Image: Mobile ironwork
John David Mercer  /  AP
The ironwork on the Richards D.A.R. House in the downtown district of Mobile, Ala.
updated 12/19/2006 12:06:28 PM ET 2006-12-19T17:06:28

Some of the lacy ironwork decorating Mobile's homes, buildings, parks and cemeteries has been maintained with tender care since the 1800s. A large amount, however, has been stolen, scrapped and sacrificed for urban renewal and renovations.

Architectural historian John S. Sledge's book, "An Ornament to the City, Old Mobile Ironwork," with black-and-white photos by Sheila Hagler and from University of South Alabama archives, traces the port city's ironwork origins and the struggle to preserve the ironwork over the decades.

According to Sledge, his book presents the first-ever illustrated, narrative history of the port city's ornamental ironwork from its 19th century roots to its decline and eventual restoration through preservation efforts.

Sledge, who works for the Mobile Historic Development Commission, said the book attempts to help people "see what's right in front of them."

The Museum of Mobile recently ran an exhibit about the ironwork, and the historic commission produced a map highlighting 10 examples of ironwork that can be seen around the city today on a self-guided tour. The sites range from the gates of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, to the intricately wrought "iron lacework" found on the arched columns and balcony at the front of the Richards DAR House.

Amid the city's famous colorful azaleas and camellias, there are swirling loops of iron in many designs produced by foundry workers on park benches, fences, gates, balconies, facades and elsewhere.

Virtually every U.S. city accessible by water had some ornamental cast iron, but, Sledge writes, it was nowhere more exuberantly used than in the Deep South, particularly the Gulf of Mexico ports. One reason is that wooden structures rapidly fell victim to the semitropical climate.

Some of the best examples of Gulf Coast decorative ironwork are in New Orleans.

Sledge said tourists come to Mobile because it's close to beaches and has attractive giant live oaks and old homes. But he said the ironwork merits a closer look.

Iron balconies once seen throughout downtown in the 1840s are making a modest comeback, particularly along Dauphin Street and Bienville Square.

Besides being decorative, in years past they served as perches for political speeches. The balconies also have practical uses: keeping rain off pedestrians and giving Mardi Gras revelers a place to better view parades.

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Beginning in 1834, Sledge writes, cast iron posts were used for gas lamps lighting up city streets. They proved hazardous for horse-drawn buggy traffic.

It was also a competitive business in the 1860s as the business records of iron broker Daniel Geary of Mobile indicate. He had to protect his business from competitors who would "do all in their power" to pirate designs. Geary advertised "garden and cemetery adornments" at reduced prices.

Urban renewal projects in the 20th century caused tons of ornamental ironwork to be scrapped, Sledge writes. An attempt to document the city's ironwork began in 1935 - a year when so much ironwork had been sold to junk dealers, tourists began to notice it disappearing.

The junk dealers were selling it to Japan until Congress imposed a scrap ban in 1940. But a year later, it was the United States that needed the scrap iron to support the war effort.

After the war, Mobile still retained plenty of ironwork, Sledge writes. But in the 1960s, more urban renewal projects downtown destroyed more of it. More than two-thirds of the buildings carefully documented for ironwork were gone.

By the 1980s, enough old buildings remained to interest a new breed of developers in ironwork for buildings. They were cheered on by preservationists.

The city's first cast-iron facade, built in 1860 and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is the Elgin Building at North Water and Dauphin Street. Today, the state's tallest building, the 35-story Retirement Systems of Alabama skyscraper, rises over it.

The Sledge-Hagler book also includes a glossary of ironwork words and terms, defining the difference between "cast iron" and "wrought iron."

Wrought iron has been worked by a blacksmith with hammer and tong. It's often used in fences. Cast iron is iron that is poured into a mold. The majority of Mobile's historic ironwork is cast iron.

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