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Heavy Lifting: The Rise of Metal in Construction

Metals role in architecture changed dramatically with the industrial revolution. Structural elements in cast iron pioneered the path to steel construction, high-rises, and metal fabrications for ornament, enclosure, and building systems.

Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL)
The use of iron and steel in building construction changed with the industrial revolution beginning in the late 18 century. A material that had a long been used for hardware, railings and small elements took on a larger structural role. The first major structural use of metal was cast iron, which was strong in compression but weak in tension and generally limited to columns. Cast iron as structural material would be the dominant use of structural metals until the industrial innovation of the mid-19 century brought steel to the marketplace. This change would take architecture to new heights. The story of the steel-frame building and the high-rise is well known. But there were many more uses for iron and steel as structural, cladding and even ornamental materials, all of which are revealed through the documents in the BTHL.

The ability to shape iron and steel into structural systems and architectural materials is a large part of its architectural story. The Building Technology Heritage Library has catalogs featuring iron and steel as well as other architectural metals. In this feature, we’ll focus on the structural, cladding and ornamental uses of iron and steel. For cast iron, the main structural use was that of the structural column, a component that had a life-span throughout the 19 century. The cast iron architectural façade now revered in the many examples in New York’s SOHO Cast Iron District represent the peak of it's use as an exterior architectural material. By the 1870s, this era was largely over. The next generation of commercial buildings would find wide-spread use of stamp architectural sheet metal exterior building components replacing cast iron. Stamped sheet metal would turn into an interior material, the ubiquitous “tin ceiling” that was immensely popular from the 1880s through the 1920s. There are dozen’s of catalogs for ornamental metals in the BTHL for both stamped and wrought steel.

The use of steel as a structural material is well told through multiple documents of American’s major steel companies such as Carnegie, U.S. Steel and Jones and Laughlin. The catalogs often include extensive tables, which make them more like engineering manuals rather than just catalogs. In addition to basic steel shapes, specialty steel fabrications such as joists, trusses and “metal lumber” are featured in various catalogs. The development of “prefab” metal building can be found in catalogs from the mid-19th century with many more examples from the early 20 century. The Mesker Companies of Indiana and Missouri heavily marketed sheet metal facades. The Truscon Company of Ohio marketed industrial steel buildings. The use of steel for industrial building windows is another major product line that is well covered in the BTHL.

The use of galvanizing, a coating of zinc on steel made a light-weight and durable exterior architectural elements, which were popular from the 1870s to the 1920s. In many ways, it was the advancement of galvanized sheet metal that lead to the demise of the cast iron façade, as this was a cheaper and lighter material that reproduced traditional exterior features. There are several French sheet metal catalogs from this era that showcase this as a truly international story of a new technology replicating older forms. A 1923 catalog of the Union Metal Company speaks to this materials translation – “Ancient Beauty for Modern Buildings.”

Ornamental metals is a broad architectural category, which today can include fences, railings, and staircases. This technology is still with us today and there myriad examples in the BTHL. There are almost 300 fence catalogs in the BTHL and the topic of stairs and railings will add another hundred documents. One of the most important catalogs on this topic is the volume from the Winslow Bros. Company of Chicago. Their 1910 catalog is more of a monograph than it is a catalog, with photographs showcasing buildings across the country including credits to their architects.

The APT Building Technology Heritage Library continues to fulfill its mission of providing a “modern portal to the material past.” The BTHL was launched ten years ago with the original goal of 10,000 documents. Today the number is past 11,000 and every month more than 70,000+ documents are viewed by users around the world. Please help us celebrate our tenth anniversary by being a user and telling us how you found a document useful today.

Thomas Devlin & Co.

Price list and illustrated catalogue of the national hardware and malleable iron works Thomas Devlin & Co., 1885 Thomas Devin & Co

London, England 

Architectural hardware was one of the earliest uses of metal for buildings. The BTHL has an extensive collection of hardware catalogs. In the late 19 century, these catalogs often featured detailed illustrations of individual hardware components. The topic of architectural hardware covers every topics from as small as nails and screws and the much greater range of operating mechanisms such as hinges and locks.

Manual of the Bouton Foundry Company

Manual of the Bouton Foundry Company. 1887

Bouton Foundry Company, Chicago IL

The cast iron column had a century of use starting in the English mill buildings of the late 18 century through their use for commercial storefronts in the United States into the early 20 century. This catalog features many ornamental designs for cast iron columns and associated structural lintels that were used for small commercial buildings on America’s commercial thoroughfares. 

