Here, take a look back at some stunning examples, and find out more about these distinctive ironwork designs.
1. Old ironwork double balconies at Pontalba buildings, New Orleans (1937)
As seen in the thirties on Chartres Street, opposite Jackson Square
2. A vista through iron lace, New Orleans (photo from 1920s)
Ornate ironwork of the French Quarter – it’s really British (1975)
From The Town Talk (Alexandria, Louisiana) October 5, 1975
NEW ORLEANS — There is nothing quite so British in this birthplace of jazz as the elegant, swirling cast iron railings that adorn French Quarter balconies.
Humbug, you say? Not Anne M. Masson, who turned up the surprising intelligence while doing research for a Vieux Carre exhibit on “Cast Iron and the Crescent City.”
For starters, nearly all those fancy fences and regal railings are made of cast iron instead of wrought iron, as commonly believed.
And Britain was a century ahead of everyone else in cast iron technology. British-influenced cast iron design began replacing Spanish and French wrought ironwork in the early 19th century, Mrs. Masson said, at a time when Britain was influencing the world in more ways than one.
“It’s no joke that Britain ruled everything,” she said. “Not only politics and economics, but in taste.”
Photographs of Regency period balconies in Leamington Spa in Britain’s industrial midlands show the striking resemblance to the grillwork on French Quarter buildings.
“There is very little wrought iron left in New Orleans,” Mrs. Masson said. “When cast iron became fashionable, the people started tearing the wrought iron out.
“The French used basically wrought iron forms in cast iron, but the British used more imaginative forms.”
ALSO SEE: Early American weathervanes: 60+ examples of old-fashioned decorative & functional rooftop art
Displays show wrought iron forms to be primarily linear and geometric, whereas the British influence cast iron railings contain vines, cornstalks, naturalistic patterns, and Gothic designs.
It was a study of an 1860 census that provided the key to uncovering British influence in the ironwork. Of 443 listed ironworking tradesmen, more than half were from the British Isles and Germany.
“And of the foundry owners, the ones who influenced the designs and decided what to make, six were German and nine were Irish,” Mrs. Masson said. “None were from France.” Foundries making the elaborate railings as a sideline to heavy machinery production included such names as Leeds & Co., Reynolds Iron Works, and Shakspeare Iron Works.
“I am absolutely convinced that the cast iron in New Orleans was influenced by the English,” Mrs. Masson said — “even if it filtered through Boston and Philadelphia on its way down here.”
3. Old Southern wrought-iron balcony at 700 Royal at St. Peter St., New Orleans, Louisiana (1937)
4. Pontalba buildings, New Orleans (1920s)
5. Vintage Southern wrought-iron balcony at Le Pretre Mansion New Orleans, Louisiana (1937)
6. Old Southern wrought-iron balcony at Gallier House, 1132-1134 Royal St., New Orleans, Louisiana (1930)
7. St James’ Hotel, Selma, Alabama (photo from 1939)
ALSO SEE: 27 old-fashioned wood porch bracket designs
8. Ironwork porch at 1800 Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia (1933)
What’s the difference between wrought iron and cast iron ornamental work?
The story primarily quotes an unnamed source — identified only as “the manager of a wrought iron works, engaged in reproducing Colonial examples of the smith’s handiwork.”
Why was metal was used for balconies, galleries and railings?
“First, its decorative nature far exceeds that of wood… Notwithstanding the heavy material used, fancy, light and airy effects were achieved.”
“Ornamental ironwork is thought to have originated in southern countries, where sun-loving people like to be out-of-doors, places such as Spain and lower France.
“However, this ironwork was not restricted either to the Dons or to the French. Such art was cultivated in China thousands of years before the Christian era; it was known to
Egypt, Chaldea, and Assyria, and later to most of the European countries.
ALSO SEE: Going up in style: 20 gorgeous ornate antique elevators
“It probably entered America through New Orleans. There, ‘brute Africans,’ and the slaves of Creoles, and the French smiths were influenced by the iron relics of the Spanish occupation.
