Symphonies in metal

Monday Book Reviews

June 29, 1992|By Geoffrey W. Fielding

BALTIMORE'S CAST-IRON BUILDING AND ARCHITECTURAL IRONWORK. By James D. Dilts and Catharine F. Black. Tidewater Publishers. 101 pages. Illustrated. $19.95.

CONSIDERING the Baltimore fire of 1904 and the urban renewal in downtown Baltimore in the last 30 years, it is amazing that so many buildings remain from the 19th century. Along West Baltimore and adjacent streets, there are a couple of dozen buildings in daily use which pre-date the skyscrapers that now dominate, and in which the modern buildings find their roots.

They are the cast-iron buildings which, with the mid-century arrival of the industrial revolution in the United States, gave new impetus to construction. As land values in American cities increased, it became an economical necessity to get more building per square foot, and the only way to do it was to go up.

Thus there came about the iron frame building, sheathed with metal and limited in height only by the ability of the frame to carry the weight and the endurance of those required to climb the stairs.

The first of those in Baltimore and in the nation was the famous Sun Iron Building at the corner of Baltimore and South streets, constructed in 1851. It was one of the casualties of the 1904 fire, but, as the authors point out, it marked an early stage in the development of the skyscraper, which needed only one invention, the elevator, to be practical.

Surprisingly, a contemporary of the Sun building can be found in a cast-iron storefront on West Redwood Street. It came from the same foundry, Benjamin S. Benson, which had just completed the exterior ironwork for the Sun structure.

The authors note that in the whole of the U.S. only four of these historic cast-iron buildings have been restored. One of them is the Marsh & McLennan Building on Pratt Street, of which there is a fine view from the new ballpark. Originally the Wilkens-Robins Building, it dates from 1871.

An example more grand is the Peabody Library, a "symphony of metal" as it is described under one of the two beautiful color photographs of the building's interior. In the chapter dealing with the library, Baltimore architectural critic and historian Phoebe B. Stanton notes that it was basically a prefabricated structure of cast iron which was both structural and decorative. It still pleases the eye.

While the book deals mainly with cast iron, it doesn't neglect wrought iron. Wrought iron creations are intricate and lacy and can be both protective and decorative. Many examples can be found in downtown Baltimore. Some of the most pleasing are in the main office of Maryland National Bank, though they are of a later date.

Published in association with Baltimore Heritage Inc., this compendium documents and celebrates a building style at once personal and pleasing. Unfortunately, that can't be said for many of its present-day successors.

Geoffrey W. Fielding is a Baltimore writer.

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