New Orleans is famous for its beignets, Mardi Gras parades, and ability to laissez le bon temps rouler. Its iconic architecture is another distinctive and compelling feature of the Crescent City. Everywhere you look, ornate patterns of intricate wrought-iron wraps around balconies, curves up staircases, and keeps secret gardens secure behind locked gates. The history of wrought iron in New Orleans architecture is dramatic, filled with disasters both natural and man-made. Here’s how it became that way.
How Is Wrought Iron Made?
Wrought iron is iron that includes small amounts of carbon in it – usually less than 1%. This allows the iron to be heated to a nearly molten state and shaped, heated, and reshaped. The resulting iron is highly malleable and becomes stronger the more it is worked.
Early wrought iron was made in the bloomery process. High-temperature pits helped to smelt the iron away from its ore to create a pure iron product that could then be “wrought,” or worked, into designs.
Today, puddling has replaced the bloomery process. A reverberating furnace heats the iron in a way that more easily ensures the correct level of carbon. The “puddler” stirs the melting iron and extracts wrought iron as it comes together.
Production of steel, which is cheaper and easier to produce, replaced most wrought iron by the beginning of the 20th century, but more people are coming back to the handcrafted beauty of true wrought iron details.
A Quick History Of Wrought Iron In New Orleans
Wrought iron history reflects both the need for safe structures and the cultures that converged in Louisiana.
Early French colonial structures in New Orleans were modeled on their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic. These mid-17th century structures were missing the overhangs or porches that are so distinctive in New Orleans today, though.
These straight-sided, timber structures worked well in cooler climates where most of life could be comfortably lived indoors, but the steamy summers of the Gulf South meant an outdoor space was crucial. Originally, the balconies on New Orleans apartments and buildings were built of wood, much like modern construction elsewhere in the state. These wooden galleries also reflected a West Indian feel of a location somewhere between the privacy of a home and the public nature of an open yet sheltered space.
In the late 1700s, the Good Friday Fire of 1788 and another smaller but still devastating fire in 1794 leveled these wooden structures. Stucco with Spanish influences made its way into construction, but it wasn’t until blacksmiths hopped into the fray that the New Orleans style we know today began to slowly emerge.
Blacksmiths had been working with hot iron for centuries, shoeing horses and creating items for the home. These former slaves and immigrants from Europe turned their attention to creating intricate trims and designs for homes by hand.
In the early nineteenth century, the Leeds Iron Foundry introduced cast iron. This form of ironwork added more carbon to the melted iron, which allowed it to be poured into molds. Not as structurally stable as wrought iron, cast iron allowed for more delicate, filigreed designs that started making their way into decorative elements around the city. Many building owners started replacing wood balconies with intricate ironwork. To add to the elegance, many parks and private residences also created cast-iron fences, incorporating these decorative elements into their homes as well.
The mid-1850s saw an explosion of wrought iron and cast-iron design. Most notable were the multi-story, wrap-around galleries that have become so closely associated with New Orleans. These larger, elevated spaces allowed citizens of the rapidly growing city to have some private space outside, away from the bustle of humanity.
Perhaps the best example of these intricate balconies comes from Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba and her apartments (built between 1849 and 1851) that flank Jackson Square. The Baroness was forced to endure a miserable marriage to her cousin Joseph-Xavier Célestin Delfau de Pontalba to keep her family property (or lose it to her cousin’s scheming father). When a prolonged campaign of misery didn’t work, her husband shot her four times. Thankfully she survived, and the Baroness eventually inherited the buildings and created the still-loved designs.
Restricted to the wealthier segments of the population and located almost entirely in areas around the French Quarter, these iron lace galleries and verandahs have come to define the distinctive architectural look of New Orleans.
During the First World War, many decorative wrought and cast-iron elements were removed to support metal drives for the war. Further stripping of wrought iron in the heart of the French Quarter was prevented by preservation efforts that began in 1937 in the Vieux Carré. These efforts protected metal that might have been stripped in World War II, better preserving the city’s style as we know it today.
Wrought iron designs
Much of the wrought iron in Louisiana uses designs that reflect the history of diverse cultures in the area. West Africa has a long history of metalwork, and when enslaved people were brought to the United States, they brought their trade with them.
Adinkra is the name for Ghanaian symbols that also include an instruction or proverb. One of the most common is also one of the oldest: asase ye duru. This distinctive design features vertically mirrored hearts and is found in all applications, from gates to railings to doorways. The name translates to “The earth has weight.” This is a powerful reminder of the gifts that the earth bestows upon us and an instruction to take care of and conserve our planet.
Other designs have similar messages that can be found in buildings across the city.
How To Use Wrought Iron Features In New Orleans Today
Since decorative ironwork is so deeply associated with New Orleans architecture, many construction companies continue to use the designs on historical renovations and new construction alike.
While certain areas must adhere to strict homeowners’ associations and building regulations regarding decorative metalwork, most homeowners choose to use at least a small amount to reflect the heritage of our city. Here are some ways to do so in your home.
Accent your gardens
Use wrought iron at garden gates or as decorative borders or fencing for a distinctive look. To prevent rust, ensure that any part of the wrought iron that touches the ground is coated with protective paint or sealant.
Highlight easy living
You’ve already painted your porch ceiling haint blue to keep the mosquitos (and restless spirits) at bay. Add a touch of New Orleans style with a full wrought iron porch railing or decorative trim to set off the balustrade.
Update your entrance
A wrought iron door – or cast-iron filigree accents – adds a beautiful, decorative finishing touch to your home. These can be custom-made to your design or look for historic doors at an architectural salvage for a truly authentic look.
Trim your roof
Roof cresting is decorative trim attached to the ridge of a roof, cornice, coping, or parapet. These elements highlight architectural details but also provide an important function – they discourage birds from landing on the roof.
Add window screens
Whether for security or just good looks, wrought iron screens and window coverings are a great way to bring a touch of history to even the most modern home.
Create finishing touches
Wrought iron details in doorknobs, bell pulls, mailbox flourishes, and other small touches are a great way to bring in the beauty of this material without committing to a dominating feature.
Provide regular maintenance
With proper maintenance, your wrought iron will be beautifully long-lasting. Wrought iron is ferrous, which means rust is its biggest threat. In the hot and humid Gulf South, stopping the rust before it starts is key with protective sealants.
If you find yourself needing to restore a rusty gate or railing to its former glory, try these tips.
- Remove all rust with a wire brush
- Use medium-grit sandpaper to remove wire brush marks
- Apply a chemical rust converter to stop rust from spreading
- Paint with a rust-inhibiting primer and rustproof paint
All wrought iron should be regularly cleaned with soapy water. Check for scratches in the paint that would allow for rust to start and touch up as needed with primer and paint.
We Are Your New Orleans Contractors
MLM Incorporated is a contractor in New Orleans that regularly works with historic wrought iron and incorporates wrought iron details into our new construction projects and renovations. Whether you are restoring a French Quarter mansion or just want to bring a touch of historic detail into a modern build, get in touch with any questions you have!