“That city’s finest cast iron came from abroad, and, in an analogous manner, most of Richmond’s cast iron, it is believed, came from outside the state.
“By the by, the pirate brothers, Jean and Pierre Lafitte, kept their cutlass aims in condition by furnishing a number of wrought-iron balconies and grilles to New Orleans homes! Aptly enough, that place is now called ‘The City of Iron Lace.’
Cast iron era dawned in Virginia about 1840
“The cast-iron era dawned in New Orleans during the late 1820s. It is reasonable to suppose that it appeared in our city [Richmond] within the next 20 years.
“Cast iron was more popular because it was more showy, and cheaper, two important considerations.”
9. Iron lace detail on a porch in Georgia (c1930s)
This home is at 467 Greene Street in Augusta, Georgia
What’s the difference between cast iron and wrought iron?
(Article continued from above) The general difference between wrought iron and cast: “The great distinction is that the latter is molded, and the former is beaten into shape with a hammer.
“Because it simply hardens ‘loosely,’ cast-iron is brittle; but, by reason of the fact that its mold is formed with ‘sculptured’ wood — an artist’s work its pattern could be, and was, much more elaborate.
“On the other hand, the beaten metal is necessarily denser, its molecules more compact as it were, and hence it is far more durable.
“The popular designs invented by the ‘forgerons,’ or blacksmiths, were taken over by the cast iron makers. You will frequently run across such patterns as the arrow, the tulip, the grape, the leaves, the widow’s mite, the diamond, the shell, and the acorn. And quite often you will find a design that defies classification.
“I do not know of a balcony or gallery here that was made on the anvil. There are a few railings and gates, screens or grilles, and hinges, that have somehow withstood the avalanche of progress… That’s the way you find wrought iron, a little there, a little here.
“There are two reasons for is scarcity. One is that there were hardly any forges near this city, and scarcely a forgeron capable of executing anything as elaborate as a balustrade or grille.
“To turn out a porch of wrought iron, a man had to be a real artist, and his creation was a work of art. The other cause was the expense.
“Remember, we call it ‘wrought’ iron. A smith drew from his bellows-blown coke [coal] the glowing iron, and struck ‘while the iron was hot.’
In his mind, he had to have a clear picture of what he wanted. In his arms, he had to have years of apprenticeship and experience, a practiced skill. Now his eye must measure and his arm strike and turn.
Then came another heating. A small scroll required from six to eight beatings. And a scroll was only a part of the whole. Then all had to be assembled.
“There was spontaneity in his work, a great deal of the human equation. Oh, they were rare men, and it is no wonder the old masters are still recalled!”
10. Antique cast iron porch decor at the Doswell House, Fredericksburg, Virginia (1920s)
11. Hardee-Hartridge House, Savannah, Georgia
This decorative ironwork, seen in the 1940s, was located at 3 Gordon Street West, Savannah, Georgia. The home started to be built by Noble W Hardee in late 1850, and was completed by Algernon S. Hartridge after the Civil War.
MORE: 21 Southern mansions & plantation homes from the Old South
12. Old balcony at the Osborne House, South Battery Street, Charleston SC (1933)
13. Dock Street Theatre Charleston, South Carolina (photo from 1936)
14. Daniel Perrin Bestor, Jr., House Mobile, Alabama (1933)
ALSO SEE: Two dozen fashionable Victorian fireplaces from the 1880s
15. Old ironwork at Captain Owen Finnigan House – Government Street, Mobile, Alabama (1933)
16. Old Maybrick House – Mobile, Alabama (1939)
17. Vintage wrought ironwork at the Dock Street Theatre, Charleston, South Carolina (1930s)
18. 261 Joachim Street – Mobile, Alabama (1939)
19. Beautiful iron balcony in Mobile, Alabama (1939)
This was Margaret Gonzales’ house at 352 State Street.
11. Old Southern wrought-iron balcony at Maury Gate, Carter House, Mobile, Alabama (1939)
All original photos courtesy of the US Library of Congress
DON’T MISS THIS: Rosedown mansion: See a restored plantation home from the Old South