“The period from the Civil War into the new century saw the transformation of Philadelphia into an industrial giant. … The impact of this explosion of industry and technology almost obliterated Penn’s green country town…in a smog of steam and smoke, of endless gridirons of workers housing, of railroads and factories, freight yards and warehouses. It was Philadelphia’s Iron Age.”
So begins a chapter of the same name in Philadelphia: A 300 Year History. As the 19th century progressed, Philadelphia’s “Iron Age” would be increasingly evident to anyone with imagination, but especially to architects, engineers and “practical mechanics.”
As early as 1826, when everyone else was applauding the new canal culture, William Strickland believed the railways promised much more. He was ahead of his time. So was architect John Haviland, who, even earlier, imagined cities entirely made of the stuff. “The improvement and general introduction of cast iron bids fair to create a totally new school of architecture. It has already been occasionally employed in bridges, pillars, roofs, floors, chimneys, doors, and windows, and the facility with which is moulded into different shapes will continue to extend its application.”
By the middle of the century, advocates of industry like Edwin T. Freedley shrugged with confidence: “Philadelphia is situated in the district entitled to be called the centre of the Iron production of the United States.” A decade earlier, local rolling mills had produced about 5,000 tons of iron annually. Now, just after the Civil War, production had ramped up to 30,000 tons. In the same years, production of pig iron nearly doubled from 400,000 tons to more than 770,000. The time when iron meant “nails, screws, bolts, tie rods and hardware,” as Henry Magaziner put it in his book The Golden Age of Ironwork, was over. Iron now meant the possibility of all kinds of design feats: “bridges, water towers, and greenhouses”—even “full cast iron facades” of entire city blocks, in whatever style. All of it would be prefabricated. And, even more impressive, all of it would be fireproof.
Iron design, patents, production and construction began to transform city streets from New York to New Orleans. In the early 1850s, Philadelphia’s the first cast iron façade, The St. Charles Hotel on Third Street, tested the public appetite. By 1866, when the 4,400-ton cast-iron dome of the nation’s Capital in Washington, D.C., designed by Philadelphia architect Thomas U. Walter, was declared “a masterpiece of American will and ingenuity” the way was clear: iron offered amazing architectural possibilities.
In North Philadelphia, the brothers Royer were ready. For a decade they had been honing skills at their Hope Foundry on 9th Street, above Poplar. Now, just as iron‘s grip took hold, they opened a new, expanded facility at 9th and Montgomery Avenue, “an extensive and complete Foundry for the production of Architectural Iron Work.” Four brothers: Alfred, Benjamin, J. Washington and William Royer, all “practical mechanics,” had made “Building Castings” their specialty. “They now employ fifty men,” wrote Freedley in 1867, “and have a good supply of orders some of considerable magnitude.”
The Royers cast iron features for the Seventh National Bank at 4th and Market Streets, the mansard-roofed Post Office at 9th and Market Street and McArthur’s David Jayne mansion at 19th and Chestnut Street. For Oak Hall, Wanamaker & Brown’s clothing store at 6th and Market Street, the Royer Brothers created a new, “massive and beautiful front…light and ornate,” which, according to Freedley, was “probably not equaled by any other Iron Front in Philadelphia.” The Royers’ reach extended to commissions in reading and Pittsburgh and, within a few years, they would cast the façade for the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, Delaware.
By the 1890s, John S. Stevens took over the foundry at 9th and Montgomery. But the Royer name—and the Royer brand—would remain prominent on both the foundry’s sign and on the cast-iron column that stood for decades at the corner.
A long-lost monument to Philadelphia’s Iron Age.