Throughout the centuries, there have always been masters of a skill, craft, or decorative art. In Renaissance Italy, if you wanted the best in glass, you went to the artisans on the island of Murano. For centuries, great lace came from the nimble fingers of the lace makers of France, while the masters of fired tile flourished in Spain and Portugal. By the beginning of the 20th century in America, the decorative arts were a vital part of the architect’s total presentation. Depending on the budget, clients now expected a certain level of ornament and décor, depending on the kind of building. Artists and craftsmen were gaining recognition on their own, and some were becoming household names. If one couldn’t actually afford a Tiffany stained glass window, for example, then they wanted something that was in the style of Tiffany. Name branding had taken hold.
Just as the high end architects went to the Tiffany Studios for their windows, they went to Samuel Yellin for their ironwork. The man was the undisputed master of iron. From his forge came ironwork that was so far superior to almost everyone else’s, that it was only a matter of time before his name became as well-known as some of the architects he worked for. If your interests lie in architecture and the decorative arts, you will have heard of Samuel Yellin. In walking around New York City, you have walked, perhaps unaware, by some of his great works.
Samuel Yellin’s home and studio were not even in New York, but his legacy here is strong. Like many of the great people who have done great things in America, he was an immigrant to our shores, coming here from Poland in 1906. Born in 1885, he had been apprenticed to a blacksmith at the age of eleven, and completed his training at the age of sixteen. At that time, he wandered around Europe for a couple of years, and then came to Philadelphia, where he enrolled in the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, in 1907. By 1908, he was teaching there, a position he held until 1919.
In 1910, he opened his own shop, and was soon quite busy. Much of his business came from the prestigious Philadelphia firm of Mellor, Meigs and Howe, so much so that in 1915, they designed a new studio for him at 5520 Arch Street in Philadelphia. Samuel Yellin would remain here, creating beauty, for the rest of his life.
The years between the end of World War I and the Great Depression were boom times for building in America. The great cities, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and others saw great strides taken in the creation of skyscrapers, banks, libraries, museums, court houses, churches, universities and private homes. This was still the age of ornament, and these great new buildings were in need of fencing, gates, lighting, and interior décor. Samuel Yellin soon had a reputation for excellence that brought him clients from all over the United States.
During the 1920s, he employed as many as 250 artisans to create his commissions. He valued not only the traditional ironworking skills, but also championed creativity, allowing his people to use their imagination when possible, so the studio as a whole was always coming up with innovative and new ideas to present to clients. During these boom years, there were over sixty forges in operation during the day, with more added in another building across the street, when needed.
Yellin ironwork soon became a trademark of fine building. His studio was able to do anything, from a small candlestick to a massive gate surrounded by four foot sconce lighting. Some of his clients were wealthy individuals who commissioned some of his most precious and detailed work, in the form of firescreens, table lighting, bowls, and candleholders. But most of his work was large and public.
His massive gates are among some of his most impressive works, including the Harkness Tower Gate at Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, designed in the 1920s. In Philadelphia, the enormous gates of the Packard Building were designed in 1924. He designed gates for J.P. Morgan’s estate, as well as many other wealthy private individuals. His studio designed outdoor lighting fixtures, window grilles, interior and exterior stair railings, and decorative ironwork. If it was in iron, Yellin could do it.
Using only traditional methods of heating and manipulating iron and steel, Yellin could recreate the great ironworking styles of the past, and also add a present-day panache. Some of his work is delightfully whimsical and delicate; something one would not think was possible with cold iron. He was a true artist, as well as craftsman, and also a true teacher. He loved talking about his work, and lectured at schools, for art societies and museums. It was this ability to reach out as well as market, which made him so successful, and enabled him to have a following throughout his life.
Samuel Yellin received many awards, especially in his beloved Philadelphia. Like the artisans of the Arts and Crafts era, which was coming to an end, Yellin rebelled against mass production and the loss of beauty in practical objects. He said in a lecture in Chicago, in 1926, “I am a staunch advocate of tradition in the matter of design. I think that we should follow the lead of the past masters and seek our inspiration from their wonderful work. They saw the poetry and rhythm of iron. Out of it they made masterpieces not for a day or an hour but for the ages.”
“We should go back to them for our ideas in craftsmanship, to their simplicity and truthfulness. The superficial and the tricky, which are spreading over the world of art like a disease, doom themselves to destruction. The beautiful can never die. Throughout my life I have been striving to teach people the love of beautiful things. There is no reason why people in the United States should fancy that we cannot do beautiful things here, because we can. Only America has been used to accepting the superficial, that the workers turn it out in bulk.”
Samuel Yellin was fortunate that he was working before the end of ornamentation. Before his death, from a heart attack in 1940, the world of architecture was turning to Modernism and the Bauhaus. Simplicity and the end of ornamentation were at hand. Yellin’s son, Harvey, kept the business going, but they were a shadow of their former selves. The large studio that had once made the enormous gates and decorative grilles became the Yellin Museum. In 1993, the famous studio, museum, and workshop was torn down.
Fortunately, Samuel’s granddaughter, Clare, became the next Yellin to go into the field, and today runs the Samuel Yellin Company. They produce a line of original designs and decorative objects; do custom work, and restoration of original Yellin work, as well as other restoration and repair. The new workshop is located in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
Here in New York City, Yellin’s work is scattered throughout the city. You’ve passed it unknowingly many, many times. His work appears at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Federal Reserve Bank, the American Radiator Building, the Salvation Army Headquarters on 14th Street, the former Dime Savings Bank near 72nd Street, the Barclay-Vesey Building, St. Francis Ferrer Church, the Cloisters, St. Bartholomew’s Church, St. Thomas Church, and the Frick Residence, all in Manhattan.
There is also Yellin work in Brooklyn; with possibly more than what I was able to document. The lighting and other metal work on the Brooklyn Edison Building, downtown near Brooklyn Friends School, is his. Even larger, the former Brooklyn Trust Building, on Montague Street, now housing Chase Bank. Those giant bronze light sconces flanking the entrance? Samuel Yellin. (Photograph above: former Brooklyn Trust. Brooklynbased.com)