant wanted an elegant store with contemporary features, including the first elevator and the trendy Italianate cast-iron facades being produced by Daniel Badger.

Built in 1857 at 488-492 Broadway in New York City,  the E.V. Haughwout & Co. Building was designed by architect John P. Gaynor with Daniel Badger creating the cast-iron facade at his Architectural Iron Works. Badger's Haughwout Store is often compared with buildings by James Badger, such as the George Bruce Store at 254 Canal Street.

Haughwout's is also important as having the first commercial elevator installed on March 23, 1857. The engineering of tall buildings was already possible. With safety elevators, people could move to greater heights more easily. To E.V. Haughwout, this is customer-centered design.

Ladd and Bush Bank, 1868, Salem, Oregon

Cast-iron facade of corner building, entrance at the corner, two stories with very large window openings
Ladd & Bush Bank, 1868, in Salem, Oregon. M.O. Stevens via Wikimedia Commons, Released Into Public Domain (cropped)

The Architectural Heritage Center in Portland, Oregon claims that "Oregon is home to the second-largest collection of cast iron-fronted buildings in the United States," a by-product of intense building during the Gold Rush era. Although many examples are still found in Portland, the cast iron Italianate facade of the first bank in Salem has been historically well-preserved.

The Ladd and Bush Bank, built in 1868 by architect Absolom Hallock, is concrete covered with ornamental cast iron. William S. Ladd was president of the foundry, the Oregon Iron Company. The same molds were used for the branch bank in Portland, Oregon, giving a cost-effective consistency in style to their banking business.

Iron Bridge, 1779, Shropshire, England

Iron arch bridge with railings on either side
The Iron Bridge, 1779, England. RDImages/Getty Images

Abraham Darby III was the grandson of Abraham Darby, an ironmaster who was instrumental in developing new ways to heat and cast iron. The bridge built by Darby's grandson in 1779 is considered the first large-scale use of cast iron.  Designed by architect Thomas Farnolls Pritchard, the walking bridge over the Severn Gorge in Shropshire, England is still standing.

Ha'penny Bridge, 1816, Dublin, Ireland

long, low arch of iron bridge over Liffey River in Dublin
Ha'penny Bridge, 1816, in Dublin, Ireland. Robert Alexander/Getty Images (cropped)

The Liffey Bridge is commonly called the "Ha'penny Bridge" because of the toll charged to pedestrians who walked across Dublin's River Liffey. Built in 1816 after a design attributed to John Windsor, the most photographed bridge in Ireland was owned by William Walsh, the man who owned the ferry boat across the Liffey. The foundry for the bridge is thought to be Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, United Kingdom.

Grainfield Opera House, 1887, Kansas

Commercial building, brick with cast iron front, large windows on facade
Grainfield Opera House, 1887, in Grainfield, Kansas. Jordan McAlister/Getty Images (cropped)

In 1887 the Town of Grainfield, Kansas, decided to build a structure that would "impress on the passerby that Grainfield was an attractive, permanent town." What gave architecture the impression of permanence was brick and the fancy metal facades that were being marketed throughout the United States — even in tiny Grainfield, Kansas.

Thirty years after E.V. Haughwout & Co. opened his store and George Bruce established his print shop in New York City, the Grainfield Town elders ordered a galvanized and cast-iron facade from a catalog, and then they waited for the train to deliver the pieces from a foundry in St. Louis. "The iron front was cheap and quickly installed," writes the Kansas State Historical Society, "creating the appearance of sophistication in a frontier town."

The fleur-de-lis motif was a specialty of the Mesker Brothers' foundry, and that's why you find the French design on a special building in Grainfield.

Bartholdi Fountain, 1876

fountain in pool, sculpted women holding lanterns above their heads, US Botanic Garden Conservatory in background
Bartholdi Fountain, Washington, D.C. Raymond Boyd/Getty Images (cropped)

The United States Botanic Garden near the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. is home to one of the most famous cast-iron fountains in the world. Created by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Fountain of Light and Water was purchased by the federal government at the suggestion of Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who was designing the Capitol grounds. In 1877 the 15 ton cast-iron fountain was moved to D.C. and quickly became symbolic of American Victorian-era elegance. Some might call it opulence, as cast-iron fountains became standard equipment at the summer homes of the rich and famous bankers and industrialists of the Gilded Age.

Because of its prefabrication, cast-iron components could be made and shipped anywhere in the world — like the Bartholdi Fountain. Cast-iron architecture can be found from Brazil to Australia and from Bombay to Bermuda. Major cities throughout the world claim 19th-century cast-iron architecture, although many buildings have been destroyed or are in danger of being razed. Rust is a common problem when century-old iron has been exposed to air, as pointed out in The Maintenance and Repair of Architectural Cast Iron by John G. Waite, AIA. Local organizations such as Cast Iron NYC are dedicated to the preservation of these historic buildings. So are architects like Pritzker Laureate Shigeru Ban, who restored an 1881 cast-iron building by James White into luxury Tribeca residences called the Cast Iron House. What was old is new again.

Sources

  • Gale Harris, Landmarks Preservation Commission Report, p. 10, March 12, 1985, PDF at http://www.neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org/db/bb_files/CS051.pdf [accessed April 26, 2018]
  • Cast Iron in Portland, Architectural Heritage Center, Bosco-Milligan Foundation, http://cipdx.visitahc.org/ [accessed March 13, 2012]
  • Salem Downtown State Street Historic District National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, August 2001, PDF at http://www.oregon.gov/OPRD/HCD/NATREG/docs/hd_nominations/Marion_Salem_SalemDowntownHD_nrnom.pdf?ga=t [accessed March 13, 2012]
  • "The Ha'penny Bridge in Dublin," by J.W. de Courcy. The Structural Engineer,, Volume 69, No. 3/5, February 1991, pp. 44–47, PDF at http://www.istructe.org/webtest/files/29/29c6c013-abe0-4fb6-8073-9813829c6102.pdf [accessed April 26, 2018]
  • National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form, Prepared by Julie A. Wortman and Dale Nimz, Kansas State Historical Society, October 14, 1980, PDF at http://www.kshs.org/resource/national_register/nominationsNRDB/Gove_GrainfieldOperaHouseNR.pdf [accessed February 25, 2017]
  • Bartholdi Fountain, United States Botanic Garden Conservatory, https://www.usbg.gov/bartholdi-fountain [accessed February 26, 20167]