3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 16, 1999
My first encounter with skeleton structures was a plastic building set consisting of interlocking beams, columns, and very thin infill patterns. The concept of modular construction is one that many of us have been raised with, whereas at one time the idea of building with interchangeable lightweight metal units, sized to fit together in a variety of patterns, was a wholly new revelation. Understanding where this link occurs, manifested in the built environment by practical necessity, connects the modernity of International Style into the historic preservation movement.
Several years ago I found myself involved in the business of repainting cast-iron facades in the Soho Cast Iron District in New York City and became intrigued to know more of the history of cast-iron architecture. Until I received this book, which I ordered from Amazon.com, I had to remain satisfied with a crude photocopy of an article by James Marston Fitch describing the mystery of the Laing Stores. The façade of the Laing Stores (erected in 1849 and the second of Bogardus's façade commissions) was dismantled in 1971, carefully stored with the intent of future restoration, and in 1974 were carted off by someone not-in-the-know like so many old steam radiators to be sold for scrap iron. This has engendered a small degree of paranoia with experienced preservationists and it has always been of value to me, as a preservation contractor, to know whereof the sentiment is derived. For whatever reason I have also been wondering for several years what goods were sold in the Laing Stores. This book provides the answer.
James Bogardus (1800-1874) was a nineteenth-century American inventor, machinist, architect, engineer, manufacturer, and builder in a time, unlike our own, where an individual could do almost anything industrious and put a good name to it afterward. His inventions included the eccentric mill, the self-supporting cast iron façade, and, with construction of the McCullough Shot & Lead Company shot tower of nonstructural brick wall panels entirely supported by an iron frame to a height of 217 feet in 1855, he anticipated the skeletal steel-framework of our urban environment. At the time this structure was the tallest in Manhattan.
I find it curious that the modern skyscraper was born of the necessity of the armaments industry. There is something else I had been wondering about -- the function of a shot tower is that lead is passed through a sieve at the top, falls a distance where it becomes spherical, and then plunges into a bath of cold water where it hardens. The necessity of the structure of a shot tower is to be tall, economical to build, and to not allow lead to not be blown around by gusting winds.
Bogardus, in an age where mechanical invention was the new wave, was a practical and ambitious entrepreneurial builder seeking profitable income. It is ironic to consider that if he were alive today he might not have any particular interest to looking into the past or especial concern for preservation of the historic fabric that he was building for us then.
"As for his customers, they probably were not concerned with architectural revolution or looking into the future. They wanted structures that accomplished the task at hand. Bogardus's buildings did so. And that was that."
The above is about as speculative as this book gets -- there is a lot of factual information, dated and attributed thoroughly, that represents a great amount of admirable research. Unlike many books full of facts derived from historical records, this book is readable, the authors have a smooth and patient prose style, and I recommend the reading to anyone with a serious curiosity about cast-iron architecture, particularly if they are the owners of one of these beautiful facades. For those readers not familiar with the streets and buildings of New York City I advise keeping a street map and an AIA guide nearby (duly noted in the bibliography). I read the book on the subway, the dead time between business meetings, and was pleased to recognize a few of the buildings when emerging above ground. The author sticks to the task at hand and does not wander very far into concurrent events, therefore a timeline of American history or a short history of New York City would assist the casual reader in imagining a familiar context. The year 1855 in which Bogardus's first shot tower was built marks the publication of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and the building of the first oil refinery in Pittsburgh.
Though the majority of Bogardus's work was in New York City he built cast-iron structures in several other locations including Chicago, Philadelphia, Albany, Charleston, Washington DC, Baltimore, San Francisco, Santo Domingo (a lighthouse), and Havana. From 1848 to 1862 Bogardus built 43 structures, with five of them now remaining standing where you can go see them for yourself, four in New York City and one, the Iron Clad Building, in Cooperstown, NY.
Margot Gayle, a founder of the Friends of Cast Iron Architecture, is an authority on cast-iron architecture and has been a major inspiration behind the historic preservation movement in New York City. She recently celebrated her 90th birthday, and deserves as thoroughly researched a biography as she has provided us for Bogardus.
First printed in APT Communique 1998.