Salvaging The City’s Cast Iron Past With Traces Of The Brock Building

 

The rear façade of the abandoned Brock Stores before the 1977 fires that destroyed the building. The cast iron arches, columns and other cast iron pieces eventually made it to the Smithsonian Institution. The Ben Franklin Bridge is in the background | HABS, Library of Congress

The rear façade of the abandoned Brock Stores before the 1977 fires that destroyed the building. The cast iron arches, columns and other cast iron pieces were salvaged and eventually made it to the Smithsonian Institution’s holdings. The Ben Franklin Bridge is in the background. | Photo: HABS Collection, Library of Congress

One Water Street, the $65 million residential project slowly rising along Columbus Boulevard, will soon obscure the Philadelphia anchorage of the Ben Franklin Bridge from the north. The 252-unit waterfront complex, designed by the firm Varenhorst, is being built where a series of commercial warehouses and stores stood for well over a hundred years. One of them, the Brock Building, is thought to have been the oldest known surviving cast iron building in the United States. The legacy of the storehouse lives on within the holdings of the Smithsonian due to the foresight and salvaging efforts of Alan Johnson and Richard Stange of Alley Friends Associates when the building was demolished in 1977. The duo hopes to honor the Brock Building here at home with a public park that would feature their last remaining pieces of the metal façade.

An Eye For Iron

The Brock Building was located at 242-44 North Delaware Avenue and 243-45 North Water Street. Built in 1850-1 in the Italianate style, the structure had a flat roof and a cast iron façade on both sides. The westerly side on Water Street was four stories tall, while the eastern side facing Delaware Avenue was five stories high due the descending grade towards the Delaware River. The first floor of the Delaware Avenue side was not fitted with any cast iron because periodic flooding from the river would have caused rusting, but the second floor had a series of grand columns and arches made of iron. The grand columns were twelve-feet high and filled with bricks to make them even more solid. These columns and arches were replicated on the first floor of the Water Street side. Also, the cast iron was also made to look like blocks of stone above the eastern side’s second floor. Interior cast iron columns supported the second floor.

The Delaware Avenue façade of the Brock Stores before the 1977 fires that destroyed building. The “stonework” above the second floor is actually cast iron, as are the arches, columns and other metal pieces below | Photo: HABS Collection, Library of Congress

The building’s owner, John Brock, came from a long line of prominent Philadelphians engaged in business and merchandizing in the 1800s. He was an early purchaser of coal lands in upstate Pennsylvania and a promoter of the North Pennsylvania Railroad. A seasoned grocery wholesaler, Brock built his own store along Delaware Avenue (a rudimentary street at that time) in the 1840s that Stephen Girard, in his will, had hoped to upgrade with funds from his estate. John Brock Sons & Company became one of the largest wholesale grocery houses in Philadelphia.

The Brock Building was constructed after a great fire in 1850 incinerated all of the buildings within a half mile around the waterfront site, including the wholesaler’s original storehouse. The fire was believed to have started from friction produced by a hoist pulley wheel at Brock’s warehouse, having been in use all day lowering casks of molasses into the cellar. The blaze was small at first, but several explosions caused it to spread, likely ignited by large quantities of saltpeter and brimstone (sulfur) stored in Brock’s establishment. The wind carried burning sulfur for quite a distance, carrying embers as far away as Broad Street.

John Brock quickly rebuilt his grocery business at the same location and may have been persuaded to use cast iron because of its fireproof qualities. Plus, the use of prefabricated iron castings enabled the replacement building to be completed much faster. Brock’s new warehouse was designed by partner architects Joseph C. Hoxie and Stephen D. Button, and its builders included Cresson & Company, which fabricated much of the iron work. The structure was originally five continuous, identical sections and was fully completed by 1851. Only the two northernmost sections remained by the 1970s.

Casted To Last In Philadelphia

The use of heavy cast iron in commercial and public buildings spread rapidly in the second half of the 19th century, with hundreds of iron-fronted buildings erected in cities across the country. Examples still exist in Baltimore, Galveston, Louisville, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Richmond, and New York City, where the SoHo Cast Iron Historic District alone has 26 blocks jammed with iron-fronted buildings.

A commercial district of cast iron buildings similarly developed in Philadelphia, the result of Pennsylvania’s iron and coal wealth and the engineering skills of the city’s architects and mechanics. Cast iron structural columns provided a fireproof manner to support timber or wrought-iron beams, and permitted wider windows and higher ceilings. In particular, cast iron columns allowed for ample interior space by freeing up a floor plan from bulky wooden or granite piers–all architectural benefits attractive to the new retailers of the mid-19th century, including John Brock.

On June 18, 1959, a fire started in the New Yorker Cheese Company’s warehouse at 246–52 North Delaware Ave. This  photo was taken from the Ben Franklin Bridge. Fire Boat One is shown pumping four hose lines of Delaware River water directly to fire engines | From Tin Helmets, Iron Men: Phila Fires 50’s, 60’s, 70’s (2001)

Some predicted the failure of structural cast iron based on the expansion and contraction of the metal, but this skepticism was mostly disregarded. Prefabricated iron structures were faster and cheaper to construct than stone or brick buildings. As most American cities had small iron foundries that made cookstoves, fences, water pipes, and the like, many companies began to manufacture iron-fronts for buildings, as well as other construction materials made of cast iron.

In both Europe and the United States, cast iron’s ability to replicate shapes and forms inspired new systems of production and design. The material became used for a variety of architectural and engineering purposes, including decorative balconies, railings, and window grills.

The Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company–Philadelphia’s first cast iron structure–built its new headquarters in 1849 with the material. It remained at 129 South Third Street (above Dock Street) until 1956. Other local buildings followed, including the Brock Stores. The 1850s St. Charles Hotel, now an apartment complex, still stands in all of its cast iron glory at 60-66 North Third Street. Many of these iron-fronted building were build in the Italianate architectural style, which was very popular in the mid-century.

By the end of the 1850s, Philadelphia had become a leader in producing all cast iron building components. The city’s iron foundries shipped ornamental and structural pieces of cast iron both nationally and overseas. Most of the cast iron work in New Orleans was made in Philadelphia. The cast iron dome on top of the U.S. Capitol, designed by Philadelphia architect Thomas Ustick Walter, is an enduring symbol of Philadelphia’s cast iron industry.

Some architectural historians have identified the use of cast iron in buildings of the 1870s as a precursor to the all-glass curtain walls of the 20th century, as buildings made of steel and glass and decorated with terra cotta and other material came to the fore as the nineteenth century progressed. Existing examples of cast iron façade have become largely invisible due to extensive exterior remodeling or demolition.

Holding On To The Past

The rear façade of the Brock Stores after the 1977 fires that completely destroyed the building just before demolition | Photo: HABS Collection, Library of Congress

The rear façade of the Brock Stores after the 1977 fires that completely destroyed the building just before demolition | Photo: HABS Collection, Library of Congress

The Brock company was hit with hard times during the Depression era and the southern section of the building was razed in 1939. The first and second story windows and doors were bricked up by 1951 and the northern section of the structure was taken down following a fire in the adjacent New Yorker Cheese Company building at 246-52 North Delaware Avenue on June 18, 1959. By then, the Brock Building housed the Githen and Rexamar wholesale grocery.

The rest of the Brock Building was gutted in 1977 after two fires were started in the vacant structure in September. The blazes were both very likely arson, as the Philadelphia waterfront was in decline by that time and many warehouses and piers were abandoned. What was left of the building was set to be demolished.

Richard Tyler, then head of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, sought money to preserve the cast iron columns and arches, recognizing the Brock Building’s importance in having what was believed to be the country’s oldest known surviving cast iron façade. He secured $10,000 to dismantle the exterior iron elements from the Delaware Avenue side of the building for future reassembly at another site. The work was done by the Fairmount Park Commission, which stored the heavy pieces at a location inside the park.

Concurrently, Alan Johnson and Richard Stange of Alley Friends Associates, an architectural firm headquartered a block away from the Brock Building, took an interest in the cast iron columns and arches that remained on the building’s Water Street side. Johnson arranged to acquire nearly eighty percent of the western façade’s ironwork with the demolition contractor, who otherwise planned to sell the metal for scrap. Alley Friends Associates paid $500 for three complete arches and several columns, as well as a number of rosettes, keystones, and entablatures. The bulky pieces were transported to a yard along Water Street that was owned by Alley Friends Associates, where they remained scattered about for several years.

Alan C. Johnson and Richard C. Stange of Alley Friends Associates holding a cast iron bracket that was once on the rear façade of the Brock Stores | Photograph by author

Richard C. Stange and Alan C. Johnson of Alley Friends Associates holding a very heavy cast iron bracket that was once on the rear façade of the Brock Stores | Photo: Harry Kyriakodis

In 1982, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History began planning an exhibition, “A Material World,” that would examine what things are made of to highlight two centuries of American materialism. The museum scoured the country to find a suitable cast iron façade to display. Tyler received a request for the Brock Building pieces he had salvaged years before. However, the ironwork had since been stolen from storage in Fairmount Park.

Tyler referred the Smithsonian to Johnson and Stange, who still possessed the pieces they rescued from the building’s rear façade. Upon inspection, museum officials were thrilled with the columns and arches, and Alley Friends Associates was happy to give them a good home. They sold most of what they had salvaged to the Smithsonian for $2,000.

Included in the purchase were moulds that Alley Friends Associates had made of some of the decorative pieces, as well as several plaster casts that they had fabricated. These came in useful for the interpretive element of the exhibit. Visitors were asked to see if they could determine the difference between a plaster cast and a real iron element. In addition, since the Smithsonian had a limited amount of original Brock columns, they recreated a few in fiberglass. The museum then faux-finished the pieces reddish-brown.

On the right, a cast iron rosette once on the rear façade of the Brock Stores, currently in the possession of Alan Johnson. On the left is a plaster mould of a rosette made by Alley Friends Associates. A small magnet is on the metal piece | Photograph by author

On the right, a cast iron rosette once on the rear façade of the Brock Stores. On the left is a plaster mould of a rosette made by Alley Friends Associates | Photo: Harry Kyriakodis

“A Material World” opened in 1984. Johnson recalled it being an elaborate display of building material, with the Brock Building’s rear façade serving as a springboard to the entire exhibit. The columns and arches were reconstructed as the entrance to a courtyard featuring an old-fashioned ice cream parlor on the museum’s ground floor. The Brock pieces were also highlighted as an historic, Philadelphia-made product. The exhibit has long been taken down, though the Smithsonian still has the Brock Stores’ pieces stored at an offsite location.

The One Water Street complex, scheduled for completion next March, will have a fifty foot easement along Vine Street. (The peculiar history of the Vine Street and Delaware Avenue intersection was investigated HERE.) Johnson has discussed with the developer, One Water Street Associates, the potential for creating a park there. The main purpose of public space would commemorate both the Brock Building and Philadelphia’s prominent cast iron past with an a historical marker and a few elements of the rear façade that Alley Friends Associates still own.

About the author

Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.

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3 Comments


  1. Wonderful and very informative article. Thank you Harry, I enjoy your articles.

  2. great story…was an inventory ever done of the city’s remaining cast iron buildings?…just wondering

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