Ask McGehee

Do any Mobile buildings have cast-iron facades?

The exterior of the old Daniels-Elgin building has remained much the same since its construction in 1860. Its cast-iron facade, a novelty for its time, was likely inspired by the architectural trends of New York City. Today, that facade faces Alabama’s tallest building, the RSA Tower. Photo by Catt Sirten

In 1860, a four-story building, situated at 51 Dauphin St., was constructed on the southwest corner of Dauphin and South Water streets for the firm of Daniels and Elgin. It featured a cast-iron facade with arched windows and columns, a novelty for its time. George Daniels and Armistead Elgin had operated on this corner since 1852, and their firm was listed as a business of “Importers, Jobbers and Retailers of Dry Goods.”

The building was at a choice location. To the east was the busy warehouse district, and to the west stretched the city’s prime retail district. The building’s distinctive Italianate style was obviously selected to draw attention and customers.

The Popularity of Cast Iron

Cast-iron facades made their first appearance in Manhattan in the late 1840s, on buildings ranging from warehouses to drugstores. Daniels’ and Elgin’s new structure, like many New York examples, was inspired by Venetian palazzos, a style that first became popular in London. Architect James H. Giles designed the Mobile example and had it cast by Daniel D. Badger’s Architectural Iron Works of New York.

By the 1850s, cast-iron facades were spreading along lower Broadway where they fronted the growing number of retail shops catering to female shoppers in a district dubbed “Ladies’ Mile.” It is highly likely that Mr. Daniels and Mr. Elgin observed those new structures while in town and wanted the latest style for their emporium in Mobile.

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The arrival of the Civil War put an end to Mobile’s prosperity, and I could find no other mention of a cast-iron facade in the city. However, the popularity of the style continued in Manhattan well into the next decade, and in 1870 the firm of Lord and Taylor called upon the creators of Mobile’s example to build their grand department store at 901 Broadway.

New Tenants, New Uses

In 1865, the firm of Daniels and Elgin disbanded, and their building was sold for the substantial sum of $50, 000 to wholesale grocers Isaac Goldsmith and William Frohlichstein. The business partners were married to sisters, and their matching homes on Church Street survive today as the Malaga Inn.

In 1871, the building began a long run as Brisk & Jacobson, offering “Clothing and Gent’s Furnishings.” As the years progressed, retailers moved further west on Dauphin Street, and in 1913, the firm relocated to a storefront opposite Bienville Square.

Number 51 Dauphin St. had a widely divergent set of tenants over the next few decades. Edward M. George was offering “Harnesses, Saddlery, Buggies and Wagons” in 1913 and survived briefly into the next decade selling automobile tires.

The address was listed as being vacant from 1924 until 1929 when Mobile Paint Manufacturing Company was listed at the address. In the mid-‘30s, it was home to A.H. McLeod Marine Supplies, where Mobilians could purchase everything they needed for their boats — from a custom-made sail to a Johnson outboard motor.

In the years following World War II, Samuel Ripps opened a wholesale jewelry business within the building. By the late 1960s, Mobile’s downtown merchants were abandoning the city center for the malls, and by the following decade, Mr. Ripp’s Gulf Coast Jewelers was operating out on Airport Boulevard.

A Changing Neighborhood

As the structure passed its 100th birthday, the neighborhood was going through a severe change. Urban renewal brought federal tax dollars to town to buy up and demolish the blocks of warehouses east of Water Street. Number 51 Dauphin St. miraculously survived, possibly due to the durability of its cast-iron facade. In 1979, it was restored, and the following year, it began a new life as a first-class office space. A recent renovation ensures that Mobile’s only building with a cast-iron facade will be appreciated for many years to come.

Retailing can be fickle, and just like in Mobile, the most popular retail shops in New York  moved around, too. Lord and Taylor built their current location on Fifth Avenue in 1914. Ladies’ Mile became a forlorn and forgotten stretch of real estate, housing various manufacturing operations for much of the century. Lord and Taylor’s former palazzo was partially demolished and its distinctive ground floor altered. As recently as 1995, a New York Times reporter termed what remained “a towering gloomy hulk.”

With the revitalization of the area for pricey boutiques and even pricier residences, the former Lord & Taylor emporium has been restored for retail use once again. Like Mobile’s earlier example, the future of this beautiful evidence of 19th century ingenuity looks secure.

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