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Cast in Iron: New York's structural heritage

[Archive] The cast-iron facade gave a character to the street architecture of New York that it would be poorer without

First published in the AR in October 1953

The bewilderingly rapid refocusing of our interests in the nineteenth century has brought into prominence problems of architectural history whose scope is often wider than at first appears. Thus, while the source of the balloon frame seems certainly to be Chicago, and the pre-history of the skyscraper seems equally certainly to lie in New York, the growth of the iron-frame vernacular is an international problem in which the material is only just being brought under control. In the article below, W. Knight Sturges discusses the surviving pocket of iron facades in central New York, where lames Bogardus did pioneer work, and quotes some contemporary opinions on the aesthetics and economics of the iron front.

For those who would personally visit the cast-iron streets of New York a word of description may not be out of place. Roughly speaking, the area is bordered on the south by a line running east and west from City Hall; on the east, with certain notable exceptions, by Broadway; on the west, by Greenwich Street and West Broadway; and, on the north, by Twenty-third Street. The northern perimeter of this area was the fashionable shopping district of the ‘nineties. To the west are such well-known districts as Chelsea and Greenwich Village, and to the east, the recent housing project of Stuyvesant Village and the vast areas of unreclaimed tenements of the Lower East side. South of City Hall are many of Manhattan’s famed skyscrapers and the heart of the financial district. Thus, the cast-iron area, approximately three and one-half by one-half mile in extent lies, like a core or armature, in the heart of the city. To-day, as fifty years ago, this area is a vast wholesale market. Unlike the rest of the city, it has remained homogeneous - uniform in its architectural and commercial character. Within its confines, known to the average New Yorker only by the names of subway stations at which the expresses never stop, there is hardly any place from which some form of cast-iron architecture will not be visible. Here and there a narrow canyon-like street seems to be entirely lined on both sides with fronts externally untouched since the ‘sixties and ‘seventies of the last century.

Although at first sight it may seem easy to recognize a cast-iron front, this is by no means always the case. Many of them strikingly resemble stone, and many stone fronts are scarcely distinguishable from castiron. Looking closer, cast-iron may be recognized when some ornament, such as the leaf on a capital or the dentil on a cornice, has either fallen off or been removed. Since each of these features had to be cast separately and secured to the structure by tap screws, there is no sign of breakage or wear on a gradually deteriorating surface, as would be the case with stone. Contrary to what has sometimes been supposed, practically all the ornament so characteristic of these fronts was separately cast and later applied by hand. An examination of a Corinthian capital, a characteristic detail of the iron fronts of the ‘fifties and early ‘sixties, reveals that, not only is each leaf separately cast, but also the volutes and abacus. The same is true of the base mouldings which have sometimes come loose so that they can be lifted away from the column shaft.

Notwithstanding this obvious characteristic, it is still surprisingly difficult to distinguish between cast-iron and stone, and accordingly of interest to come upon a contemporary description of this phenomenon. In 1869 William John Fryer wrote a series of articles, entitled Iron Store-fronts, which appeared in the first volume of the Architectural Review and American Builders’ Journal. In one of these occurs the following: ‘On any much travelled street, a marble front soon becomes rusty and discolored with dust and rain. An iron front, kept properly painted, appears periodically in a new dress, and is always clean and bright. Other things being equal, place two merchants respectively in a stone front and an iron front store, side by side, and he in the clean, bright, attractive front will do the most business, and can afford to pay the highest rent. Just above Grace Church, on Broadway, there are two stores erecting, adjoining each other, and precisely alike in every detail, one front of iron and one of marble. These take a place in the history of iron fronts.’

Here, indeed, as Thomas Tallmadge and Montgomery Schuyler were both to point out many years later, was a curious reversal in the normal course of architectural history. Cast-iron forms, originally designed to imitate masonry, were, in a few years, imitated in the very material from which they had been derived.


