Skip links

Intentionally Far From Home

More fun with the HABS/HAER index: I went to “cast iron fronts” in the subject listing and this was the first building I found: the Brisk & Jacobson Store at 51 Dauphin Street in Mobile, Alabama. It was constructed in 1866, which was not a great year for heavy industry in the south, because of the social disruption and material destruction resulting from the Civil War, which had ended the previous year. And sure enough, the iron front isn’t from the south. It was cast by Daniel Badger’s Architectural iron Works in New York.

Just the year before, Badger’s firm had put out its incredible catalog, which reads as a plan to sheath the world in iron. As I’ve mentioned before, the catalog contains a long list of places that the Iron Works had shipped cast iron building elements, including entire facades and, at the Watervliet Arsenal in update New York, more or less an entire building. So shipping one smallish facade to Mobile was not a big deal for the company. The HABS summary reads “This is one of the largest and most ornate buildings constructed in the old commercial district of Mobile, and the only remaining example of a building with a large front elevation entirely executed in cast iron.” When it was surveyed in 1972 it was considered to be in danger of demolition, but the photo on its Wikipedia page shows it intact, renovated, and apparently occupied in 2009.

There are only three photos in the HAVS survey, and the other two give a good sense of the building. First the side facade:

It is brick, like the sides of nearly all “cast iron” buildings. I know of two two-front buildings here in New York and one three-front building; the only building I know of with cast iron on all four sides is the one up in Watervliet. The first floor has cast-iron columns and an iron entablature at the second floor, which was probably a secondary storefront when built and is now infilled. Whoever built the masonry did a nice job matching the arched window heads on the upper floors to the imported iron front. The cornice looks to me too regular to be anything other sheet metal, but the HABS report does not say.

Here’s a close-up of the iron, showing the abandoned state of the building 49 years ago:

One of the easiest ways to tell that you’re looking at cast iron and not some well-carved stone is that a cast-iron facade, no matter how much it’s been abused and neglected, retains its sharp edges. If you look at the left corner water-table below the top floor, the cast-iron sections are separating, almost certainly because the wrought-iron bolts holding the ornamental pieces in place have rusted. But the edges of every piece are as well-defined as when they left Badger’s shop, while stone this age would likely have eroded a bit.