In the 19th Century, Baltimore was at the forefront of cast iron architecture. Construction teams were eager to find stronger, more flexible materials. Cast iron was one solution. Created by pouring melted pig iron into molds, the molten material can be manipulated for use in various architectural applications ranging from ornate trim work to vital support columns.
Generally brittle, cast iron is weak under tension yet very sturdy under compression. Its load-bearing qualities are greater than brick and stone while using less space. Cast columns allowed for a greater number of windows and larger interiors, a characteristic desired in storefront businesses and warehouses in the 19th Century.
Charm City possessed several foundries during the 1800s suited for producing architectural materials such as Hayward, Bartlett & Company and the Poole-Hunt Foundry. Remnants of the Poole-Hunt compound in Woodberry have been reconstituted as a restaurant, a gallery and an art studio.
During architectural cast iron’s heyday, from the mid 1800s to the 1890s, Baltimore’s businessmen outfitted the commercial district with warehouse/storefront structures lavishly decorated in molded pig iron. Most of the remaining facades are located between Old town and the Howard Street shopping district.
The Sun Iron Building, completed in 1851, was the second all cast iron structure in America. Designed by New York architects James Bogardus and Robert G. Hatfield, the Sun headquarters was the brainchild of publisher and mogul A. S. Abell. The impressive building set the tone for Baltimore’s industrial buildings thereafter. It was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1904.
Baltimore has several examples of finely restored cast iron facades. The Fava Fruit Co. building on Front Street near the Shot Tower was originally stretched out between 218 and 226 South Charles Street. Built in 1869, the iron front was removed in 1974 and placed in storage. In the 1990s the facade was reassembled in its staggered form at its current location.
The complex at 300 West Pratt Street near Oriole Park at Camden Yards has an accurately restored exterior and generously modernized interior. Additions flank the former warehouse turned office building, more than doubling its size. Erected in 1871, 300 West Pratt Street (originally called the Wilkens Building) is now called the Marsh-Mclennan building after the insurance firm that occupies it.
The city’s extensive park system has numerous pavilions, urns and fountains made with cast iron. Mount Vernon has its porches and railings poured in decorative patterns. It also contains the Edmund Lind designed Peabody Library, one of the finest cast interiors in America. Our old Victorian cemeteries have beautiful fencing created with the formed alloy, the Whitridge family plot in Green Mount being one of the finest remaining examples. Complex church interiors were assembled in cast iron such as Saint Alphonsus Church, the house of worship designed by acclaimed architect Robert Cary Long. Long lectured and wrote extensively about the flexible material and its benefits.
Cast iron fell out of fashion with builders and architects in the late 1800s with the arrival of inexpensively produced steel. However, its legacy lives on in America’s oldest cities where restoration projects continue to be financed and executed. Here in Baltimore the specialized and difficult work is steady as it goes.