Cast Iron

The Machine Aesthetic

by Don Friedman on December 1, 2017


In one sense, all building materials are artificial. Even the wood we use as lumber is shaped into geometries not seen in nature: rectangular in cross-section, straight, and identical from one piece to the next. But somehow metal seems artificial in a way that masonry and wood do not. You can see artists struggling with how to address metal structure and machinery through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, even as society was changing from the effects of industrialization. The machine aesthetic, as it was called, arguably reached its peak with precisionism.

The picture above is the interior stair of the Little Red Lighthouse. It was built in the 1880s at Sandy Hook, at the entrance to New York harbor, and moved in 1921 to its current location on a spit of land projecting into the Hudson River. Physically, it’s a tapered and hollow iron cylinder, with various projections, including a balcony and a lantern at the top. The obvious way to go up and down inside such a structure is with a helical staircase, as you can see in the picture.

There are some architectural flourishes at the lighthouse’s exterior, like the pseudoclassical door surround. But it’s really quite plain, as is fitting for a utilitarian structure. The stair, for instance, has no architectural pretensions, but is simply the most basic iron helical stair that the 1880s could have produced. But that stair is beautiful in the machine aesthetic sense. I think it helps explain where that aesthetic came from: the geometry and unornamented man-made nature of that stair structure is striking and, in its time, new.

Expounding on a Neat Trick

October 30, 2017

I talked a bit about this type of detail recently but I was surprised to learn that I hadn’t posted these pictures. This is a middle-third of the 1800s tenement in Hell’s Kitchen that was built with retail space on the first floor. The wood joists of the floors and roof span left to right, […]

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Partially Hidden, A Neat Trick

October 26, 2017

I thought I had talked about this type of structure before, but maybe not. How do you create a storefront when it’s the 1840s or the 1860s? How do you support a masonry wall over a glass void? Affordable steel beams are decades away and wrought iron beams are untried and new technology. The answer […]

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Labor Day Weekend 1

September 2, 2017

Workers erecting cast-iron columns.

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Composite Structure

August 21, 2017

That’s the side wall and an oblique view of the front of a small building on Nassau Street. The front appears to be early twentieth century, but the odds are good that this is an older building that has been modified multiple times. If nothing else, the storefront – visible as sheet metal at the […]

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Sidewalk Vaults and True Obsolescence

August 14, 2017

For people unfamiliar with sidewalk vaults, the illustration above, from 1865, might seem plausible, but it’s actually Daniel Badger’s fantasy of how he could sell more iron. The left-hand side is reasonably accurate for mid-1800s vaults: the facade columns extend down past the plane of the sidewalk, marking the separation of the cellar proper from […]

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Weathering Metals

August 9, 2017

Beautiful, right? Thanks to some old alteration work, we get to see the results of a nice little experiment in exposing metals to water. You’re looking at three beams here: a modern steel beam that had been directly supporting a sidewalk (middle left, outlined in purple below), the original cast-iron girder that supports that beam […]

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Historic Structural Detail: Assembly Required

March 22, 2017

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these posts, possibly because my attention has wandered to more fertile fields of criticism. In any case, the picture above is a nice illustration of just how much cast-iron facades were kits to be assembled. (Note that there’s some flash burn on the left side of the […]

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156 Years Of Dirt

March 16, 2017

Whatever that light-gray dust is – some combination of rotted wood, ancient coal smoke, and pigeon crap, most likely – it was damned difficult to wash off my hands and shirt. But that’s not the point. What is this thing? It’s the cast-iron arch holding up the rear wall of an 1861 loft building over the […]

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A Century Passes

March 3, 2017

That’s the west side of Union Square, between 14th and 15th Streets, a little over one hundred years ago. It’s worth the effort to click on it to look at the bigger version. Personally, I love the facade signage. The building on the far left, partially cut off, is 1 Union Square West and it’s […]

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