It seems like a strange topic for a site focused on Knoxville, Tennessee, but several things come into play here. First, I’m from Mobile (though I’ve lived in Knoxville more years) and for reasons related to family I’ve spent a good bit of time there the last few months. Secondly, when I travel to other cities, I often post about them on this blog and generally find some connection to our city. I’ll do some of the connecting in a sister blog post tomorrow.
For now, let’s learn a little about ornamental iron work. I recently read An Ornament to the City: Old Mobile Ironwork by John Sledge with great photography by Sheila Hagler. Before reading this book, I knew Mobile had a large amount of ironwork and I knew New Orleans did, as well, so I always assumed it was a result of our joint French heritage. Mobile was founded in 1702 as the capitol of French Louisiana. It remained in French hands until 1763 when it became part of the British Empire. They only held it for seventeen years before the Spanish took it over in 1780. They kept it for thirty-three years before the U.S. took it in 1813.
It turns out all of that happened before the ironwork craze hit the U.S. Much of the ornamental ironwork we generally call “wrought iron” is actually cast iron, though some of it is wrought. The difference is only in the amount of pig-iron include which fluctuates strength and malleability. The craze really took off in the 1830s and lasted into the 1880s, though there are examples in various American cities from the previous century, as well. It had a major appeal to coastal cities because it could be easily shipped from northern foundries (though many sprang up in the south and other parts of the country) and because coastal cities were constantly fighting the erosive powers of the humidity and salt in the air. Wood rotted quickly and iron tended to last.
In Mobile sidewalks began to be covered with cantilevered balconies which, due to the weight of the iron could only extend over about half of the sidewalk. Eventually merchants convinced the city to allow iron posts on the streets to support balconies extending over the entire sidewalk. This was later a problem when posts needed to be added for electricity and phone lines.
Homes all around the city took up the craze with modest homes support small flourishes and the homes of the wealthy exhibiting as much ornamental iron as they desired or could afford. This resulted in some homes being nearly covered in the front. Others featured single or double balconies. Many built beautiful iron fences and particularly gates.
Regarding the gates, there are many in Mobile. Gates lead between homes and into courtyards. They often serve as entries to front yards or larger estates. Beautiful iron gates rest at the front of the Cathedral and sometimes stand long after the structure they served as disappeared.
It’s hard to imagine when you walk the streets and see the amount of iron that remains, but through the twentieth century much of the ironwork disappeared from Mobile. With the passage of time it just wasn’t as fashionable and eventually was seen as gaudy. During the Civil War much of it had been scrapped and World War II represented the pinnacle of war usage. It was reportedly discarded by the ton for pennies.
Eventually more people came to see the iron as part of the heritage of the city and preservation efforts began. Some balconies, fences and gates were moved to new locations. An antique market in the old iron thrives today and new ironwork is appearing in the city.
All of which led me to wonder: What about Knoxville? Do we have anything in the way of ornamental ironwork? We were a growing, if hard-scrabble city during the peak years of ornamental iron’s popularity. Quick, can you think of any ornamental iron downtown? I’ll look at some of it tomorrow. See how smoothly I brought us in for a Knoxville landing?
In the meantime, if you are interested in what you viewed here and would like to see more, you can do so on the Stuck Inside of Knoxville Facebook Page. You’ll find a folder called “Mobile, Alabama Ornamental Ironwork” with these pictures and over one hundred more, including close-ups of some of the best ironwork.