The National Catholic Review

"Here today, gone tomorrow.” That familiar saying can apply to many things, including buildings and rare architectural artifacts. In a city like New York, buildings are torn down and replaced in a matter of months, their original accompanying artifacts lost. With this destruction of older structures, segments of the urban past disappear into the rubble. Among New York’s rapidly disappearing treasures is the ironwork found throughout the boroughs, both in the form of uniquely designed manhole covers and other objects of iron dating back to the 19th century. These constitute one of the city’s major beauties—for those who have the keen eye to recognize them.

 

One person who has such an eye for the city’s often unnoticed treasures of wrought and cast iron is Diana Stuart, whose book on early manhole covers was published a few years ago (Am., 6/7/04). Now Ms. Stuart has written what might be called a companion volume, Decorative Architectural Ironwork (Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2005). This second undertaking is a logical outgrowth of the first.

An experienced photographer, the author paced the city streets, camera in hand. In the beginning, there was no thought of even a single book, much less two, she said during a visit to America House. “I just started photographing the rich ironwork details I saw everywhere: balustrades, street lamps, fences, even doorbell ringers and boot scrapers.” The collection of photographs grew until, as she put it, “it was pushing me out of my apartment.” By then, the need to incorporate her discoveries into book form became pressing; hence this newest work on cast and wrought iron.

During her visit, Ms. Stuart explained that much of this iron was made in local foundries along the East River, using patterns brought over, in many cases, by artisans from Europe. “But when steel came into use,” she said, “the foundries died out.” One example of a now-lost treasure created by a local foundry stood near my rectory on the Lower East Side: a hitching post. In her book, she describes it as “one of the rarest original ironwork artifacts existing in New York City,” with the head of a horse at the top of the post, a tuft of hair rising from the head. On first coming across the hitching post, she took a picture of it; but when she returned months later, it had vanished. The photograph in her book is now the only documentation that it ever existed.

Ms. Stuart also gives walking tours, and on a fall Sunday afternoon I took part in one that began near Gramercy Park in Lower Manhattan. Approaching the agreed-upon meeting spot, I could see her from a block away, seated on her signature folding stool, a rolling suitcase with notes and copies of her book beside her. One of the handsome homes on the west side of the park belonged to James Harper, mayor of the city in the mid-1800’s. The ornate wrought iron lamps at the gated entrance are testimony to the workmanship of the artisans of the time. On noticing us staring at them, a tenant emerged from the house to explain that in that mayor’s day, the lamps were always kept lighted as a sign that he was at the service of his constituents—a fact of which Ms. Stuart was well aware. So engaging was the enthusiasm, however, of the impromptu lecturer, that she let him natter on about a subject to which she devotes considerable space in her book.

If the ironwork around the park reflects the lives of the wealthy, such is the abundance of its uses that examples can also be found in parts of the city inhabited by low-income residents as well. The fire escapes of my own, once-immigrant neighborhood often stand out as much for the beauty of their design as for their utilitarian purpose. Ms. Stuart sometimes conducts tours, in fact, that focus on fire escapes alone. But her new book is also notable for drawing attention to artifacts that could easily go entirely unnoticed by the casual passerby—the so-called tie-rods, for example, affixed to the sides of many 19th-century buildings as reinforcement to their brick walls. Their swirling and variegated shapes give them a beauty of their own apart from the purpose they serve.

Someday Ms. Stuart hopes to publish a book on another vanishing part of the city’s past, far more ephemeral than the manhole covers and iron artifacts. These are the wall signs painted on the sides of many 19th-century buildings to advertise the products of companies long gone. The faint outline of the lettering is often still visible high above the sidewalk. They too serve as reminders of how easily a city’s past can be obliterated instead of preserved. Ms. Stuart has photographed many of them, and has a book almost ready, should a willing publisher appear. 

George M. Anderson, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

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