Ask McGehee: Mobile buildings had a lot more ironwork in years past. What happened to it?

In 1839, the popular architect Asher Benjamin recommended cast iron in his book, “The Builder’s Guide.” He noted its low cost and the ability to create from it “the most beautiful shapes.” The Victorian era would ultimately become known as the Cast Iron Age.

By the start of the Civil War, Mobile, like much of the nation, was filled with cast iron columns, steps, balconies, railings, lampposts, benches, chairs, fireplace mantels, as well as gazebos, fountains and full-size lion and deer lawn ornaments. Decorative elements ranged from simple Greek Revival motifs to elaborate vines, leaves, and clusters of grapes and flowers.

Due to the Port City’s notoriously humid conditions, cast iron as an architectural element soon replaced rotting wooden porches or was added to older buildings to make them more fashionable. 

Two Royal Street hotels were noted for cast iron. A cast iron balcony fronted Mobile’s 1852 Battle House Hotel. In 1870, it was expanded to encompass double galleries circling round to St. Francis Street. By 1860, a two-story iron gallery surrounded the earlier Lafayette Hotel at St. Michael Street. The Battle House gallery was later lost to fire; the Lafayette’s was removed in a remodeling job.

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Houses of every size boasted these galleries of “iron lace, ” and when their occupants made their final trip to Magnolia Cemetery, fences as elaborate as those that fronted their former homes surrounded their burial plots. Even cast iron tombs could be ordered for a final aboveground resting place.

Visitors to the city remarked on the amount of ornamental ironwork well into the 20th century. Local artist Marian Acker published a collection of intricate etchings of gates, fences and balconies in 1932. Two years later, the federally funded Historic American Buildings Survey crew studied ironwork throughout the city and submitted extensive reports of hundreds of examples to the Library of Congress. 

Despite all the good press, Mobile’s 19th-century ironwork began to disappear at an increasing pace in the 1930s as prices of scrap iron began to escalate. With the country in a deepening economic stupor, individuals were looking for ways to pick up cash. Balconies and galleries on older buildings were removed and sold.

A Customer to the East

The main customer for all of this scrap iron was Imperial Japan. As early as 1933, the Mobile Register reported, “Mobile is made about $200, 000 richer each year by the scrap iron sent to Japan by Mobile’s leading junk companies, L. A. Zieman and the Marine Junk Co. According to Mr. Zieman, very little of the iron exported to Japan is made into ammunition.” Japan’s violent invasion of Manchuria two years earlier was still fresh on peoples’ minds.

During the mid- to late 1930s, train cars were filled with scrap metal near the waterfront. S. Blake McNeely Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, USA Archives

By the mid-1930s, that nation was quickly climbing out of a depression and had a seemingly insatiable need for iron. Struggling American industries had little use for the scrap metal, but prices soon skyrocketed thanks to exports to Japan.

Japan’s increasing intrusion into China escalated into the notorious “Rape of Nanking” in 1937. The Japanese invaded the Chinese capitol of nearly one million people and killed an estimated 400, 000 men, women and children in the most barbaric manner imaginable. 

Despite protests and criticism, the United States did nothing. Scrap dealers continued to advertise in the Mobile Register for scrap iron. Marine Junk Company proudly proclaimed they were “Alabama’s Largest Exporters of Scrap Iron and Steel.” As late as 1939, the country would export an astounding 2 million tons of scrap iron to Japan.

It was not until September 1940 that President Roosevelt finally acted and imposed an embargo on scrap metal exports. As defense industries geared up, they discovered that the metal they needed had largely vanished, leading to patriotic scrap drive campaigns. The assault on old ironwork started anew.

Nineteenth-century facades of Downtown Mobile were further decimated or smothered under streamlined structures after the war ended. Thanks to a wave of restorations of downtown buildings, cast iron galleries and balconies have seen a happy resurgence in recent years.

text by Tom McGehee

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