During the second half of the nineteenth century, more and more cast-iron elements were used to embellish Charleston’s iron gates and fences. These mass-produced elements were created mainly in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston and shipped south to satisfy the new demand for solid, lifelike replicas of flowers, leaves, and branches that were favored during the Victorian period.
Elements of decorative iron first appeared on the buildings of Charleston during the middle decades of the eighteenth century. Local blacksmiths advertising in the local newspapers offered “all kinds of scrollwork for grates and staircases.” These decorative elements, primarily English in style, closely followed the published patterns of the prominent British architect and furniture designer Robert Adam. Much of Charleston’s oldest surviving architectural wrought iron can be linked to an Adam-style communion railing at St. Michael’s Church that was fashioned in London and installed in 1772. The lines of several noteworthy eighteenth-century balconies, railings, and window grills seen on prominent homes throughout Charleston were copied from this colonial import.
During the nineteenth century German and Swiss blacksmiths, following patterns provided by local architects, dominated the production of Charleston’s wrought-iron decoration. In 1822 Jacob Roh built the large iron gates, which were designed by Abraham P. Reeves, for the entrance of St. John’s Lutheran Church. Christopher Werner, the dominant blacksmith in Charleston from the 1830s to the 1870s, created the much-celebrated Sword Gate, which was designed by the architect Charles F. Reichert. Werner was also responsible for the gates and fences that surround the College of Charleston, all of them designed by Edward Brickell White in 1852. During the first half of the nineteenth century Charleston ironwork moved away from English influences to embrace the Greek-revival fashion that came to symbolize democratic principles and thus a new American identity. The gates enclosing the cemetery at St. Michael’s Church, created sometime in the early 1840s by I. M. Justi, are the most noteworthy examples of wrought-iron decoration done in this style. The funerary urns seen in the upper portions of Justi’s gates are prime examples of Grecian classicism.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, more and more cast-iron elements were used to embellish Charleston’s iron gates and fences. These mass-produced elements were created mainly in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston and shipped south to satisfy the new demand for solid, lifelike replicas of flowers, leaves, and branches that were favored during the Victorian period. By the 1870s Charlestonians could boast of their own cast-iron foundries; E. Merker, C. R. Valk, and John F. Riley were prominent local producers. But given the earlier dominance of wrought-iron designs and the survival of so many examples of extraordinary eighteenth-century works, Charleston retained its preference for hand-forged decorative iron created by blacksmiths. The use of cast-iron decoration continued but remained a minor element in the embellishment of houses, churches, banks, and other public buildings.
Julius Ortmann satisfied Charleston’s demand for blacksmith-made decorative iron through the 1920s. However, during the Great Depression, when the prospects of all industries were dreary, the demand for the skills of ornamental specialists was especially feeble. During this period general blacksmiths, men who mainly shoed horses and did repair work, occasionally stepped forward to take on the challenge of decorative commissions. Peter Simmons, best known as a farrier and wheelwright, could, when asked, also fashion gates and window grills. His most talented apprentice, Philip Simmons, came of age during this period and was able to find enough clients interested in authentic wrought iron to launch his career chiefly as an ornamental ironworker. Over the past sixty years he has not only created more than two hundred decorative commissions but has also received the highest honors South Carolina can bestow on an artisan. His work can be seen all over Charleston and in several museums, including the South Carolina State Museum and the Smithsonian Institution.
Deas, Alston. The Early Ironwork of Charleston. Columbia, S.C.: Bostick & Thornley, 1941.
Vlach, John Michael. “‘Keeping On Keeping On’: African American Craft during the Era of Revivals.” In Revivals! Diverse Traditions, 1920–1940: The History of Twentieth-Century American Craft, edited by Janet Kardon. New York: Abrams, 1994.
–––. “Metalwork in the Carolinas.” In Carolina Folk: The Cradle of a Southern Tradition, edited by George D. Terry and Lynn Robertson Myers. Columbia: McKissick Museum, University of South Carolina, 1985.