STAINLESS CITY

One of the distinguishing features of brownstone Brooklyn are the ponderous cast-iron railings, gates and balustrades that adorn its elegant Victorian row houses. Cast iron, as the name suggests, is made using molds into which liquid iron is poured. Though now associated with some of the priciest homes in town, cast iron became popular because it was a cheap alternative to wrought iron—iron smelted slowly at low temperature and “wrought” by hammer blows to purge impurities and give it shape. Most architectural hardware prior to the 1860s—hinges, pulls, latches, shutter dogs—was made in this way, often by village blacksmiths of the sort immortalized by Longfellow.

Cast iron, smelted more rapidly at higher temperature, contains more carbon and other impurities than wrought iron, and is much more brittle as a result—it will literally shatter if struck hard enough with a hammer. But, easily poured into molds, cast iron enabled the mass production of a wide variety of architectural details—including entire building facades, like those pioneered by James Bogardus in lower Manhattan. Molded into forms massive enough to mimic stone or wood, cast iron did much to encourage the ornamental excesses of the Victorian age. It soon evolved an aesthetic all its own, yielding metalwork the village smithy could hardly have imagined—elephantine banisters on Park Slope brownstones, for example, or Samuel Yellin’s fantastic Neptune-and-sea monster railings around the Dakota on Central Park West (manufactured by Hecla Iron Works of Williamsburg).

the-dakota-book-10PHOTO: ARCHITECTURAL DIGEST

If cast iron is the signature metal of brownstone Brooklyn, that of New York’s later neighborhoods has long been wrought iron. This should really read “wrought” iron, for it is not the hand-hammered true wrought iron of old, but cold-rolled or “mild” steel available to the trade in a variety of standardized bars, straps and rods. Strong and highly malleable—it has a relatively low carbon content—the new metal was cheaper and more versatile than cast iron, and could be easily be fabricated into railings, fences, gates and grills.  Exterior metalwork of this kind, universally—and inaccurately—called wrought iron, became popular throughout the city after World War II, as advances in welding technology reduced fabrication costs. It was an affordable way to secure property against threats real and imagined. By the 1970s, wrought-iron fences, gates and window grilles—typically painted black or white—were as much a part of the outerborough streetscape as potted geraniums or London plane trees.

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In the last decade or so a new type of architectural metal—shiny stainless steel—has spread through the boroughs, one reflective of the city’s ever-changing demographics. Wrought iron fabricators of the 1970s were often Italian; those working in stainless steel are almost always Chinese—typically from Fujian or Guangdong provinces. The earlier metalcrafters developed something of a outerborough vernacular—rich in twisted bars and strap-iron arabesques. Their stainless contemporaries, on the other hand, have imported an aesthetic straight from China. Anyone who has spent time in Brooklyn and Queens knows the look—gleaming steel grilles, gates, handrails and security doors constructed of tubular stock, round or rectangular, and punctuated with chrome or polished brass finial orbs, roundels and linked diamonds. Travel to Guangzhou, Shanghai, Tianjin or any other Chinese city and you’ll see much the same thing. Globalization is literally at the garden gate.

Given these roots, it’s no surprise that stainless steel was initially limited to New York’s Chinese neighborhoods. But it is spreading fast, and for a variety of reasons—not the least of which is price. As with so many things these days, low Chinese labor costs—both in China and among fabricators here—have made what was once a lux material newly affordable. It is also relatively maintenance free. Cast and wrought iron requires repainting every few years; stainless steel only needs to be wiped clean to maintain a mirror-like finish. There is also the bling factor. Gary Higbee of the 
Steel Institute of New York suggests that the popularity of exterior stainless metalwork is a function of the decade-long rage for stainless kitchen appliances.

