Ornamental iron fences once introduced gracious properties to passersby, offering glimpses of gardens, Neoclassical mansions, or Second Empire row houses through their filigree of scrolls and twists.
First brought to America from England during the colonial era, iron fences guarded only the finest houses, churches, and public buildings. But by the early 19th century, domestic blacksmith shops were turning out architectural iron to compete with the imports.
The earliest American wares were hand wrought by craftsmen who heated, bent, hammered, stretched, and twisted the metal into its desired shape. These wrought-iron fences are identified by sinuous, ribbonlike designs that give them a lightweight quality—some with obvious hammer marks, variations in thickness, and pattern irregularities.
By the mid-1800s, cast-iron fences were made in foundries where molten metal was poured into molds patterned with plant or geometric shapes. Demand for cast pieces peaked in the Victorian era, between 1860 and 1890, when famous makers, such as Wood & Perot of Philadelphia, printed catalogs displaying dozens of designs that could be ordered by number. Because they could be mass-produced and then transported by train to almost anywhere in the country, durable cast iron soon overtook wood as a preferred material for fences, particularly in cities, where security was a concern. Typically painted black or dark green, these cast models became a picturesque and unifying feature of streetscapes from Chicago to New Orleans.
Ornamental iron fences are still made, of course, but the time, skill, and expense it takes to replicate the craftsmanship of the antiques makes them too costly for many homeowners. Michael Glassman, a Sacramento, California, landscape designer, searches garage sales for the fencing he incorporates into his clients' yards. He might use a $50 cast-iron section as a trellis for vines, fitting it with brackets to secure it to the side of a house. "As opposed to new ironwork, which can look generic, salvage has an old look that gives more permanence to the landscape," says Glassman. He also likes to frame sections within a brick wall to surround a courtyard. "Now you've got this solid wall with a rusted iron opening with a lot of filigree," says Glassman. "It gives privacy—letting you look out without feeling like other people are looking in—but it allows air to flow into the space."
While most of Glassman's garage sale finds are covered with old paint and require sandblasting, architectural salvage yards carry a broad selection of fences, some of which require little or no cleanup. These pieces, however, tend to be more expensive. Mike Whiteside, co-owner of Black Dog Salvage in Roanoke, Virginia, sells most 3-foot-high-by-6-foot-long fence sections for between $250 and $500, depending on design, age, condition, and craftsmanship. Quantity of a particular pattern is also a factor. "You might pay more for 200 feet of matching fence than you would for a bunch of mismatched designs," says Whiteside.
When deciding what to buy, Whiteside suggests first figuring out how you're going to use it. If you want to hang the fence like art on the living room wall or use it as a headboard in the master bedroom, then looks will be more important than condition. "If you want function, you'll need something that's got more integrity, especially if you plan to use it outside," says Whiteside. Heavily corroded ironwork installed as a swimming pool enclosure, for instance, won't hold up as well as material that shows little pitting and rust.
Whiteside's customers often use fence sections to cordon off space in an open-plan interior, such as a combined kitchen and dining area, where a solid wall would be too imposing. To create an ironwork partition, he suggests framing a fence section vertically between wooden posts anchored to the floor and ceiling. That way you can divert foot traffic while still allowing light to pass through the divider.
For all its strength, old architectural ironwork has an airy look and rugged elegance that simply can't be duplicated by modern building materials. It can be a perfect solution when you want to divide a sprawling space indoors or establish a boundary outdoors. And it won't block the view.
WHERE TO FIND IT
Black Dog Salvage