Few of New York’s iron facades can have ever been more exotic than the Mercantile Exchange Building of l882, yet the designer, H. J. Schwarzmann, uses his decorative motifs (which inEnglish usage would range from Batty Langley to Papworth, Loudon and beyond) to give a stiff and sprightly sense of structure, and a sensitive feeling of scale

With relatively few exceptions, the buildings we are going to examine are five stories in height, the typical lot being twenty-five feet, or multiples thereof, in width, by one-hundred in depth. Rear walls and party walls are of brick, the former are pierced by conventional double-hu sashng with fire shutters, and floor heights generally vary between eleven and fourteen feet in the clear. While attempts were made to use iron for floor beams and even for flooring itself, they did not meet with general acceptance. Masonry arch floors with iron beams used as skewbacks were occasionally used in this type of building. However, the weight of this type of construction, and no doubt other factors, made the cost prohibitive for a commercial building. As a result, the characteristic floor construction of these buildings is not iron but wood. Floor joists and girders have their undersides plastered on wood lath. The most general method of interior support is the cast-iron column, although wood columns of twelve inches and more diameter; may sometimes be found. It was not until the eighteen-seventies, following the great Chicago fire, that the development of light-weight hollow tile arches made it possible to create a fire-resistant building in iron and masonry that was not excessively heavy or expensive. Shortly after this time the introduction of the continuous steel frame was to usher in a new age, the age of the skyscraper, and the day of the cast-iron front was over.

After going through a short experimental stage, commencing in the late ‘forties, cast-iron fronts seem to have adopted a more or less fixed pattern which reflected the popular taste in its demand for cheaply executed ornament and cheerfully assumed that whatever could be done in stone could be done better in cast-iron. In 1865 Daniel Badger’s Architectural Iron Works produced a beautifully illustrated brochure entitled Illustrations of Iron Architecture. From the Preface we learn: “It must be evident that whatever architectural forms can be carved or wrought in wood or stone, or other materials, can also be faithfully reproduced in iron. Besides, iron is capable of finer sharpness of outline, and more elaborate ornamentation and finish; and it may be added that it is not so liable to disintegration, by exposure to the elements, as other substances …. The cost of highly-wrought forms in stone or marble, executed with the chisel, is often fatal to their use; but they may be executed in iron at a comparatively small outlay, and thus placed within the reach of those who desire to gratify their own love of art, or cultivate the public taste”.

Virtually all the types illustrated in Badger’s work are still to be found in New York, many with Badger’s name cast into the doorstep. Stylistically, these fronts were contemptuously branded by Montgomery Schuyler as ‘American Metallic Renaissance.’ Henry-Russell Hitchcock has, with paradoxical aptness, described the style as ‘Anglo-American Second Empire.’

However, it is not to Daniel Badger but to James Bogardus that we should turn to study the nineteenth century cast-iron building. Bogardus was a versatile inventor. To philatelists he is known as the inventor of the machine which produced the Queen Victoria Penny Black postage stamp of 1840. To mariners he is known as the inventor of a deep-sea sounding machine. In addition to claiming the invention of many other useful things, he claimed the invention of the cast-iron building and to substantiate his claim he wrote, with the aid of a ‘ghost,’ one John W. Tomson, an exceedingly interesting pamphlet whose title is: Cast Iron Buildings: their Construction and Advantages. In addition, he had already taken out a patent, dated May 7, 1850, for the ‘construction of the frame, roof, and floor of iron buildings,’ based on the design and construction of his all-iron building, which he had begun in 1848, at the corner of Center and Duane Streets. In his pamphlet occurs the significant reference to the ‘finished fronts of several stores on the same pattern at the corner of Washington and Murray Streets’ and the further information that these buildings were completed before the one on Duane and Center Streets, as the interiors are built with frame floors and masonry partition walls and so were not delayed by production difficulties. The all-iron factory was soon to be razed in one of New York’s periodic street widenings; the stores have been spared to this day and are quite conceivably the earliest cast-iron fronts in America. They stand in the midst of a busy market district and their external appearance is very similar to the well-known woodcut of the Bogardus factory building.

The most striking feature of the building described in Bogardus’ patent is its frame construction composed of horizontal girders farmed into entablatures cast in the shape of a channel and supported by attenuated Greek Doric semi-columns. The spacing of the exterior bays was determined by the size of the window openings, not by the interior framing. Thus, in a sense, the cast-iron front, from the beginning, could be divorced from the construction behind it, something which the carpenters and commercial entrepreneurs of the day were quick to realize. For flooring and roofing, Bogardus employed rolled iron plates with interlocking tongue-and-grooved joints. His floor beams were cast in the form of shallow segmental arches with wrought iron tie rods to give them the necessary strength in tension. These floor beams were framed into girders, cast in the shape of the I beam of to-day.