The geography of stainless steel is a study in itself. Fabricators are mostly located in major outerborough Chinatowns—around Sunset Park in Brooklyn and, especially, in Flushing, Queens, where they operate (appropriately enough) in the shadow of the Unisphere, the borough’s towering stainless symbol of global unity. Chinese fabricators I’ve spoken too said that half their customers are African-American homeowners, about 30 percent Chinese and the balance white or Latino, with the folks from the former Soviet Union especially well represented. My own sidewalk surveys suggest popularity across a broad spectrum of class and ethnicity. In some sections of Brooklyn—East Flatbush, Brighton Beach, Bensonhurst—almost every block has two or three stainless jobs. The metal is almost wholly absent in the older, gentrified sections of the city.

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Of course, not everyone is happy about the newcomers to the metal scene. The city’s older fabricators, who have seen a good chunk of their business vanish, charge that Chinese companies can sell steel on the cheap because they grossly underpay their workers. They also quibble about the quality of the steel and the way it is used. As one Brooklyn worker bluntly put it, “In the industry we call this stuff ‘stainless crap’.” Homeowners are often seduced by the shine of stainless, he said, and fail to understand that the material may not even be all that durable; cheap tubular stock, for example, often rusts from the inside out. According to him, low-end fabricators fuse steel with “tack” welds, rather than stronger full-bead welds. My own observations in China suggest he may be right—metalwork just two or three years ago has not aged well, the polished surfaces dulled now, welded joints each encircled by a halo of rust. For the inquisitive urbanist there is a simple trick to test, as it were, the mettle of the metal: “If a magnet sticks to a stainless gate or fence,” says Higbee, “then it’s not a high grade or austenitic steel, and will not have the corrosion resistance that people typically purchase stainless for.” As Thomas Devine of UC Berkeley explained in a 2006 Scientific American piece, the reasons “are quantum-mechanical in nature.” I’ll let him explain . . .

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RECONSTITUTING GERITTSEN MILL

 

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I have been working with one of my students here at Cornell, Kaustubh Laddha, to create a 3D digital model of the long-vanished Gerritsen tide mill in southern Brooklyn.  Built in the late 17th century on the banks of the Strome Kill (Gerritsen Creek in Marine Park), the mill was powered by seawater penned at high tide behind a rock dam and released as needed past the drive wheel.  It was one of the earliest industrial buildings in New York State, and operated well into the 1890s.  According to some accounts it was used by Washington’s troops during the Revolution and commandeered by British regulars under Lord Cornwallis during the Battle of Brooklyn.

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Tragically, this extraordinary landmark was destroyed by an arsonist on the night of September 4, 1935.  It nearly made it to safety, as the mill was being restored at the time by Parks Department architects Aymar Embury II and H. B. Guillan.  We are using their plans and sections to construct the model.  Though nothing remains of the mill itself, the tidal dam can still be seen at low tide just below Burnett Street at Avenue V.  It is clearly visible on GoogleEarth or in the photo below that I took from my UAV last year.  I will post images of our completed model when its done.

 

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LONG BEFORE METROTECH

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This photo of downtown Brooklyn was taken c. 1955 looking northeast from Pearl Street to the stub of the old Myrtle Avenue elevated at Jay Street—future site of NYU-Poly (now NYU Tandon School of Engineering).  The land in foreground has just been cleared as part of the vast Brooklyn Civic Center urban renewal project.  The shadow on ground to the right is being cast by one of the few survivors—375 Pearl Street, an art-deco gem that was built for Brooklyn Law School and is today the Brooklyn Friends School (photographer was standing about here).

The large building on the right is now NYU’s Rogers Hall.  It was built by the American Safety Razor Company, a cornerstone of industrial Brooklyn and one of the city’s largest employers.  The company relocated to Virginia in 1954 after repeated labor strikes and threats of condemnation for the Civic Center.  It was one of scores of manufacturers to leave town during the Wagner years (1954-1965), a period in which New York City lost a staggering 200,000 jobs.

One MetroTech Center now occupies the block on Jay Street to the right of this view.  The arrow in the ad on the side of the building (meant for riders on the vanished el) points down to about where the entrance to the Jay Street-Metrotech subway station (A, C, F trains) is today.  The parked cars at left are on Myrtle Avenue, where a pedestrian walkway now runs between Adams and Jay Streets by the Marriott hotel.  The two industrial buildings in the photo are extant, as may be seen in Google Streetview here.  This slide photo was taken by John Tambasco using a Rolleiflex Automat K4A (Collection of Thomas J. Campanella).