Geo. L. Mesker & Co., Architectural Iron Works

Geo. L. Mesker & Co., Architectural Iron Works: Modern Store Fronts, Handsome Designs, Cast Iron, Wrought Iron, Galv. Iron, Woodwork and Glass for Store Fronts, 1900

Geo. L. Mesker & Co., Evansville IN

Geo. L. Mesker & Co. of Evansville IN and the Mesker Bros. Iron Works of St. Louis MO were two specialty sheet metal companies that sold metal building fronts. These stamped sheet metal fronts were particularly popular in America’s small towns. The Mesker firms both sold similar products that were advertised through their catalogs. More than 8,000 fronts were sold over a twenty-year period from 1890 to 1910. 

Carnegie Steel Company

Carnegie Steel Company, manufacturers of Bessemer and open hearth steel of all grades, 1903.

Carnegie Steel Co., Pittsburgh PA

Catalogs featuring structural steel shapes were produced by all the major steel companies. These catalogs would often include structural tables so they were also engineering manuals. The Carnegie Steel Company later became U. S. Steel after Andrew Carnegie sold the company. Carnegie’s fortune from this sale has a great architectural legacy in the library buildings he funded throughout America. 

Encaustic metal enameled ceilings and sidewalls

Encaustic metal enameled ceilings and sidewalls, 1906.

Wheeling Corrugating Company, Wheeling WV

The use of stamped steel panels for ceilings and walls was ubiquitous for commercial interiors from the 1880s though the 1920s. The Wheeling Corrugating Company was a major producer of these products but there are quite a few other companies represented in the BTHL. This material was popular for both new construction and renovations and in many ways was the ancestor to the “dropped ceilings” of the mid-20 century.

Ornamental iron & bronze / executed by the Winslow Bros. Company

Ornamental iron & bronze / executed by the Winslow Bros. Company, Chicago, 1910

Winslow Bros. Company, Chicago IL

The Winslow Bros. Company of Chicago was a leading producer of ornamental ironwork for commercial buildings. Such noteworthy buildings as the Carson Pirie Scott Building (1903) of Chicago (Louis Sullivan) and the Bradbury Building (1893) of Los Angeles (Sumner P. Hunt and George H. Wyman) still stand as architectural masterpieces of this company. 

Ornements pour l’architecture en zin

Ornements pour l’architecture en zinc… [Ornaments in zinc], 1912, J. Peillion, Lyon France

The French catalog is a major compilation of exterior sheet metal ornament using what we now call galvanized steel. While this catalog dates from 1912, the examples showcase more than 50 years of sheet metal ornament. 

Lawn and cemetery steel picket and wire fabric fencing

Lawn and cemetery steel picket and wire fabric fencing, 1921

Sears, Roebuck and Co., Chicago IL

Fences, exterior grilles and railings were another popular use of ornamental metal for sites and buildings. Woven wire and “steel fences” were also popular catalog items marketed for farm use. 

Ancient Beauty for Modern Buildings

Ancient Beauty for Modern Buildings, 1923.

Union Metal Manufacturing Co., Canton OH

“The glory of Greek and Roman architecture… was made possible by the tasteful and generous use of classical columns. Today Union Metal furnishes architects, contractors and owners with these handsome designs in enduring pressed steel at very reasonable cost.”

Truscon Copper Steel Buildings Standardized for the Oil Industry

Truscon Copper Steel Buildings Standardized for the Oil Industry, 1925

Truscon Steel Company, Youngstown OH

Steel companies evolved from providers of components to providers of whole buildings. The Truscon Steel Company was a leader of this effort, particularly for industrial buildings and warehouses. 

Steel for modern living

Steel for modern living: a handbook for homemakers, 1940s.

United States Steel, Pittsburgh PA

The use of wood for home building is still the preferred construction system, but this promotional piece from the United States Steel Company highlights the many ways the metal could be used for home buildings. The use of steel for windows, stairs and even bathroom fixtures were but three ways that metals were used in residential design. The steel kitchen cabinet with stainless steel countertops were two other uses of metals that were popular from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Book of 1400 ornamental iron designs that gain distinctive effects, 1957

Book of 1400 ornamental iron designs that gain distinctive effects, 1957

R. J. Cunningham Designs, Murray UT

This rather unusual “catalog” is a photographic compilation of 1,400 uses of ornamental metals, primarily for residential applications. 

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