That's our town: the cast-iron city

Jacques Kelly

December 05, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

Whoever named Baltimore the nickel city got it wrong. We should have been called the cast-iron town.

In the 19th century, Baltimore's iron foundries issued buildings, aquariums, cuspidors, stairs, fences and lawn furniture. We've even got an iron neighborhood.

The city's very heavy history has been gathered into a new book, "Baltimore's Cast-Iron Buildings and Architectural Ironwork." From the lovely porch rails of Butchers Hill to Union Square's circular park rotunda, through Mount Vernon Place and Franklin Square, there's iron-clad evidence of Baltimore's casting excellence.

"I have a private dream. It's that one day Baltimore will recognize what it has in iron and will appreciate and restore the iron buildings left," said James D. Dilts, co-editor of the 101-page book. Catherine F. Black, the city's longtime preservationist eagle-eye, also edited the $20 book.

Dilts, 55, contributed much of the research and writing. He was a Sun reporter from 1965 to 1976, a period when there was scant interest in the city's cast-iron treasures. Marvelous iron loft buildings and warehouses, which today might be well-recognized, fell under the banner of downtown renewal.

Baltimore's iron neighborhood lies to the west side of the downtown, roughly between Lexington Market and the new Oriole Park. There are eight full iron-front buildings here and many more storefronts.

The oldest complete cast-iron-front building in Baltimore is at 412 W. Baltimore St. Occupied by Morton Schenk & Co., which sells buttons and tailoring supplies, the building went up in 1857. An adjacent building also has a cast-iron front.

Two iron buildings stand in Oldtown, on North Gay Street.

Many of the town's iron structures are shabby and their ground floors are cluttered with trashy commercial cover-ups. One, however, the Marsh & McLennan Building, at 300 W. Pratt, has been artfully restored and is a joy to pass.

An iron building actually has only an iron facade, or face. Its rear and side walls are typically masonry. The iron panels, bolted together during construction, were cast in local foundries, more often than not at the old Bartlett plant in Pigtown.

Baltimore's passion for cast iron was once so fierce that the two principal newspapers, The Sun and the old Baltimore American, each had its own cast-iron building, facing each other, at South and Baltimore streets. Both melted in the 1904 fire. There was also a free-standing sunburst clock outside The Sun's iron building. It was a dazzler.

Dilts believes that with a little care and lots of cleaning and paint, our west downtown cast-iron district can be coaxed into its own, with artists' lofts, restaurants and shops. He points to Seattle's Pioneer Square, the 7th Street gallery district in Washington, Main Street in Richmond and SoHo in Manhattan. In some cases, it was Baltimore-founded iron that was shipped to other cities, where it was assembled as building facades.

This long-overdue study, which also includes scholarly articles by Margot Gayle, J. Scott Howell, David G. Wright, Phoebe B. Stanton and Robert L. Alexander, is a piece of learned propaganda. Stanton's essay on the Peabody Library (all iron except for the books) is excellent.

The push to get the book published, and raise some $27,000 to that aim, came from Baltimore Heritage, a local preservation group, which deserves applause for its effort.

A good book stimulates the appetite for more. It would have been welcome to have additional photos of some of Baltimore's first-rate cast-iron buildings that perished in the 1904 fire. And there's not a word about the glorious iron at Catonsville's Mount De Sales Academy of the Visitation, whose garden side possesses our largest collection of exterior iron balconies.

But there's still much here to read and ponder.

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