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Southern Cultures 12.3 (2006) 80-88

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Lacy Charm in Old Mobile

The Historic Cast Iron of Alabama's First City

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Figure 1
The McCoy House (1873) verandah at 253 State Street features mixed elements. The columns and heavy Gothic brackets are from one foundry, while the railing with its anthemions is from another. The brackets' manufacturer recommended a different railing, but for some reason the owner preferred this one. All photographs by Sheila Hagler.
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Visitors frequently refer to Mobile's historic ironwork as wrought iron, but the majority of it is cast iron. Cast iron, cheap and easy to produce in an infinite variety of shapes and designs, captured the imagination of nineteenth-century tastemakers seeking dramatic effect. Virtually every American city accessible by water had some ornamental cast iron, but it was nowhere more exuberantly employed than in the Deep South, particularly the Gulf ports, where wooden structures too rapidly succumbed to the semitropical climate.

Whether locally designed and manufactured or imported from big East Coast foundries, Mobile's nineteenth-century ornamental ironwork nicely exhibits the era's diverse aesthetic tastes. A Greek Revival gate, a Gothic-accented cemetery fence, a town house verandah with arabesque patterns, a plashing fountain distinguished by satyr's faces—Mobilians' enthusiasm for the practical advantages and decorative delights of these things flourished until the turn of the twentieth century.

Today, after decades of indifference and neglect, Mobilians once again appreciate the historic ironwork in their midst. Restored balconies are more popular than ever with residents, office workers, diners, and Mardi Gras revelers eager to take in the passing scene; fluted lamps illumine downtown streets; and venerable fences, gates, and statuary gleam with fresh coats of paint. Though a heartbreaking amount of Mobile's ornamental ironwork has been lost or stolen over the years, what remains continues to fascinate visitors and residents alike. [End Page 81]

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Figure 2
Sambo (left), manufactured by the Philadelphia foundry of Wood and Perot as a hitching post, is a rare piece which has had a troubled history in Alabama's Port City. At present it rests peacefully outside the National African American Archives, 564 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue. The gates and fence (below) at Barton Academy (1836), 504 Government Street, are an eloquent manifestation of neoclassicism in iron. This is among Mobile's earliest surviving ironwork.
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Figure 3
The Bienville Square fountain (1890) was dedicated to Dr. George A. Ketchum, president of the Bienville Water Works and an advocate of a pure water supply. Existing records do not indicate the fountain's origin, but the bottom basin exactly matches others fabricated by the J. L. Mott Ironworks, New York. Cast iron setters such as this one (left) at the Stephen Twelves plot (1860) in Magnolia Cemetery were especially popular in nineteenth-century cemeteries, where they represented loyalty and individuals' love of their pets.
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Figure 4
The Richards House (1860), an Italianate mansion at 256 North Joachim Street, represents cast iron's apogee in Mobile. The hearts and floral flourishes of the porch railing (above) demonstrate the degree of craftsmanship achieved by mid-nineteenth-century founders. The house also is dramatically demarcated from the sidewalk by one of the best-preserved cast iron residential fences (left) in the city. Richards was a wealthy steamboat captain from Maine.
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Figure 5
The Lyon House (1860) verandah mixes disparate patterns in riotous excess (above). Lacy brackets, drop friezes, and pendants dazzle the eye. The gate below bars entrance to an unknown plot in Magnolia Cemetery. The lovely floral pattern was popular during the 1850s.
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Figure 6
This modern downtown hotel (left), constructed during the 1960s, employs under-scaled reproduction ironwork in an attempt to capitalize on Mobile's distinctive sense of place. The gallery at...


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