Cast iron reasons for conservation

Words:
Joshua Mardell

Campaigning preservationist Margot Gayle made it her mission to protect the architectural heritage of the US, especially cast iron buildings

Jefferson Market Court, whose clocks Gayle was instrumental in saving. Credit Berenice Abbott, 1935 - New York Public Library
Jefferson Market Court, whose clocks Gayle was instrumental in saving. Credit Berenice Abbott, 1935 - New York Public Library

The legacy of the late Gavin Stamp (1948-2017), the UK’s most industrious and impassioned preservationist-historian, was celebrated at a recent conference organised by the Twentieth Century Society. His passing prompted the Observer’s Rowan Moore to consider the fundamental characteristics of the architecture critic from past to present. They should champion underdogs, he said, while fighting against vested interests and big money. They should ‘speak truth to power, call out crap, and find what’s good’. Above all, in order to offer an educated rebuke against architectural philistinism, they should know what they are talking about. Stamp embodied all of these qualities. Furthermore, he was part of a broader coalition of architecture critics whose rhetoric was determined by a conservationist cause; they had to double up as resourceful campaigners. Another figure of that tradition is New York’s off-beam and colourful Margot Gayle (1909-2009). She is best known for having handed out pocket magnets to devotees of her greatest love, cast iron buildings, for ‘real cast iron buffs always carry [them]’, she said. The gimmickry of the magnet is reminiscent of the ‘great American gizmos’ described by Reyner Banham: they acted as heuristic devices that helped Gayle colonise the territory of cast iron architecture. But for all her magnetism as a preservationist prophet, she has become estranged.

Mayor Ed Koch once described Gayle as ‘the queen of New York’, and she enjoyed several other monikers: Mrs Cast Iron, the other iron lady, and the lady with the magnets. Along with Jane Jacobs, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Dorothy Marie Miner and Ruth Wittenberg, Gayle was one of the key female actors who mobilized a landmark preservation movement in New York City and the broader USA. She joined the League of Women Voters in the late 1930s and, in 1957, ran as a reform Democrat for the (all-male) New York City Council on the ballot ‘We need a woman in City Hall.’ Failing to be elected, she turned her rhetorical skills to architectural (almost invariably Victorian cast iron) preservation. Her obituary in the New York Times later noted her ‘cast-iron will — cloaked in Victorian gentility’.

Gayle was the only female member on the historic buildings committee of the Municipal Art Society in 1956, and the following year, she led a citizens’ campaign to save the clocks of the High Victorian Jefferson Market Courthouse in Greenwich Village. This preceded the infamous demolition of Penn Station (1963) and anticipated the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (1965). Gayle instigated a plethora of campaigns thereafter. Most memorably, in 1971 she secured landmark designation for the cast-iron-fronted buildings in SoHo by Richard Morris Hunt, John B Snook and others that, she insisted, ‘constituted an almost uniquely American development’. To do so, she helped thwart Robert Moses’ plans for the Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX) that proposed to cut right through them. Gayle was also instrumental in co-founding vast nuclei of civic societies, chief among them, on Nikolaus Pevsner’s advice, she founded the Victorian Society of America at her Greenwich Village apartment in 1966, and in 1970, she launched the Friends of Cast Iron Architecture.

  • Building on Greene Street NYC in the SoHo Cast Iron Historic District that Gayle was instrumental preserving.
    Building on Greene Street NYC in the SoHo Cast Iron Historic District that Gayle was instrumental preserving. Credit: Tim Benton - RIBA Collections
  • Wholesale store of Claflin Mellen & Co New York. By Samuel Warner 1860.
    Wholesale store of Claflin Mellen & Co New York. By Samuel Warner 1860. Credit: RIBA Collections
  • The 1857 E V Haughwout Building on Broadway by Daniel Badger and JP Gaynor.
    The 1857 E V Haughwout Building on Broadway by Daniel Badger and JP Gaynor. Credit: Tim Benton - RIBA Collections
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She handed out pocket magnets to devotees of her greatest love, cast iron buildings, for ‘real cast iron buffs always carry [them]’

Gayle’s advocacy manifested itself across a remarkable array of platforms, giving her multiple means of mediating her causes. Her acidic articles in the Daily News (1975-1991) adopted a weekly diptych of images of New York buildings past and present in the polemical tradition of A W N Pugin. Her monographs and scholarly articles informed her central thesis that cast-iron was a versatile, democratic material and its architecture a distinctive episode in the history of building. She centred above all on the problem of invention — namely, how cast iron construction, especially as developed by the Victorian inventor and architect James Bogardus, was central to the industrial progress of the USA. While her famous walking tours roused interest, her advice literature for the Historic American Buildings Survey helped ensure cast iron buildings’ practical conservation. A more oblique form of advocacy, Gayle also republished facsimiles of 19th century iron foundry catalogues that had been essential in the marketing of metals and the subsequent revolution of building technologies; she was likely inspired by C C Gillespie’s 1951reprint of Diderot’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of Trades and Industries.

While applause for her friend and co-conspirator Jane Jacobs’ community-based urbanism has long continued, chiming with the 1950s shift in the discourse from space to place, Gayle’s advocacy, centred on materiality, has been largely forgotten. As a scholar, her methods were influenced by the young sub-discipline of industrial archaeology that sought to improve our understanding of industrialism through its physical remains. New perspectives on materials, especially on material agency associated with the ‘material turn’, has since put paid to architecture’s disregard for the material considerations of building and buildings that Gayle faced. She was also a victim of the long-standing view of preservation as a provincial, even myopic, occupation. Yet, her rationale was far from provincial and her specialism was necessary for her to operate in a non-interdisciplinary environment. Furthermore, unlike Jacobs and that other cast-iron buff Alison Smithson, Gayle has not benefited from the revisionist reappraisal of women in built environment histories. She should be re-characterised as a feminist avant garde.

Certainly, Gayle was antiquarian and populist — a connoisseuse. Although she was a scion of the architectural historian Henry Russell Hitchcock, she lacked his catholicity of scholarship and prolix writing style. Her project, conversely, depended on popular appeal. As one reviewer put it, she was ‘unabashedly for appreciation and preservation’. For example, she felt that the Portland Breakwater Lighthouse in Maine ‘does not feature largely in any great cycle of technology evolution [but] it is simply quite lovely.’ Taste-based statements of this kind were rhetorically necessary to the development of new areas of study – in this case, Victorian architecture. Gayle embodied the Stampite tradition of the architectural critic as an erudite and indefatigable crusader. It is with some alarm that Rowan Moore observed a growing shift away from conservation as a critical component of architectural criticism. NYU’s Professor of Historic Preservation, Mosette Broderick, would agree. The tradition is dying, she says, because ‘careerists don’t walk the picket-line’. But the truly worthy architectural critic has to be binary. Like Gayle, she has to be for or against things.


Dr Joshua Mardell is an architectural historian