Revolutionary Cast-Iron Architecture - A Photo Journey

Street-level cast-iron facade in SoHo, New York City
Cast Iron Street Level at 575 Broadway, New York, NY. Photo by Scott Gries / Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images
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Introduction to Cast-Iron Architecture

Cast Iron Dome of the U.S. Capitol, Washington DC
Cast Iron Dome of the U.S. Capitol, Washington DC. Photo by Jason Colston/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images (cropped)

Cast-iron architecture is a building or other structure (like a bridge) that has been constructed in whole or in part with prefabricated cast iron. Beginning in the 18th century and trending in the 19th century, cast iron was used structurally and ornamentally. A Victorian-era building might have its entire facade built with this new product. Having an understanding of what cast iron is, tour the gallery of images on the next few pages—a small representation of cast-iron architecture still found around the world.

The most famous architectural use of cast iron in the US is familiar to everyone—the US Capitol dome in Washington, DC. Nine million pounds of iron was 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).

When Was Cast Iron Used in Building?

The use of cast iron for architectural use was most popular in the 1800s—a product of the Industrial Revolution. The new uses for iron became revolutionary, notably in Britain. In the early 1700s, Englishman Abraham Darby revolutionized processes for heating and casting iron. By 1779 Darby's grandson had constructed Iron Bridge, a famous bridge in Shropshire, England, and a very early example of cast iron engineering.

Where Is Cast-Iron Architecture Found?

Because of its prefabrication, cast-iron components could be made and shipped anywhere in the world. 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. In New York City, the Victorian Society in America maintains a database of Endangered Cast-Iron Buldings in NYC.

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The Bogardus-Bruce Architectural Partnership

Cast iron facade of George Bruce's 19th century printing business.
254 Canal Street, New York City. Photo ©2011 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."—Gale Harris, Landmarks Preservation Commission Report, p. 10, March 12, 1985 (PDF).
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Badger- Haughwout Architectural Partnership

Photo taken in 2011 of two cast-iron facades of Haughwout Store in New York City
Merchant E.V. Haughwout Built His 1857 Store With Daniel Badger's Cast-Iron Architecture and the First Working Commercial Elevator. Photo © 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.

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Ladd and Bush Bank, Salem, Oregon

Cast-iron facade of the Ladd & Bush Bank, 1868, in Salem, Oregon
Cast-iron facade of the Ladd & Bush Bank, 1868, in Salem, Oregon. Photo by M.O. Stevens via Wikimedia Commons, Released Into Public Domain (cropped)

The Architectural Heritage Center claims that "Oregon is home to the second-largest collection of cast iron-fronted buildings in the United States." 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.

Source: 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).

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Iron Bridge, Shropshire, England

Photo of the Iron Bridge over the River Severn
The Iron Bridge, the First Iron Bridge in the World, 1779. Photo by RDImages/Epics/Hulton Archive/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.

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Ha'penny Bridge, Dublin, Ireland

Photo of the cast iron bridge over Liffey River in Dublin.
The 1816 Wrought- and Cast-Iron Ha'penny Toll Bridge Was Built Over the Liffey River in Dublin, Ireland. Photo by Robert Alexander / Archive Photos / 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, UK.

Source: "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)

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Grainfield Opera House, Kansas

Grainfield Opera House, 1887, Brick with Cast Iron Front in Grainfield, Kansas
Grainfield Opera House, 1887, Brick with Cast Iron Front in Grainfield, Kansas. Photo by Jordan McAlister / Moment / 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.

Source: National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form, Prepared by Julie A. Wortman and Dale Nimz, Kansas State Historical Society, October 14, 1980 (PDF) [accessed February 25, 2017]

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Bartholdi Fountain, 1876

Bartholdi Fountain, Washington, DC, US Botanic Garden Conservatory in background
Bartholdi Fountain, Washington, DC. Photo by Raymond Boyd / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images (cropped)

The United States Botanic Garden near the Capitol building in Washington, DC 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 US 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 DC 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.

Source: Bartholdi Fountain, United States Botanic Garden Conservatory [accessed February 26, 20167]