Of Many Things

"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.

Advertisement

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. 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Supporters of opposition presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla clash with military police in the Policarpo Paz Garcia neighborhood of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Jan. 20, 2018. Following a disputed election marred by irregularities, incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernandez was declared the victor and will be inaugurated on Jan. 27. The opposition does not recognize Hernandez's victory and are protesting against the result. (AP Photo/Fernando Antonio)
“You will see many protests during his mandate...because Honduras hasn’t fixed its age-old problems of inequality, exclusion, poor educational and health system, corruption and impunity.”
Melissa VidaJanuary 23, 2018
I want to be able to serve the state better. I want to be able to serve more of the state.
Nathan SchneiderJanuary 23, 2018
Formed in 2011, The Oh Hellos' Christianity is one of their foundational inspirations, evident in lines like "the only God I should have loved."
Colleen DulleJanuary 23, 2018
People gather at a June 14 candlelight vigil in Manila, Philippines, in memory of the victims of the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Philippine Catholic bishops called for vigilance against bullying, ostracism and harassment of gay people in the wake of the incident in which police said a lone gunman killed 49 people early June 12 at the club. (CNS photo/Mark R. Cristino, EPA)
“We are losing three generations of people, and we need to hear why,” said Bishop Mark O’Connell.
Michael J. O’LoughlinJanuary 23, 2018