Illustrations from the specification of Bogardus’ patent of ‘certain new and useful Improvements in the Method of Constructing Iron Houses’ showing the basic parts of his structural system and their method of assembly

In addition to devising this system of iron frame construction, Bogardus foresaw the coming of the tall building. In applying his system to the skyscraper he was disarmingly simple and definite. He saw the building of the future rising ten miles into the air, a height limited by some calculation of the crushing strength of cast-iron. In a country still young and innocent-that was adopting Orson Fowler’s octagonal house-this proposal does not seem to have made much of a stir, and it was quoted later without question by others. It seems certain, too, that Bogardus did not recognize other limitations of his material-its vulnerability to fire and the lack of rigidity due to its being held together by bolts set up by hand. Unfortunately, no all-iron building exists in New York to-day. If one did, fire regulations would long since have covered its iron members with masonry, lath and plaster.

By 1880 the period of the cast-iron front was almost at an end. Nevertheless, in this field, as elsewhere, there is a stirring of new life, a sensitiveness to the nature of building materials hitherto absent from the Victorian scene. Even earlier than this an interesting reaction had set in against the over-ornamented cast-iron front. Both Bogardus and Badger had stressed ornament, possibly with a shrewd eye to making an unconventional material acceptable and respectable. Now, by the end of the ‘sixties, cast-iron had proven its worth and the reaction .set in which was to produce those simpler fronts, like that of the Ganntt building in Saint Louis, which Siegfried Giedion has taught us to admire. Again we have in William Fryer a contemporary witness to the change in point of view. In the same article quoted above he says:”Immediately after the introduction, the making of iron fronts rose into a business of magnitude and profit. But the pretentious and vulgarity of these over-ornamented fronts, in due time, brought them into well-merited contempt, and sealed their condemnation by every person who had any knowledge at all of what is truthful and comely in architecture. ‘The fault of these fronts was not in the material employed, but in the false treatment …. A chaste and airy edifice of iron may be safely substituted for the cumbrous structures of other substances (but) … wants proper treatment, and asks not to be set up as a false jewel, coloured and sanded in imitation of stone, or made flashy by over-ornamentation …. Iron fronts have been relieved from the thraldom of ornamentation-over ornamentation”.

However, it is not in the question of the proper uses of ornament or the proper handling of the medium of cast-iron, now virtually obsolete as a structural material, that these mid-nineteenth century buildings have significance to-day. Rather, it lies in some of the interesting results produced by the repetition of these units of architectural design, which lent themselves so readily to the discipline of standardization. It is in this element of repetition, with its absence of emphasis on any particular unit of area, and the quality, thus produced, of the unlimited extension of space, that we see an unconscious forecast of the architectural aesthetic of our time. Here, in these rows of pretentious but uniform fronts, is an architecture which, often in spite of itself, is definitely antimonumental and anti-picturesque. Based on a balance of horizontals and verticals, but not on any central or terminal motives, it is not only essentially a street architecture, but also peculiarly suited to the nature of New York’s vistaless streets, which have a habit of extending indefinitely into space, and are best seen sharply foreshortened. Richard Llewellyn Davis, in a brilliant study entitled Endless Architecture, which appeared in the Architectural Association Journal for November of 1951, has commented fully on this aspect of our contemporary architecture as illustrated by the work of Mies van der Rohe. Howard Robertson, in his Principles of Architectural Composition, commented on the presence of the same quality in amphitheatres, viaducts, and similar structures in the following words: “It may conceivably happen that the noblest and most potent expression of an edifice may be obtained by the production of an effect of complete monotony. Such a monotony, however, is, in reality, less a monotony than a particularly strong expression of unity.”

While the buildings we have reviewed so briefly may not quite justify such high terms of praise, it does seem as if the secret of their charm lies in their decorative uniformity. In this they are not unlike the great river steamboats and such other expressions of nineteenth century construction as demanded continuity of treatment. In addition, cast-iron architecture is rapidly acquiring the appeal that comes with age and the half forgotten past. To-day the cast-iron front seems like a very American thing, which, associated with the days of Lincoln and Grant, forms the perfect background for the now almost forgotten Cigar Store Indian. More important still, and only now beginning to be appreciated, is the fact that it gave a character to the street architecture of nineteenth century New York which that city will be poorer without.

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