Category Archives: Architecture – Italianate

Architecture & Design Photography: GEORGE H. JOHNSON (1830-1879). Iron Block (1861/1899), 205 East Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

FEATURE image: Iron Block, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, following its extensive restoration in 2014. Photograph by author taken in September 2016.

Milwaukee. Iron Block building. 1861 and 1899. 9/2016 6.21 mb

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 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.

James B. Martin mansion where the businessman and prominent builder of the Iron Block lived from 1852 to 1858 in downtown Milwaukee. The residence was demolished in 1963 and the block has been redeveloped with modern steel-and-glass corporate structures. (Fair Use).

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.

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.

ARCHITECTURAL IRON WORKS, NEW YORK CITY, WAS BUILDING DESIGNER AND MANUFACTURER

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.

Daniel D. Badger (1806–1884) was an American foundry innovator, working in New York City under the name Architectural Iron Works. With James Bogardus, Badger was one of the major forces in creating a cast-iron architecture in the U.S. in the mid-to-late-19th century. Badger’s chief designer for his foundry, metallurgy, and iron construction business was George H. Johnson, the architect for the Iron Block in Milwaukee.
James Bogardus (1800-1874). Bogardus was an American inventor and architect who was a pioneer of American cast-iron architecture for which he took out a patent in 1850.

ENTIRE EXTERIOR MADE OF MASS-PRODUCED, PRE-FAB CAST IRON

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.

The Iron Block in its first decade. The building was owned by its original Milwaukee builder’s family for 100 years.
 

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.

IRON BLOCK LIKELY LAST SURVIVING CAST IRON BUILDING IN WISCONSIN

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.

Iron Block building in the 1970’s. (Fair Use).

CONSTRUCTION PROCESS

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.

SPECTACULAR RENOVATION COMPLETED IN 2014

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 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.

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.

https://onmilwaukee.com/articles/ironblock

https://content.mpl.org/digital/collection/HstoricPho/id/599

https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS10303

https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=66661

https://onmilwaukee.com/articles/ironblockspelunk

The featured photograph of the Iron Block in this post was taken by the author in September 2016.

Feature photograph & text:

Architecture & Design Photography: ANONYMOUS/UNKNOWN. Row Houses (1873), 802-812 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago, Illinois.

Row Houses, c. 1873, 802-812 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL 6/2014

These early row houses were developed in Chicago’s Gold Coast/River North neighborhood in the early 1870s immediately following the Great Chicago Fire.

That conflagration began south of the city’s downtown area at 137 DeKoven Street (around 1100 South) and blew its destruction north through Downtown and upwards into today’s Gold Coast area. The fire petered out two days later to the north of Fullerton Avenue (2400 North) on October 10, 1871. The area of devastation was over a swath of ⁠four miles (see map below).

The fire’s aftermath sparked an intense period of rebuilding, especially in Downtown Chicago, less than one mile to the south of these row houses. This flurry of building activity, particularly of needed housing, may be partly why the architect is unknown for these three- and four-story Italianate buildings, all of which are well preserved.

The three-story row houses to the south have neo-Grec ornament which was in vogue by 1872. It included incised carved detail on window ledges and door frames.

The four-story row houses to the north (partially pictured) have more lavish Second Empire exterior decoration.

Like the Italianate style, the Neo-Grec–style row houses have a smooth brownstone front with a pronounced deep cornice, heavy entryway and window details. The contrast was in their ornamentation: Neo-Grec’s simple, precise lines and geometric Greek influence varied from Italianate ornamentation of curved and organic lines and forms.

Italianate curved window and door frames are replaced by Neo-Grec’s right-angles. Lintels are replaced by rectangular blocks. Entryway steps had baluster cast-iron railings that ended in squared-off linear and geometric incised ornament.

Vintage map of Chicago Great Fire (detail).

CHICAGO POPULATION GROWTH 1860-1980

Chicago was growing exponentially by 1870. In 1860 the city had a little over 112,000 residents and ranked 9th on the list of largest U.S. cities. By the time of the Great Fire in 1871, Chicago had grown to nearly 300,000 and ranked 5th on the largest U.S. cities list. Equally significant is that the city’s size also doubled in those same ten years from 17,492 square miles in 1860 to 35,172 square miles in 1870. Busy with rebuilding, the city did not expand again in square miles until the 1880’s, though its population continued to soar. When these Italianate row houses were built, Chicago was growing towards becoming the 4th largest U.S. city with a population of over 500,000. In the early 1870’s with rebuilding and augmenting population density the demand for housing was high. Chicago’s population would continue to grow with each decade until 1980.

