Posts With a Past
Vintage cast-iron newels can anchor an entry—and more
Cast-iron newel posts—those shapely pillars usually found at the foot of exterior stairs—have punctuated stoops from New York City to New Orleans since the mid-1800s. And like an urban row house's handshake, they introduce visitors to a building's architectural style. There are boxy Italianate models with circular finials, Neoclassical ones with embossed flowers and urn-shaped caps, and Colonial Revival forms with fluted columns and budlike ornaments. Many still stand sentry over streetscapes today.
But for those newels separated from their railings as a result of a remodel or a building's demolition, there are myriad other ways to use them—as legs for a breakfast bar in the kitchen, a base for a birdbath, or a one-of-a-kind mailbox support, to name a few.
Cast-iron newels were common in 18th-century Europe. But it wasn't until the American Industrial Revolution, when new furnace technology and improved smelting methods allowed mass-produced architectural ironwork, that they began to adorn entries in this country. By the end of the Civil War, in 1865—when metals were no longer needed as much for munitions—dozens of manufacturers were competing to satisfy Victorian-era America's appetite for highly ornamented cast-iron newels, stair railings, fences, and gates.
Many companies initially produced stoves, pipes, and machine parts, but later diversified into architectural iron, hiring skilled pattern makers in the process. Major foundries included Hayward, Bartlett & Co. in Baltimore, Wood & Perot in Philadelphia, Architectural Iron Works in New York City, and Miltenberger in New Orleans. Cast-iron posts were created by pouring molten iron infused with carbon into sand molds. They were typically hollow, made of two or more parts welded together, and bore visible seams. The mechanized molding process made it possible to create and then replicate almost any design. As popular tastes changed, foundries could quickly respond with new catalogs featuring the latest patterns—a boon to America's burgeoning building industry.
Despite its early influence, cast iron's heyday was relatively short-lived. By the turn of the 20th century, the advent of more durable steel as a major construction material brought a rapid end to its use.
Hunting Them Down Today
A survey of almost any small-town salvage yard or online auction will turn up a cast-iron newel or two. But for a wide selection, visit a big-city dealer on the East Coast or in the Midwest, since most newels were stationed at the entrances to urban row houses in places such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, Savannah, and Chicago.
Mike Whiteside, co-owner of Black Dog Salvage, in Roanoke, Virginia, finds stock in Richmond and Washington, D.C., but also makes discoveries closer to home, where government buildings, banks, hospitals, and some homes anchored interior staircases with sturdy iron newels.
Whiteside's customers want vintage posts primarily for uses other than their original one: to define a driveway or garden path entry, to support an old barn-board panel for a dining table, or to interrupt a line of wood fence, for instance.
In Chicago, where cast-iron newels still line city sidewalks, Salvage One manager Steve Hruskocy sells most of his posts to people doing period restorations on their front entryways. Many balustrades and newels were removed and sold as scrap metal in once blighted areas. Today, as people move back to those neighborhoods, they are recreating what was lost using original materials.
Prices range from $150 to $700 depending on a newel's decoration, girth, and condition. But highly ornamental ones can go for as much as $2,500. You can remove flaking paint and small rust spots with a wire brush, but if you get down to bare metal, apply a rust-inhibiting primer right away. The best way to refinish a newel is to have it sandblasted by a professional. This will bring the piece back to its original gunmetal-gray color, and from there you can either prime and repaint it or let it develop a rusty patina (see "Pick Your Finish," right).
No matter how you finish them, antique cast-iron newel posts are versatile pieces with a handsome look that can't be found at home centers or furniture stores. A homeowner in Charlotte, North Carolina, recently asked Whiteside to wire a Queen Anne?style newel to serve as a lamppost (shown at right). He gave the 4-foot post extra height by welding a plinth that once supported a garden urn to its base and added a new copper lantern on top. The lamppost, which now illuminates the homeowner's front walkway, is the talk of the neighborhood, says Whiteside. "It's not your typical straight pipe with a light on top," he says. "It's something that has a story."
Pick Your Finish
The rusted patina on this newel-turned-lamppost developed after just six months of the paint-stripped metal's exposure to the elements. The homeowner could "freeze" the finish and prevent further corrosion by clear-coating the metal with polyurethane. For a more traditional look, Mike Whiteside, co-owner of Black Dog Salvage, recommends applying a rust neutralizer, such as Loctite's Extend Rust Converter, which chemically alters the rust to produce a hard black base for painting. Choose a flat or low-lustre alkyd paint—black, dark brown, and forest green are all historically appropriate colors. Though durable, high-gloss paint creates a reflective surface that obscures details embossed into the metal. Never finish cast iron with latex paint, since the water content will cause the metal to rust.