by John H. Lienhard
Click here for audio of Episode 836.
Today, we catch a bright, brief glint of iron. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Not with dreams,
but with blood and with iron,
Shall a nation be moulded at last,
said Swinbourne in 1884. I suppose he was thinking
of weapons when he used the word iron. But by 1884
England had literally been molded in iron for a
century. The fourth most common element on Earth is
iron. Our blood itself is part iron.
In 1709 James Darby used coke to smelt iron. That
led to the widespread commercial use of cast iron.
Darby created the Coalbrookdale Ironworks. Then, in
1777, the first delicate iron bridge reached out to
span the Severn River at Coalbrookdale.
England built iron bridges and iron furniture! Iron
ships and iron machines! Cast iron has a wonderful
plasticity. You can cast complex forms cheaply and
As we built America from our huge reserves of
virgin wood, we craved what Europe had and we
didn't -- not iron, but elegant masonry. First we
carved those classical stone forms from wood.
Then, in 1828, a Philadelphia architect, John
Haviland, was designing the Miners' Bank in
Pottsville, Pennsylvania. There was no local quarry
for stone, so he decided to cast an iron facade in
the shape of stone columns and cornices.
In 1848 John Bogardus began doing the same thing in
downtown New York on a much larger scale. He also
prefabricated and shipped iron facing all over
America. For the next 50 years we made thousands of
A cast iron wall with a wide window space in it was
still strong. So these new buildings admitted more
light. And, if we could cast simple classical
columns, why stop there! Iron facings took on wild
Classical elegance. And we learned how to make
load-bearing walls from iron as well.
Was this all too good to be true? Maybe it was. We
began to see that painted iron was not really
stone. John Ruskin raised
his voice: "You can't have art where you have
smoke," he said. "... darkness ... broods over the
blast of the furnace."
Then, in 1871, a terrible
fire swept over the iron facades of Chicago.
When the wreckage cooled, we rebuilt. By then we'd
begun manufacturing modern steel. We had Otis's new
elevator. Now we used steel girders to build far
taller buildings. And a new esthetic of modernism
doomed all that frilly ornamentation.
Now, in the city of Houston, steel hides in huge
buildings that are faced entirely with glass
flaring in the setting sun.
Even as Swinbourne wrote, the old cast iron
buildings died out. I'm not really sure whether the
new skyscrapers killed them, or the new esthetics.
Either way, this forty-year moment was the shortest
major architectural movement -- we've ever seen.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Wosk, J., Breaking Frame: Technology and the
Visual Arts in the Nineteenth Century. New
Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992,
Chapter 5, The Struggle for Legitimacy: Cast Iron.
Coulter, M.D.J., Texas: Cast-Iron
Architecture, A Photographic Survey. The
Texas Historic Resources Fellowship, 1975-1976.
Sturges, W.K., The Origins of Cast Iron
Architecture in America. New York: Da Capo
Gayle, M., and Gillon, E.V., Jr., Cast-Iron
Architecture in New York. New York, Dover
Baltimore's Cast-Iron Buildings and
Architectural Ironwork. (Dilts, J.D., and
Black, C.F., eds.) Centreville, MD, Tidewater Pubs,
Gay, J., Stamp, G., Cast Iron. London:
John Murray, 1985.
Gayle, M., Look, D.W., and Waite, J.G.,
Metals in America's Historic Buildings: Uses
and Preservation Treatments. Washington:
U.S. Govt. Printing Office, 1980.
Gayle, M., and Lynn, R., A Walking Tour of
Cast-Iron Architecture in SoHo. New York:
Pub. Center for Cultural Resources, 1983.
Lister, R., Decorative Cast Ironwork in Great
Britain. London: G. Bell and Sons, LTD,
I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, Sophia Dabek,
and Lynn Sterba, UH Art and Architecture Library,
for advice and materials. M. Culbertson suggested
Image courtesy of UH Art and
An iron-faced store front (From Examples Book of
MacFarlane's Castings, 1883)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Photo by Stephanie
Century-old iron facing on the Guggenheim Library,
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