Friday, February 11, 2011

Ironwork in the Vieux Carré

After marveling at the St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, we began a leisurely stroll around the French Quarter, focusing on one of its architectural features.

Quintessential to the streetscape in the Vieux Carré and gracing many homes and fences in the Garden District and other parts of the city, decorative cast iron is iconic to New Orleans.

It became the popular material not only for the latticework on cantilevered balconies and verandahs, but also as staircases, columns, downspouts, thresholds, lamps, gazebos, fences, gates, and even entire cast-iron facades.

Walking around the French Quarter, we must have, at times, appeared to be first-time visitors to "the big city," i.e., we spent more time walking with our eyes raised toward the heavens looking at the ironwork on the homes and stores.

By the mid-19th century, select cities in the United States were producing large quantities of cast-iron products. In New Orleans, cast iron replaced the wrought iron tradition (introduced by French and Spanish colonists) still seen on many of the oldest buildings in the city.

Some architects scorned the use of cast-iron embellish-ments on the facades of buildings, but the Victorians embraced it and in turn helped shape the face of New Orleans as we know it today. The famous Pontalba Buildings
(left, and the two photos below), c. 1849, were likely the first buildings in the city to feature cast iron.

The cast-iron craze spread through the French Quarter like the fires of the previous century, changing the face of the buildings and giving the French Quarter one of its most defining characteristics.

Remnants of the Spanish Colonial period, small balconies (some embellished with wrought iron) hung over the streets of most buildings in the Vieux Carré. However, these balconies were impractical: small and uncovered, they offered no protection from hot sun or driving rain. Balconies were built this way because Colonial life centered around the private space of the courtyards.

But with the Victorian era came a readiness to embrace modern technology--and to display it. Cast-iron balconies and fancy iron lattice work were a "quick and easy" fix. They also offered a way to increase outdoor space and render it more useable: balconies were extended to the sidewalks and eventually stacked (below) on top of each other (thereby creating roofs), supported by cast-iron collonettes.

Some mid-century building contracts refer to these larger projections as verandahs. The lacy ironwork served as an ideal trellis for lush, tropical plants and created an inviting porch space.

These two photos of some of the ironwork also show that prepa-rations for Mardi Gras are well under way.

The Golden Age of ironwork was interrupted by the Civil War when many manufacturers of decorative cast iron switched production to more utilitarian purposes. Factors after the war, including economic depression, changing fashions, and the advent of steel and later aluminum in building construction, all resulted in the decline in cast iron in the city (Liz Russell, "Cast Iron and New Orleans," Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office).

We've often said, "There is no other city like New Orleans." Its ironwork is just one example to support that statement.

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