Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 836:
IRON BUILDINGS

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 easily.

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 iron buildings.

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 work.

(Theme music)


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 Press, 1970.

Gayle, M., and Gillon, E.V., Jr., Cast-Iron Architecture in New York. New York, Dover Pubs., Inc.

Baltimore's Cast-Iron Buildings and Architectural Ironwork. (Dilts, J.D., and Black, C.F., eds.) Centreville, MD, Tidewater Pubs, 1991.

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, 1960.

I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, Sophia Dabek, and Lynn Sterba, UH Art and Architecture Library, for advice and materials. M. Culbertson suggested the topic.



Image courtesy of UH Art and Architecture Library

An iron-faced store front (From Examples Book of MacFarlane's Castings, 1883)




Photo by Stephanie Lienhard

Century-old iron facing on the Guggenheim Library, Soho


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
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