Restoring Historic Cast Iron on Galveston Island, Texas

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The importance of the architecture, the spirit of community, resiliency through adversity, and friendships have promoted the restoration of Galveston Island.

By Doug McLean

I moved from upstate New York to Houston in 1977 and one year later, on a Sunday afternoon I took my first one-hour drive south, down interstate 45, over the causeway bridge onto Galveston Island. My afternoon and overnight stay in a partially restored 1895 loft on the Historic Strand Street had such a profound impact on me, that within two weeks I had resigned my job, and with an odd leap of faith, without employment moved to the island and took up residence, subletting the loft I had only weeks before visited.

When I arrived, much of the island’s architectural heritage was on the brink of collapse, the Strand and the downtown district was mostly uninhabited with the exception of a few true pioneers who found the beauty of these amazing buildings and felt a calling to preserve and revitalize this rich historic architectural district.

As the preservation movement took hold, attention was focused on saving the hundreds of historic structures on the island, especially the cast-iron buildings in the downtown area known as the Strand. Many leaders contributed to this effort, including Peter Brink, founding and long-time executive director of the Galveston Historical Foundation. A catalyst for change, he was able to convince the public and investors, both public and private, of the value of preserving our historic commercial and residential structures. He showed how “preservation efforts will benefit all by revitalizing both the historic architecture as well as the island’s economy.” His influence became the turning point for the island’s resurrection. He would eventually move to Washington, DC, to become the senior vice president of programs for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Brink also worked with George and Cynthia Mitchell who led many progressive and successful revitalization efforts. They were responsible for saving and revitalizing dozens of historic island structures including the T.J. League and Rosenberg Buildings. The Mitchell’s efforts were an incentive for islanders and visitors to take a second look around them and realize the remarkable collection of 18th-century structures unlike anything in the State of Texas.

Continued preservation programs led by the Galveston Historical Foundation, have since become a model for national preservation efforts. Other preservation pioneers, including Sally Wallace, the leading local advocate for the Strand’s rebirth, Dr. E. Burke Evans and Robert L. K. Lynch, were also significant. In addition, the generous support from the Moody Foundation, Mary Moody Northen Foundation, the Kempner Foundation and many other private and public efforts, have helped our district become the thriving area that it is today.

The Strand Yesterday and Today
Galveston was in its prime from the 1850s to 1900. With its natural protected bay and railroads, it was the hub for the nation’s cotton trade, as well as for trade from South America. This highly profitable trade, along with growth in banking and commerce, contributed to Galveston’s claiming to be one of the wealthiest towns in America. It had the state’s first newspaper, first telegraph, first electricity, first street lamps and first streetcars.

In the late 1800s, Galveston had the highest rate of millionaires per capita in the United States. With this rise in prominence, the wealthy inhabitants decided to build a city fashioned by the styles, materials and architectural trends of the world’s great cities.

Cast iron was the predominant architectural embellishment used on the brick and mortar Victorian-era structures of the commercial district. The Strand National Historic Landmark District now has more than 34 cast-iron embellished buildings and is one of the largest collection of contiguous cast-iron front buildings west of the Mississippi, second only to Portland, OR.

The majority of these buildings are located on the island’s east end, the downtown historic district, alongside the original (and still) bustling seaport. Today, thanks to the restoration of the area, visitors can explore the shops, restaurants, the 1894 Grand Opera House, gift and clothing stores, museums, art galleries and Elissa, the Official Tall Ship of Texas. In addition, Galveston is a home port to three major cruise ship lines sailing almost daily.

Original Working Conditions
The reality of building cast-iron buildings in the 19th century was daunting. There was no electricity and horse power literally meant horse power. Forge welding could be performed and brackets and fittings were manufactured by a blacksmith, but that was the extent of the available technology. Fastening all of the cast-iron elements on the entire storefront system relied on mechanical fasteners (nuts and bolts). Tools were operated by hand, and light was supplied by the sun, candle or gas. There were no fans and the 80- to 100-degree heat, along with the high humidity and mosquitos, made the work very difficult.

I remind myself of these conditions when I start to complain as we struggled to repeat their work. Many of today’s craftsman who have worked on these projects with the aid of light, electricity and fans, have developed a deep respect for the men who labored under the original working conditions and technical limitations. It really is an honor to have worked on their legacy, to have helped in the restoration of these important historic structures. Our goal has been to resurrect and preserve many of the original crafts, skills and techniques required to construct the historic cast-iron buildings.

