Endangered Cast-Iron Buildings in NYC - A Project of the Metropolitan Chapter of the Victorian Society in America  
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Cast Iron History

Cast iron was used as an architectural material for entire facades of American commercial buildings in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century, and was particularly popular in New York City, which today has the world’s largest collection of cast-iron architecture.  An inexpensive alternative to masonry façade materials like brick and stone, it could be cast in highly decorative designs that often mimicked masonry.  Cast-iron-fronted buildings were constructed by machine-made and mass-produced interchangeable parts that were simply bolted to the facades and that allowed for exuberant designs in many different architectural styles.  Cast-iron building technology allowed for larger window expanses in comparison to masonry buildings. 

Cast iron, mostly imported from England, had been used for decorative and structural purposes in the early-nineteenth century – one rare surviving cast-iron storefront at No. 506 Canal Street is believed to date from the construction of the building in 1826. Another early example of the use of cast iron on building facades is Philadelphia architect John Haviland’s Miners Bank (1830-31; demolished) in Pottsville, Pa, where he employed a veneer of cast-iron plates.   

Entire cast-iron facades grew in popularity in the mid-nineteenth century when they were promoted and manufactured by two pioneers, James Bogardus and Daniel D. Badger.  Bogardus, who in 1849 built the nation’s first all-iron building on Centre and Duane Streets, obtained patents for constructing prefabricated iron buildings of mass-produced parts.  Although he did not have a sizable foundry and rather contracted for iron from other foundries, he is important for his role as a contractor in erecting the early iron-fronted structures.  Bogardus soon had competition from other cast-iron promoters, particularly Daniel Badger.  Although Badger opened his first foundry across the street from Bogardus’, he moved in 1854 to an expanded site on 14th Street between Avenues B and C.  Badger’s Architectural Iron Works turned out some of the most dramatic iron buildings the country had ever seen, and the company’s 1865 catalogue still provides detailed information and images of his products for cast-iron scholars.  Although cast-iron was used extensively in New York City, New York manufacturers exported their products nationally for assembly on the site.

Touted virtues of cast iron included its low cost, strength, durability, and supposed fireproof nature.  In addition, ease of assembly and of parts replacement, ability to provide a wide variety of inexpensive ornament, and paintable surfaces made cast-iron increasingly popular. The economy of cast-iron construction lay in the possibilities inherent in prefabrication: identical elements and motifs could be continually repeated and, in fact, could be later reproduced on a building addition, thus extending the original design. After a number of simple “constructive" cast-iron buildings in the late 1840s by Bogardus, the material was employed for commercial (store-and-loft, warehouse, and office) buildings modeled after Venetian palazzi, from the mid-1850s through the 1860s. Designed in imitation of masonry and featuring round-arched fenestration, this mode is exemplified by the Cary Building (1856-57, King & Kellum) at 105-107 Chambers Street, and the Haughwout Building (1856-57, John P. Gaynor) at 488-492 Broadway  (both NYC individual landmarks). 

After the Civil War, the French Second Empire style began to influence designs in cast iron. Some buildings, such as McCreery’s store (1868-69) at 67 E. 11th Street and No. 287 Broadway (individual landmark, 1871-72, John B. Snook), were still Italianate but with mansard roofs. Cast-iron fronts in the Second Empire style, produced into the 1880s, were generally articulated with segmental-arched fenestration framed by columns and pilasters; large areas of glass; and a certain abstraction and paring-down of elements combined with the usage of variations on classically-inspired ornament. Examples are the Arnold Constable Store (1868-76, Griffith Thomas) at 881-887 Broadway in the Ladies’ Mile Historic District, and No. 28-30 Greene Street (1872, Isaac F. Duckworth) in the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District. The arrangement of cast-iron fronts, with their layered stories of arcades and colonnades, in turn influenced the design of contemporary masonry commercial buildings in New York.

A third type of cast-iron front, which emerged after about 1870, fully exploited the possibilities of the material and featured a basic grid of large rectangular fenestration framed by columns/pilasters and vertical members that were highly abstracted and greatly reduced in width. Examples include the Roosevelt Building (1873-74, Richard Morris Hunt) at 478-482 Broadway and No. 462 Broadway (1879, John Correja), both in the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District; No. 361 Broadway, individual landmark (1881-82, Smith); and No. 34-42 West 14th Street (1878, W. Wheeler Smith).

In a few instances, major architects produced more exotic works, such as the Moorish style Van Rensselaer Store (1871-72, Hunt; demolished) formerly at 474-476 Broadway, and No. 435 Broome Street (1873, William Appleton Potter, SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District), with Eastlake decoration.  In the 1870s and 80s, popular contemporary styles influenced cast-iron ornamentation. Neo-Grec style motifs, including incised lines and sharp geometric abstraction, further expressed the crisp “metallic" qualities of cast iron. A late example displaying neo-Grec style influence is No. 112 Prince Street (1889, Richard Berger, SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District).  The Queen Anne style and Aesthetic Movement introduced abstract or floral patterns, as seen on No. 361 Broadway (individual landmark).

In the stylistic experimentation of the 1880s, buildings sometimes incorporated a picturesque variety of materials, including red brick, sections of cast-iron, and terra cotta. With the knowledge that buildings of cast iron were not in fact fireproof, however, particularly after the Boston and Chicago fires of 1872 and the 1879 New York fire that destroyed rows of such structures on Worth and Thomas Streets, restrictive revisions were made to the New York City building code in 1885. This contributed to ending the era of cast-iron fronts in the city, although they continued to some extent through the 1890s and beyond.

By the mid-twentieth century, the importance and beauty of cast-iron architecture was underappreciated, and many of the most significant cast-iron buildings were threatened with demolition and neglect.  Fortunately, Margot Gayle, an early preservation advocate, recognized the incredible importance of cast-iron-fronted buildings and formed the Friends of Cast Iron Architecture in 1969.  Gayle and the Friends of Cast Iron Architecture helped to document the surviving cast-iron-fronted buildings and advocate for their protection.  The 1973 designation of the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District, once threatened with whole-scale demolition by Robert Moses’ proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, was a major victory, as the district encompassed and protected the world’s largest concentration of cast-iron-fronted buildings.  Subsequent New York City individual landmarks and historic districts, like the Ladies’ Mile, NoHo, and the Tribeca South, West, and East Historic Districts, have protected many more cast-iron-fronted buildings.  Today, New York City’s cast-iron architecture is unsung no more, although many cast-iron-fronted buildings do remain unprotected. 

History largely taken from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designation reports, written by Jay Shockley, for 63 Nassau Street (2007) and Baumann Brothers Furniture and Carpet Store (2008). 

Additional information from Cast-Iron Architecture in New York: A Photographic Survey, by Margot Gayle and Edmund V. Gillon, Jr. (Dover, 1974); and Blue Guide New York, by Carol von Pressentin Wright (Somerset Books, 2008).




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