The metalwork of Richmond reveals a profound history of the city in its most triumphant and its darkest times. First popularized in the 1800s, cast- and wrought-iron fixtures became a staple of Richmond’s architecture around the time of the Civil War.
In addition to becoming one of the south’s prominent manufacturers of iron, Richmond also became a major railroad center during the Industrial Revolution, as detailed in Robert Winthrop’s 1980 book, “Cast and Wrought: The Architectural Metalwork of Richmond, Virginia.”
Richmond’s iron industry grew tremendously, becoming Virginia’s third major industry behind tobacco and flour, principally due to the industrial slavery of black skilled laborers. The hard work of these often uncredited laborers contributed significantly to the construction of Richmond, Winthrop wrote.
This era led to the creation of some of the country’s most exquisite examples of metalwork, including Second Presbyterian Church on N. Fifth Street and the Woman’s Club at The Bolling Haxall House on East Franklin Street.
“The diversity and amount of cast iron here rivals anything in the rest of the nation.” —Walter Dotts
Once steel was introduced, the popularity of iron waned by the late 1800s. In the 1970s, interest in the craft slowly reemerged, with more cast and wrought pieces being restored. For James O’Neil, owner of O.K. Foundry, Richmond’s legacy and continued work rivals that of cities like New Orleans and isn’t far off from powerhouses like New York. Adding one of Richmond’s timeless pieces of ironwork to your home is easier than you may think, he says.
Places like Caravati’s in Richmond and Black Dog Salvage in Roanoke offer a wide selection of architectural salvage pieces. “That’s a huge treasure trove to be mined, which is a real opportunity for a homeowner,” he says.
Many people discard old iron fencing, assuming that it’s too difficult, time consuming or expensive to restore. Usually, the maintenance for these fixtures is surprisingly simple. For signs of rust or flaked paint, O’Neil suggests a touch up with a Rust-Oleum paint to reseal and protect the piece. He warns that stripping off too much paint could strip the metal itself. For mechanical damages, adding nuts and bolts usually solves any problems with functionality, without having to seek out quick, but damaging solutions like welding.
Molds created by O.K. Foundry to replicate floral embedded posts for Jennie and Walter Dotts’ fence (Photo courtesy O.K. Foundry)
When salvaging iron fencing, it can be challenging to find all original pieces. This was the case for Jennie and Walter Dotts 10 years ago as they searched for a fence to complement their 1870s Church Hill home. While the couple was able to find several fencing panels, they weren’t as lucky with finding all of the accompanying posts.
That’s where the O.K. Foundry team came in, creating replicas of the floral embedded posts to complete the project. These patterns, along with many others, are still available for other homeowners to use, O’Neil says.
Vintage Virginia sponsors tours of Richmond’s historic ornamental ironwork throughout the year. For information on upcoming tours, visit vintagevirginia.live. (Photo by Rene Scott)
Homeowners can also mix and match panels if they can’t find all original pieces, similar to St. John’s Mews in Church Hill. This mixture of styles is indicative of Richmond’s ironwork, which is rarely seen elsewhere. Jennie Dotts, a real estate agent specializing in historic homes, also hosts a walking tour with O’Neil that highlights some of Richmond’s best ironwork.
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“The diversity and amount of cast iron here rivals anything in the rest of the nation,” says Walter Dotts. “Not many people give us credit for it.”
For the Dottses, having special, historical pieces can give one's home a personal, unique touch. Jennie says she is hopeful that appreciation for ironwork will resurface.
“I always like to be optimistic,” she says. “I do want to believe that 100 years from now, people will still want beautiful ornamental ironwork.”
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