Construction Issues
During the construction of the Strand, a relatively soft brick, known as Cedar Bayou Brick, was used. The nickname relates to where the clay was mined: along the Cedar Bayou near Houston in the mid- to late 1800s. In addition to this soft brick, the original mortar is thought to have been mixed with washed beach sand. Many believe that the failure to properly wash all of the salts from the sand before mixing has caused a long-term breakdown to the adhesive capacity of the mortars. This softer brick and mortar, combined with the expanding force of rusting iron (brackets and anchors), has caused many cracks in the brick and mortar. It should also be noted that not all of the original craftsmanship and construction details were not great; some, in fact, were quite questionable.

Galveston is a semi-tropical barrier-island, with high humidity, and salty sea air, the perfect incubator for rust. The island’s average humidity is 74%, which contributes to the demise of the iron by exceeding the moisture level required (65%) for oxidation of metals. In addition, humidity levels above 75% allow the hygroscopic salts present in much of the brick and mortar to produce salt blooms, or salt crystals. This combination of moisture and environmental salts will attack exposed iron parts through accelerated oxidation.

In addition, when unprotected iron comes in contact with wicking moisture from below (many foundations are built below the average water table allowing for moisture absorption up through the foundation substrates contacting the iron), it combines with oxygen, causing rust. As the years go by, the metal starts to delaminate and expand outward. This expansion (known as rust jacking) will continue because iron and steel can expand to over seven times its original thickness. When these iron elements are left untreated, the deterioration continues, allowing more moisture in, causing more rust jacking, resulting in exponentially more brick and substrate damage. If not repaired, this condition can lead to significant damage to columns, foundations, base plates, cast sills, internal iron brackets, iron anchors, etc. Most of the older buildings have suffered some level of damage from rusting iron.

Galveston has also seen its share of significant hurricanes, from the infamous 1900 storm to the more recent Hurricane “Ike” in September of 2008. The island’s response in 1900 was to build a 3.3-mile long, 17-ft. high concrete seawall (now 10.0 miles long) along the gulf side of the island followed by the grade raising. When the job was completed in 1910, more than 500 city blocks and nearly 2,000 structures had been raised from a few inches to over 15 feet, to help the structures weather future storms. Without question, this effort has continued to protect the island from catastrophic damage.

Despite these buildings having survived as many as 150 years, the climate and weather has taken its toll. Storm surge saltwater flooding during numerous major hurricanes has caused the lower portions of the ironwork of most of the historic buildings to be submerged for 24 hours or more, each time saturating the iron and the tightly packed brick infill inside the columns.

Over the century the powerful force of rust expansion on the inside of the cast-iron columns has expanded outward in all directions, breaking the brick infill, breaking 1½-in. cast iron columns, and lifting buildings off their foundations. Some degree of rust-damage repair will eventually be required on most of these historic iron-clad buildings.

The good news is that now more of these buildings are being restored and will last another 100 years. Hurricane Ike’s 100-year tidal storm surge flooding has created new awareness of this condition along with a renewed interest from local, state and federal authorities for additional storm surge protection for both the island and to protect the Galveston Bay and Houston ship channel, both home to vital ports.

Repair or Replace
Non-structural repairs can be made by welding. Because of the porous cell-like structure of cast iron, welded repairs are only effective for surface or shallow welds that can be used on non-structural, or aesthetic cast-iron repairs. These can be very difficult repairs as they are dependent on the quality and condition of each iron part.

There are several options for these repairs, including oxy/acetylene welding using a bronze welding rod, or Nichol bronze welding rod or ¼-in. square pure cast-iron rod (both require using with cast iron flux during welding process). Some success can be achieved with arc welding using either bronze welding rod or nickel welding rod. If you are considering this option, look for a welder skilled in cast-iron welding as this process can be frustrating and time consuming. In fairness to the craftsman, the work is difficult to bid so work is often performed on a time and materials basis.

Structural repairs to cast-iron parts are most often performed using mechanical repairs The same basic connection techniques that were used in the original construction are used today. The basic assembly of cast-iron structures relies on mechanical fastenings (nuts and bolts) to attach most of the parts. These are used in conjunction with backing straps, connector plates, brackets, doubler plates, hanger brackets and anchors. Following that direction, many broken parts can often be repaired by creating backing (mending) plates that rely on nut and bolt connection as well as drilled and taped hole connections.

