When most of us think of New York City architecture, skyscrapers and brownstones are probably what spring to mind most readily—but there's a lot more to New York City's beautiful buildings than just plate-glass and bricks. The city is home to thousands of examples of decorative exterior metalwork, from ornate grates and gates to fences, balconies, and railings.
If you're lucky enough to manage or administer a building with a significant amount of exterior metalwork, you're likely already aware that it takes a certain amount of TLC to keep it in attractive and in good repair. Tough as materials like cast-iron and bronze may be, the urban environment is tough too, and it presents certain challenges when it comes to maintaining metalwork.
To get an appreciation for the city's exterior armor, a good place to start is Soho in Lower Manhattan, which is widely regarded as being home to the greatest collection of cast-iron architecture in the world. Of the 250 buildings with elaborately detailed decorative cast iron facades still standing in New York City, the majority are in Soho, and were constructed between 1840 about 1880.
Cast iron was an American innovation. It was cheaper than stone or brick, extremely strong, and a cast iron building could be erected in as little as four month’s time. Cast iron ornamentation were prefabricated in foundries in New York City, including the major firms of Badger's Architectural Iron Works on Duane Street, James L. Jackson's Iron Works, and Cornell Iron Works, whose New York City foundry was established in 1829. To this day, Cornell produces a full line of metalwork from its factory in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
A godsend for architects, cast iron was much more pliable and moldable than bronze, the metal they’d used previously on facades. Iron’s pliability cut down drastically the time and effort required to produce the Classical French and Italian architectural designs popular on facades at the time. Its superior strength allowed owners to build windows to unprecedented heights and widths, suddenly flooding previously dim, gas-lit interiors with brilliant natural light. It enabled developers to produce a more attractive and functional building, containing generously proportioned rooms.