What is Cast-Iron Architecture?


During the Industrial Revolution, cast iron was cheap, and steel hadn’t been produced, leading to Cast iron being utilized to create a new kind of architecture known as cast-iron architecture. Since the 17th century, cast iron has been used for street furniture, fences, screens, gates, and ornamentation. In the 18th century, cast iron was used to support church galleries, and Nash used it at Carlton House Terrace, the Mall, London, from 1827 to 1833. In the 19th century, Badger, Baird, and Bogardus produced cast-iron facades and kits. Carron and Saracen metalworks in Scotland and Coalbrookdale Ironworks in Salop shipped cast-iron lamps, street furniture, railings, urinals, architectural decorations, grilles, and gates across the British Empire.

Cast-iron components contributed considerably to the townscape, which was impoverished throughout the 1939-1945 war, which involved social engineering and propaganda. Cast iron was popular because it was efficient and inexpensive; a grand facade could be mass-produced, and structures could be built as “portable iron houses.” Late 19th-century steel-framed towering buildings “hung” historic facades. Since then, cast iron has been utilized commercially and residentially.

The Past and The Future of Cast-Iron Architecture

Coalbrookdale Ironworks

In 1709, Abraham Darby rented a furnace in Shropshire and manufactured cast iron with coke, a distillate of pit coal. By 1720, iron and coal in western Pennsylvania led to iron production in Hopewell, Cornwall, and Phoenixville. From 1840 through 1880, Philadelphia created a cast-iron commercial zone. These buildings, sculpted by architects and mechanics during a technical advancement, helped define the downtown of the growing modern metropolis. Cast iron structures clustered along the city’s main commercial arteries, from the Delaware River to Twelfth Street between Arch and Pine Streets, but notable instances lasted into the 21st century. Cast iron gave railroads, columns, and bridges additional structural and aesthetic alternatives. Cast iron bridges were England’s first significant transportation structures.

By the 18th century, balconies, railings, verandas, fences, and window grills were made of cast iron in Europe, and the U.S. Europe employed cast iron for domes, shelters, greenhouses, and libraries. Its ability to reproduce shapes influenced production and design. 1820s architect and engineer Henry Robertson Palmer invented corrugated the iron, wherein rural U.S. and foreign architecture used it. Since the 1840s, advances in iron and steel have led to cheaper iron plates, “double T” profiles, and higher-quality steel. Charles Drake of Patent Concrete Building Company invented iron shutters in 1867. They began building cast-iron structures in SoHo, highlighting James Bogardus’s skill. London’s Coal Exchange has an 18-meter iron-and-glass dome had a Neo-Renaissance front and metal inside. Oxford’s Natural History Museum was also neo-Gothic. The iron foundry’s fineness made it ideal for bronze statues.

The social acceptability of iron for visible architectural aspects was established by the success of iron and glass architecture at the Chatsworth greenhouses, the Palm House of the Royal Kew Botanic Garden, and the Crystal Palace by Paxton. Similar standards were utilized for commercial galleries, covered marketplaces, and railway design across Europe. Railway engineers built exquisite bridges like Théophile Seyrig’s in Porto in 1877. In the late 19th century, modern steel replaced cast iron for structural and support needs. This era saw the decline of cast-iron façades. Many cast-iron advances were taken over to steel-frame buildings, which led to the contemporary skyscraper.

The Role of Cast Iron in Architecture

Cast iron was widely employed in commercial and residential buildings. First, it was a cheap way to duplicate ornamental facades like Gothic, Classical, and Italianate. Mass-produced monumental architecture became inexpensive. Catalogs of cast-iron facades were as widespread as catalogs of pattern house kits because molds could be reused. Tang Dynasty China introduced cast-iron pagoda construction. Ennin, a 9th-century Japanese Buddhist monk, portrayed cast-iron pagodas and statues in China. However, China’s Buddhist persecution destroyed several of these structures.

