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Charmed Life

Iron Age

Michelle Gienow

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 2/7/2001

Mardi Gras parties, modeled on the New Orleans celebration, have become a stock item of our national culture, detached from the holiday's religious roots and, sometimes, from its spot on the calendar. One Saturday this past December I attended a Mardi Gras-style party near the Inner Harbor, complete with jazz band, masked pallbearers, and a guy wearing a huge papier-mâché Louis Armstrong head.

Mardi Gras in Mobtown is just the latest in a series of odd links and exchanges between Bawlmer and N'awlins over the last 250 years. This column has touched on some: A few years back, my colleague Charles Cohen wrote about the mid-18th-century resettlement of some 900 Acadian refugees from Nova Scotia to an unfriendly Baltimore, from whence they later joined their Cajun kinfolk in Louisiana (Charmed Life, 2/25/98).

For decades, the two old port cities were partners in the slave trade. Baltimore sold human beings to New Orleans; New Orleans provided cotton to Baltimore's sailcloth mills. For their sins, the cities later shared the ignominy of being occupied by the same Yankee general, Benjamin Butler--Baltimore for a few days, New Orleans for months (Charmed Life, 12/6/00). In happier times, philanthropist John McDonogh endowed schools in both cities, stipulating that his bequest should be used to educate poor children and that the schools would be named after him. The two McDonogh schools diverged: The 36 McDonogh schools in New Orleans stuck to their charitable mission, while Baltimore's evolved into a prep school.

One final, rumored link between the Monumental City and the Crescent City demands deeper investigation. I've long heard it said that the famous cast-iron balconies of New Orleans (recently on view in Ken Burns' PBS documentary Jazz) were manufactured in Baltimore. Anyone who has visited the French Quarter knows the balconies are as essential to that storied tourist trap as Dixieland music and overpriced drinks. Wouldn't it be neat if this rusty old mill town could claim some scrap of that Big Easy glamour?

For verification, I turned first to Baltimore's Cast-Iron Buildings and Architectural Ironwork, a collection of essays and documents co-edited by City Paper contributing writer James D. Dilts. The book enlightened me on the difference between wrought iron and cast iron (about which see below), and offered exactly one reference to trade with New Orleans. Dilts kindly steered me to a primary source: two 19th-century guidebooks, both titled The Monumental City, that affirmed that Baltimore's architectural cast-iron products were sold to many other cities, including New Orleans. At the very least, two New Orleans churches and the city's custom house were built with castings from two of old Baltimore's most prolific foundries: Hayward, Bartlett & Co. of West Pratt Street and Woodberry-based Poole & Hunt.

For the other end of the story, I consulted with Sarah Woodard, a New Orleans freelance writer. She came through with excerpts from New Orleans: Elegance and Decadence by Randolph Delehanty and Cast Iron in the Crescent City by Ann Masson and Lydia Schmalz. Both works report that New Orleans imported architectural cast iron from New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore--and that by 1825 the Southern city had foundries of its own. So there's definitely a relationship between our iron and theirs, but not an exclusive one.

Now some technical points: New Orleans' decorative porches are often described as wrought iron, but their distinctive ornamentation is cast iron. The former consists of bars and straps of metal that have been hammered, twisted, curled, and fastened together in patterns. Cast iron, by contrast, is made by pouring liquid metal into molds. A lot of 19th-century cast-iron grillwork was designed to imitate the look of the more expensive, forge-wrought product, but casting also enabled sinuous "organic" designs that anticipated art nouveau.

In Baltimore, you have to know where to look to find ironwork reminiscent of the French Quarter. The jazziest surviving example is probably the two-story balcony at East Baltimore Street and Broadway, which features a grapevine pattern. Similarly ornate balconies can be seen intact in Butcher's Hill, including one at 136 S. Patterson Park Ave. and another, much abused, on the rear of 2221 E. Pratt.

But the best place to take the full measure of this local craftsmanship is Mount Vernon. The midtown neighborhood is a virtual catalog of local ornamental iron both cast and wrought, including fences, gates, window grates, railings, shoe-scrapers, roof crests, weather vanes, and two very French Quarter-ish cast-iron balconies on the south sides of 700 and 800 Cathedral Street. A good walking tour might include the 700 and 800 blocks of Park Avenue, and Cathedral and North Charles streets, the adjacent blocks of Madison and Monument streets, all of Mount Vernon Park, the Peabody Institute, the Basilica, and the 100 blocks of West Saratoga and West Mulberry streets.

The last-named blocks have some very elegant wrought-iron stoop railings from the 1830s, one of which (106 W. Saratoga, Marconi's restaurant) is recorded as the work of a German-born artisan named Andrew Merker. Merker eventually sold his forge to a colleague, Gustav Krug, whose descendants are still in the iron trade (as was again documented by my partner Charles Cohen [Charmed Life, 2/9/00).

Once you notice this stuff, whole city blocks seem suddenly encrusted with it. (Many specimens are painted black; a few, like the window grates at the City Paper offices at 812 Park Ave., are tinted bronze-green.) The ironwork has a peculiar, Victorian quality--stuffy yet sensual, pompous but playful--that suits Mount Vernon perfectly.

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