Adding the Final Flourish: Ornamenting With Ironwork

Bed Stuy. Photo by Susan De Vries

Editor’s note: This story is an update of one that ran in 2009. Read the original here.

The traditions of ironworking go back to the beginnings of many cultures on many continents. The growth of travel and trade to all parts of the world opened up the world of design in the Victorian age.

Starting in 1860s, the Aesthetic Movement and the Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe and, later, in America, introduced the growing middle and upper classes on both continents to the design elements of the Middle East, India, and East Asia, which were all then added to the existing catalog of medieval, Renaissance, Celtic and naturalistic patterns.

prospect heights ironwork

Prospect Heights

bed stuy ironwork

Bed Stuy

Designers and craftspeople in many different media took these themes and created products for the fashionable Victorian home: fabrics, tile, wallpaper, ceramics, furniture, lighting, stained glass and wrought iron. Victorian aesthetics met practicality when it came to adding beauty to otherwise mundane and necessary objects such as fencing and security.

ironwork from 1894 catalogue

A stoop railing design from an 1894 catalogue. Image via Barbee Wire and Iron Works: Complete Catalogue

The necessity of enclosing one’s property, of securing ground floor windows and doorways from thieves, and providing safety in railings, balconies and fire escapes provided blacksmiths with the opportunity to create great beauty from heated and manipulated bars of iron.

Geometric patterns, classic medieval twisted and curved patterns, and floral flourishes were all utilized. Combined, in many instances, with cast iron, they add texture and pattern to buildings already festooned with terra-cotta, carved stone and carved woodwork, as well as cast hardware and lighting elements.

New Orleans style balconies can be found in various parts of Brooklyn, as can ornate railings and fanciful grillwork.

park slope stoop

Park Slope

door grillwork

Crown Heights

Early 20th century houses often featured glass doors clad with decorative wrought iron. Many of the fantastic railings are from rows of speculative housing, so presumably the ironwork chosen was mass manufactured and picked from a catalog. It is amazing that so much of it has survived intact, especially on entire groups of houses.

ironwork in crown heights

Crown Heights

Unfortunately, we know very little about the people who created this artwork, but we do know they came from many backgrounds and traditions: Italian, Spanish, other European countries, as well as a documented African-American tradition.

Their work is once again prized and treasured, and homeowners will pay handily to find vintage replacements to complete their homes. If your home still has some of this fantastic ironwork, take care of it, restore it and secure it, as it’s quite valuable.

[Photos by Susan De Vries unless noted otherwise]

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