The Iron Block at 205 East Wisconsin Avenue on the corner of busy Water and Wisconsin in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was erected in 1861. The architect was George H. Johnson (1830-1879) of New York City and is a landmark of special architectural significance. The featured photograph of the Iron Block in this post was taken in September 2016.
The Iron Block’s entire façade is composed of cast iron and is a direct connection to the age of mass production and prefabrication, and high-end craftsmanship that characterized mid19th century industry from the railroad to the skyscraper. Erected during the first shots of the U.S. Civil War, the Iron Block is an integral part of the mechanized culture which the Industrial Revolution had thrust upon all aspects of modern society – from the workplace to the battlefield – to increasingly mark the age.
The Iron Block’s neo-Renaissance decoration is superbly delineated so to make for a cutting-edge Civil War-era grandiose building that is stylistically stunning and that has been renewed in and for the 21st century. The Northern Italian mode of the Renaissance Revival style first appeared in the United States around 1850 and is markedly displayed in the Iron Block’s sculptural ornament of lion heads and serpentine vines manifested in powerful contrasts of natural light and shadow.
When the Iron Block (originally Excelsior Building) was built in mid19th-century Milwaukee, it was the largest office building in the city. Today’s Iron Block is actually two buildings built next to one another about 40 years apart. Faced in brick, the southern annex was completed in 1899 and brought under one roof with the original 1861 building. Where the addition to the south meets the original 1861 building, there is an atrium with a skylight. A glass floor in the lobby which once allowed natural light into the basement is now gone.
Some of the Iron Block’s first commercial tenants were a bank, several stores, numerous offices, and a legal library. Cast-iron structures proved quintessentially functional for manufacturers, warehouses and office use.
The Iron Block building was financed and built by James B. Martin (1814-1878), a businessman and Baltimore native, who relocated to Milwaukee in the mid1840s. Martin established an early mill, for a short time a successful bank, traded on the grain and livestock futures markets, and bought and sold real estate. In 1849 Martin constructed “Martin’s Block” and, on the downtown real estate Martin purchased in 1860, built Iron Block.
The Iron Block building sat less than a half mile from Martin’s former downtown mansion at 742 N. Jackson where the proprietor of the Reliance Flouring Mills (1869-1878) and president of the Wisconsin State Bank in Milwaukee (1866-1868) is recorded to have once lived from 1852 to 1858.
George H. Johnson was the chief designer for the foundry, metallurgy, and iron construction business of Daniel D. Badger (1806-1884) who had relocated from Boston to New York City in 1848. Badger established Architectural Iron Works, on Manhattan’s East 14th Street. With James Bogardus (1800-1874), Badger was a pioneer in the prefabrication and use of cast-iron building technology. In 1848 James Bogardus had built the world’s first prefabricated cast iron building in Manhattan. George H. Johnson had emigrated from England in 1852 and went on in the 1850s and 1860s to design iron-fronted buildings in Chicago, Memphis, New Orleans, and elsewhere, including Milwaukee’s Iron Block.
The Iron Block is Milwaukee’s only surviving cast-iron-fronted building and may be the last surviving example of this construction type in Wisconsin. In New York City—the origin of cast iron materials that came to Milwaukee—there remain about 250 such building types in Manhattan alone. More specific to the Iron Block, the Cary Building in Lower Manhattan (105–107 Chambers Street) designed by King & Kellum and completed in 1857 could have been an inspiration for the Milwaukee building’s own design and appearance.
The Iron Block has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973. Dental Associates purchased the building as its Wisconsin headquarters in January 2012. Using private funds, the building underwent extensive and detailed reconstructive work that was completed in 2014. This multi-year restoration earned Dental Associates the 2014 “Cream of the Cream City” award from the City of Milwaukee’s Historic Preservation Commission, the Common Council and the Mayor. Although the Iron Block had local designation and National Register status, the building had begun to rust and its architectural details, replicated in substitute materials during a 1983 renovation, were deteriorated with its ornament falling off the building. The 2014 renovation accurately recreated the heritage building’s missing details.
In consultation with historical design experts, patterns and molds were created from historic photographs and pieces of the original building. Over 4,200 new pieces were cast in Wisconsin foundries. Some weighed ounces; others, such as columns at the original entrance on Water Street, weighed over 1,200 pounds. The entire iron façade was sandblasted down to raw steel and a paint system was used to chemically bond with the iron surfaces. A new cornice and pediments were molded from fiberglass-reinforced polyester to match originals. The 1899 south addition was stripped of its paint to reveal the Cream City brick. The renovated building was unveiled on June 17, 2013 and completely finished in 2014.
The interior of the building is made of brick and timber with three-foot thick load-bearing walls. The façade is made of entirely prefabricated cast-iron modules that were bolted together to give the appearance of a sixteenth-century Venetian palazzo. Piers, columns, beams, and spandrels were all cast in a foundry. During various renovations, the original ground floor had been removed and the cornice diminished. The elevator installed in 1879 is still in use. The relatively lighter interior supporting columns allowed for spacious rooms and floorplans and for optimum daylight through expansive window openings. While possibly more fireproof than other materials, in a serious fire cast iron warped and even collapsed.
After the building’s timber and brick underlying structure was in place—the foundation is composed of inverted semi-circular arches of brick between courses of stone whose function worked to reinforce walls and distribute vertical load over a greater area—its prefab iron modules— numbered and ordered to their location on the building’s façade—were bolted into place following transport to the site by horse and wagon. Starting at the ground floor and going up its five floors, the assembly of the façade (painted creamy white) was erected quickly compared to the construction of the underlying structure.
Decoration included fluted Corinthian columns, pediments, dentils, balustrades, and series of bas-relief ovals alternating with narrow, pointed carvings. Spandrels and piers were made to look like stone blocks with lion heads glaring downwards. Since cast iron was easier to install and maintain than stone facing, owners and builders could create their own façade designs by selecting from catalogs of cast iron architectural elements.
SOURCES: Milwaukee Architecture: A Guide to Notable Buildings, Joseph Korom, Madison, WI: Prairie Oak Press, 1995.
The Heritage Guidebook (Landmarks and Historical Sites in Southeastern Wisconsin), Russell Zimmermann, Heritage Banks, Inland Heritage Corp., 1976.
Source book of American architecture: 500 notable buildings, G.E. Kidder Smith, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996.