A HOMECOMING FOR CHLOE AND MARIE

Marie H. Tilyou (1897-1977) was the daughter of the legendary Coney Island showman, George C. Tilyou, founder of Steeplechase Park.  She showed an early talent for drawing, winning gold and silver prizes for paintings as a student at Adelphi College in 1915-1916.  Encouraged by Reginald Marsh, who later painted scenes of Steeplechase, she studied painting with George Luks (1867-1933), one of Ashcan School artists who rejected the academic formalism of the American Renaissance and chose to paint instead scenes of quotidian life on the streets of New York City.

Luks was a colorful character himself.  He was born in Williamsport and studied briefly at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and in Europe, later working as an illustrator for the Philadelphia Press and the New York World.  In Philadelphia he became part of an small group of artists–including William Glackens and John Sloan–mentored by Robert Henri, all of whom later moved to New York City and formed the core of the urban-realist Ashcan School.  A Falstaffian figure, “Lusty Luks” claimed to be a prizefighter and football player.  He drank copious amounts of beer, and was said to have covered the Spanish American War from a barstool in Havana.  Luks ended his days in a manner tragically fitting for a chronicler of the streets–he died in a doorway after being beaten in a barroom brawl.

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This work by Tilyou, titled “Chloe,” is strongly evocative of both the style of the Ashcan School and its penchant for depicting ordinary folk subjects.  The painting was evidently part of a group show decades ago at the Brooklyn Museum, exactly when I am not yet sure.  The identity of the subject, perhaps a West Indian market girl, is equally a mystery.  Works of any kind by Marie Tilyou are exceedingly rare; my extensive searches on the Internet have revealed no traces of any other painting or drawing by her.  I recently acquired “Chloe” from Timothy Cobb in Milwaukee.  I am glad she and her portraitist are back home after so many years.

Unfortunately, Marie Tilyou never pursued her budding art career.  Instead she took over the helm of the family business, working closely with my uncle, Jimmy Onorato, on the daily management and operation of Steeplechase Park.  She lived in an extraordinary apartment at 35 Prospect Park West, an Emery Roth building erected in 1929 on the site of George C. Tilyou’s old Romanesque mansion.

Marie Tilyou later raised the ire of many in Brooklyn when she decided to permanently close the park in 1964.  She sold the grounds to Fred C. Trump, father of “The Donald” and a real-estate mogul in his own right.  Trump erected some 27,000 homes throughout Queens and Brooklyn during his career.  In the 1960s he set his sights on Coney Island, opening 3,800-apartment Trump Village in 1963 and acquiring the Tilyou property two years later.

In an effort to ward off an attempt by the city to landmark the Victorian glass-and-steel Pavilion of Fun, Trump hosted a “V.I.P. Farewell Ceremony” on September 21, 1966.  At it, bikini-clad models led guests in heaving bricks through the windows of the historic structure.  A few weeks later Trump razed the entire building, an act of vandalism that—along with the demolition of Ebbet’s Field and the closing of the Brooklyn Navy Yard—seemed to herald the end of Brooklyn’s golden age.  Only the parachute jump remained, today a beloved a symbol of Brooklyn–our Eiffel Tower.  The Steeplechase site remained empty and windswept until a stadium for the Brooklyn Cyclones opened on in 2001, bringing laughter back to this storied stretch of sand.

UNDER THE ELEVATED

I wrote the lead essay in the latest publication from the Design Trust for Public Space, Under the Elevated: Reclaiming Space, Connecting Communities, the result of a two-year collaborative study that began with a Cornell AAP/NYC studio led by Bob Balder.  My piece, “The Spatial Ecology of the New York Elevated,” can be downloaded here; the beautifully illustrated book is available for purchase in hardcopy or PDF from the Trust.