OCCUPANTS TODAY INCLUDE A CONTEMPORARY ART GALLERY AND THE ALLIANCE FRANÇAISE DE CHICAGO FOUNDED IN 1897

Today, at 806 N. Dearborn is Alan Koppel Gallery which has, for over two decades, introduced contemporary international artists to Chicago audiences.

At 810 N. Dearborn is the main entrance to the Alliance Française de Chicago. Founded in Paris in 1883. the Alliance Française de Chicago is part of an international network of over 1,100 Alliances around the world which promotes French language and francophone culture. Chicago’s Alliance Française was founded in 1897. Offering French language classes and a full range of cultural events, the Alliance Française de Chicago is the second oldest Alliance in the U.S. and the second largest in the U.S. after the French Institute Alliance Française in New York City. The Alliance Française de Chicago is headquartered in two renovated architecturally historic buildings, including the 1870’s row house on Dearborn Street and, connected by an interior garden, a building on Chicago Avenue.

SOURCES:

Alice Sinkevitch, AIA Guide to Chicago, 2nd Edition, Harcourt, Inc., Orlando, 2004, p. 134.

Frank A. Randall, History of the Development of Building Construction in Chicago, Second Edition, Chicago and Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999, p. 5.

Jay Pridmore and George A. Larson, Chicago Architecture and Design, Abrams, New York, 2018, p. 42.

https://www.biggestuscities.com/city/chicago-illinois – retrieved October 30, 2021.

https://www.brownstoner.com/guides/%25guides%25/neo-grec/ – retrieved October 30, 2021.

https://www.af-chicago.org/ – retrieved October 30, 2021.

https://www.alankoppel.com – retrieved October 30, 2021.

https://thevintagemapshop.com/products/1871-mcdonalds-map-of-chicago-great-fire – retrieved October 30, 2021.

Architecture & Design Photography: HOWARD VAN DOREN SHAW (1869-1926). The Mentor Building (1906) in Chicago and 1005 Michigan Avenue House (1913) in Evanston, Illinois. (2 Photos).

Howard Van Doren Shaw (1869-1926), 1906, THE MENTOR BUILDING, 39 S. State Street (6 E. Monroe Street), Chicago, from the southwest. Author’s photograph, July 2015.

A Mentor building has stood on this northeast corner of State and Monroe since 1873 when there had been a 7-story building erected here.1

Howard Van Doren Shaw’s only skyscraper presents an unusual mixture of styles.

There are windows grouped in horizontal bands between a four-level base of large showroom windows. The top is classically inspired with details that are strong and idiosyncratic. The building retains the character of its classical sources though they are used as large-scale motifs.2

Shaw’s 1906 building is 17 stories high with two basements on rock caissons.3

The photograph was taken on July 5, 2015.

1 Frank A. Randall, History of Development of Building Construction in Chicago, Second Edition, Revised and Expanded by John D. Randall, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1999, p, 196.

2 Alice Sinkevitch, AIA Guide to Chicago, 2nd Edition, Harcourt, Inc., Orlando, 2004, p. 59.

3 Randall, p.265.

Howard Van Doren Shaw (1869-1926), 1913, 1005 MICHIGAN AVENUE, Evanston, Illinois. Author’s photograph, June 2022. 14.96 mb 25%

Seven years after Howard Van Doren Shaw’s sole skyscraper, Chicago Downtown’s Mentor Building (above), was built in 1906, the architect raised this highly sophisticated “great house” design in Evanston, Illinois.

The light-colored brick house is Colonial Revival with modifications. The façade’s symmetry is prominently displayed in its 5 equal openings for its two main floors and topped by a shortened pitched roof with three flat-roofed dormers. A chimney protrudes at the roof line to the north.

For the main mass there are aligned windows with a middle opening for both the first and second floor symmetrically displaying diverse residential functionality: a broad-arched porchway and genteel fanlight above a double door entry on the first floor and, at the second level. a wrought iron balcony providing a small, mainly decorative step landing.

The great house is situated on the northeast corner lot of a leafy yet trafficked suburban residential intersection, with the main building’s symmetry broken to the south by the then-popular sun porch extension. It is a low, two-story flat-roofed projection with an enclosed porch on the first floor and an open porch originally on the upper level.

SOURCE:

A Guide to Chicago’s Historic Suburbs On Wheels & On Foot, Ira J. Bach, Chicago, Athens, Ohio, London: Ohio University Press (Swallow Press), 1981, p. 518.