Mon March 5, 2007
An Ornament to the City: Old Mobile Ironwork
Sledge's story is in large part a sad tale, however, due to the lack of preservation in Mobile. But, along the way, we learn a lot about the various kinds of ironwork, both locally manufactured and shipped from Philadelphia and NYC, how it came to flourish there, and what happened to it.
By Don Noble
Visitors to Mobile today will admire the ironwork, the iron verandahs, the cemetery fences, the ornate gates, the decorations on front porches. There is a good deal of ironwork, but, alas, there is much less than there used to be.
John Sledge, of the Mobile Historical Development Commission, has as his calling the appreciation of the beauties of Mobile, an understanding of the city's architectural, cultural past, and a dedication to preserving it for the future.
The ironwork of Mobile, Sledge reminds us, has been admired by many a distinguished visitor. In 1913, Woodrow Wilson spoke at the Battle House Hotel and then toured the city. His host, Richard Vipon Taylor, recalled in his memoirs how Wilson was charmed by the abundance of ironwork and urged Taylor "never to permit, if possible, the destruction of the old-time residences" and to preserve the ironwork "as a reminder of the city's ancient inhabitants," by which Wilson meant the citizens of antebellum Mobile.
Sledge's story is in large part a sad tale, however, of how the citizens of Mobile mostly ignored President Wilson's advice. But, along the way, we learn a lot about the various kinds of ironwork, both locally manufactured and shipped from Philadelphia and NYC, how it came to flourish there, and what happened to it.
Sledge explains the processes for creating cast, as opposed to wrought, iron, and gives a quick course in its styles and patterns: Greek Revival, Picturesque/Rustic, Gothic Revival, and Italianate.
It would be fairly ridiculous to try to describe these patterns on the radio, but I can guarantee those paging through An Ornament to the City will be impressed by the black-and-white photographs taken by Sheila Hagler, with whom Sledge also collaborated on their earlier book, Cities of Silence: A Guide to Mobile's Historic Cemeteries.
Sledge has assembled photos of old Mobile balconies and street scenes where the ironwork no longer exists, but more importantly Hagler has taken scores of wide-angle and close-up shots of this delicate, lacy metalwork. There is every variety of Greek key design, acanthus leaves, spear points, running hearts?you name it. There are also several photos of human figures in iron, which, I learned here, is rare.
Charleston, New Orleans, Savannah, and then Mobile began putting up ironwork as early as 1817. Ironwork for outdoor uses made sense in the South. In humid climates, wood just rots too fast. (In 1866, 58 iron benches were put into Bienville Square, but not entirely because of the weather; it seems every male citizen had a pocket knife, and a wooden bench would soon be whittled to pieces.)
In the antebellum period, merchants and homeowners put up more and more ironwork. In 1856, Mobile had 30,000 inhabitants, about 10,000 of whom were slaves, and exported 680,000 bales of cotton. Flush times bring home improvement, of course, and gates and fences proliferated.
Carl Carmer in 1934 praised the ironwork in Stars Fell on Alabama, writing "Mobile stays in the heart, loveliest of cities."
Just at the time Carmer saw Mobile, however, times were changing, and for the worse. Japan was buying huge amounts of American scrap iron, and much of Mobile's ironwork went to Japan along with parts of the New York City el. Eugene Sledge, John's father, fighting with the Marines in the Pacific, was hit by a piece of Japanese shrapnel and wrote, "That was probably Mobile old iron lace work about a year or so ago." In the l940's even more iron fences and gates went to our war effort.
Tastes change, of course, and some of the ironwork was moved to decorate new houses in the suburbs or just discarded. So-called urban renewal in the 1960s caused block after block of Mobile to be razed to the ground. Fortunately, there is still a good deal of ironwork surviving, and if it is up to historical preservationists like John Sledge, no more will be lost.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.