The Master of Cast Iron

by Don Friedman on February 24, 2016

When you mention cast iron, James Bogardus’s name comes up most often, but he’s not the guy I’m talking about. Bogardus greatly encouraged the use of structural cast iron in the mid-1800s and built some interesting structures, but his work output is eclipsed by that of Daniel Badger. Badger went from making door and window hardware in Boston to running the most productive cast-iron foundry in New York, the Architectural Iron Works. His buildings are everywhere, by which I mean all over New York and also anywhere he could ship the iron as a form of pre-fab construction.

We recently started working on the sidewalk vault of a Badger building. It’s not as glamorous as the facade

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but what can you do? (For all of the pictures, click to enlarge.)

The typical 1860s SoHo vault originally consisted of a cast-iron vault light (an iron plate with glass lenses set into it) adjacent to the building and a solid masonry walking surface from the mid-width of the sidewalk to the curb. Sometimes the cast iron portion was elevated to create a loading dock; usually the solid surface consisted of big slabs of granite.

Badger had an idea for an all-iron vault which was, as far as I know, never built. He used pieces of the idea for his real-life projects.

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This picture was taken from near the building line, looking out toward the curb. The area with the gypsum-board ceiling and high-hat lights is the former iron vault-light, the big girder running from the column at the left to the upper right marks the transition from the vault light to the solid sidewalk, and the solid sidewalk is visible further away as a series of brick vaults.

The brick vaults are supported on beams with an inverted-T section, which both provides extra iron on the tension side and creates a convenient shelf for the brick to bear against. The T beams rest on the big girder shown above at their inboard end (closer to the facade) and another big girder near the curb:

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A few notes to help explain all this:

First, yes there’s rust on the iron, but who cares? Cast iron rust adheres tightly to the base metal, which means that once the surface is rusted the rusting stops. Steel and wrought-iron rust doesn’t adhere, so it flakes off and exposes a new surface to rust, and so on until the metal is gone. Also, in the third photograph, note the 150-year-old paint still covering most of the metal.

Second, note that even in a sidewalk vault of an industrial building, the iron was cast with ornament in it. We can argue whether that’s good or bad – one hundred years ago the consensus would have been “good” and sixty years ago the consensus would have been “bad” – but it’s striking.

Third, note that the various pieces constitute a system of construction. The phrase “kit of parts” is overused, but here it is in its industrial infancy. That, as much as the beauty and sheer volume of his buildings, is why I admire Badger’s work. He was thinking ahead, developing the technology he mastered and which we abandoned long ago.

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