The 1820s Commissioner’s House of the Royal Naval Dockyard, Bermuda, was designed by Edward Holl and made with cast iron. Moreover, James Bogardus of New York City advocated and developed cast-iron structures in the 1850s. Cast iron allowed complex facades cheaper than stone-carved ones, which can be painted in several colors. Many surviving examples are in SoHo, Tribeca, and downtown Louisville, Kentucky. Skidmore/Old Town Historic District in Portland, Oregon, is one of the West’s most preserved ensembles. While Glasgow, Scotland, which expanded rapidly in the late 19th century, has Europe’s best-preserved Victorian cast-iron warehouses.

In the late 1800s, cast iron was widely used in southern towns. For instance, New Orleans and Richmond have well-preserved cast-iron porches. Both cities had foundries that made ornamental and structural ironwork. Cast-iron columns were thinner than similar-weight masonry columns, which conserved space in factories and other structures and improved balcony sightlines in theaters, churches, and synagogues. Because of these notable qualities, cast iron became the typical greenhouse support framework, leading to the 1851 Crystal Palace in London. Joseph Paxton’s glass-and-cast-iron design was widely copied.

Second, complicated designs were quickly built on a construction site. Better yet, prefabrication allowed for the mobility of complete buildings. The Industrial Revolution movement paved the way for the use of cast iron. Steel frames in commercial buildings allowed for an open floor plan and more expansive windows.

Cast iron’s low cost, durability, and versatility are why it is utilized in different applications, including structural and aesthetic ones. There is a wide range of typical applications such as historical markers and plaque; In hardware, they are used as hinges and latch. Moreover, cast iron is also used for Columns, Baluster, Stair; Structural connectors in buildings; Decorative elements; Fence; Tools; Utensils; Ordnance; Stove; Fireback; Piping. All of these uses of cast iron may use the same or comparable base cast iron material. In other cases, alternative treatments may be necessary to repair the same issues based on the size, composition, use, condition, proximity to adjacent materials, exposure, and other factors of the components involved.

Disadvantages of the Use of Cast Iron in Architecture

A lot of people dislike cast iron for various reasons. It may be overused or represent a mechanical culture, offering architectural benefits and drawbacks. It’s compressive but tensile and brittle. Fire weakens its strength and rigidity. Cast iron could support large machinery but was prone to fire in industries. Fragmented cast-iron beams caused many building failures. When properly handled and preserved, cast iron is solid and durable. It’s particularly sensitive to corrosion or rusting when exposed to moisture and has various cosmetic flaws. However, one can maximize the use of cast iron if proper maintenance is employed, such as applying iron protective coatings, which include tars, waxes, paints, and metals. Practical, well-maintained coatings protect the cast iron from rust and corrosion. There are many coatings, which can be confusing for users unfamiliar with their technical details.

US Capitol Dome

Most Notable Cast-Iron Architecture

1. U.S. Capitol Dome, 1866, D.C. The U.S. Capitol dome is the most famous cast-iron structure in the U.S. This American government symbol was built from 9 million pounds of iron between 1855 and 1866. Philadelphia architect Thomas Ustick Walter designed it.

2. Ladd and Bush Bank Salem, Oregon. The Architectural Heritage Center in Portland, Oregon, claims that Oregon has the second-largest collection of cast iron-fronted buildings in the U.S. The cast iron Italianate exterior of Salem’s first bank has been well-preserved.

3. New York’s 1857 Bruce Building. James Bogardus is a prominent New York City cast-iron architect. George Bruce opened his printing shop at 254-260 Canal Street. Architectural historians believe George Bruce hired engraver and inventor James Bogardus to create his 1857 structure. Even for those unfamiliar with cast-iron construction, the Canal and Lafayette cast-iron facade is a New York City tourist destination.

4. Shropshire’s Iron Bridge. Abraham Darby III’s grandfather invented new ways to heat and cast the iron. Darby’s grandson built the first cast-iron bridge in 1779. Thomas Farnolls Pritchard designed the walking bridge in Shropshire, England.

Fountain Bartholdi. The U.S. Botanic Garden near the Capitol in Washington, D.C., has a famous cast-iron fountain created by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. The 15-ton cast-iron fountain became an emblem of Victorian-era grandeur in D.C. in 1877. Cast-iron fountains were standard at the vacation residences of Gilded Age bankers and businessmen.


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