In our climate the use of proper fasteners is critical in restoration of ironwork. For example, in Galveston’s climate, a 3/8-in. zinc-plated nut and bolt will rust together and seize solid in less than five years. In response to these observations, as a general rule, mild steel zinc plated connections are never used on any iron restoration projects. Hot-dipped galvanized parts can be substituted in areas where the climate is not as extreme. However, the use of grade # 304 stainless is absolutely recommended for wet or coastal climates.

When replacement of structural columns is required, the approach in each case will involve transfer of structural loads off of the structural columns to elsewhere. The elsewhere could be to temporary structural shoring installed on the interior and exterior of the building, or the loads can be transferred sideways with other shoring required, or as often the case both shoring arrangements are required. This requires skilled masons to carefully remove brick in the center of structural columns (directly above the iron columns) to allow for ironworkers to carefully insert heavy thru-beam(s) with crane assist, through the hole to land on adjustable shoring towers inside and outside of the building.

These towers have screw jacks that can be adjusted to elevate the thru-beam to contact and carry the masonry load above the column. Once the load transfer is complete, the original column can be completely removed and repairs and or replacement is completed. Once new columns are installed and masonry repairs completed, the load can then be transferred off the temporary shoring and back to the new column. The beam is then carefully removed and the mason then repairs the hole.

Replacing cast-iron elements can be expensive. A careful study of conditions and pre-planning are very important. Here are some questions to be considered:

  • What parts are missing? Are they structural or decorative elements?
  • Are sample parts remaining that can be used for mold reproduction of duplicate parts?

I sought the advice of Scott Howell of Robinson Iron about 30 years ago and our working relationship and friendship continues to this day. I recommend seeking a foundry with experience in the reproduction of historic cast iron. Understand that each different part to be cast requires a new pattern. Open a dialog with the foundry and they will try to work with you to find cost-effective solutions.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Pattern costs can be very expensive. It is therefore important to understand that a pattern made for only one or two castings will create a very high cost per unit. If 50 castings of the same part are required, the pattern costs per unit will be significantly lower, lowering the total cost of each unit. Can repairs be performed as a cost effective alternative to re-casting? Local welding shops can usually supply information on repair potential versus cast repairs. As mentioned previously, some parts can be repaired.

Considering all of these issues, the budgets for cast-iron restoration can only be defined on a case-by-case basis. It can it be expensive, but certain approaches can accommodate budget constraints and, in many cases, lessen the overall costs. The ultimate goal we strive for is to preserve as much of the original cast-iron system as possible, using methods and materials that follow the National Parks Services, Preservation Briefs #27, “The Maintenance and Repair of Architectural Cast Iron,” by John G. Waite, AIA, with historical overview by Margot Gayle.

Funding Sources
Recent federal grants, along with federal, state and city wide tax incentives and localized private funding sources have assisted with many restoration efforts in Galveston. New owners dedicated to preserving these structures continue to see the value of the investment in preserving both the past and the future. We continue to seek ways to assist the building owners with these costs, and many structures are still in need of preservation.

As a small company working on difficult multi-faceted restoration projects, we have had the great fortune to have developed decades-long working relationships with small businesses and with proven skilled craftsman, including master stone and brick masons, master preservation woodworkers, and preservation-oriented structural engineers and architects with “critical local knowledge of historic buildings and period building materials.” A cohesive, communicative, respectful, working relationship with all skills and expertise on hand as equals, has proven to be the key in our ability to undertake complex projects with very successful results while maintaining the quality and skills required of the original construction.

These buildings have already survived in this most extreme coastal environment for more than 150 years. We now have the knowledge, skills, improved materials, coatings and, quite frankly an obligation, to maintain our irreplaceable heritage structures so they can survive another 150 years!

Special thanks to Denise Alexander for her resource book Galveston’s Historic Downtown and Strand District, Arcadia Publishing, 2010; the Galveston Historical Foundation, and Galveston’s Rosenberg Library as great sources of information and historical photos. This article is dedicated to my late friend and master carpenter, Patrick Penrose, whose skills and collaborative spirit will always inspire me.