When most think of cast iron – household items like pots and pans generally come to mind. But the City of Milwaukee is home to proof that cast iron is much more versatile than one might give it credit for. That proof is the Iron Block – a building with a facade molded almost entirely out of cast iron to imitate ornate structures of old and the last off its kind anywhere in the State of Wisconsin.
The building, unfortunately had fallen into disrepair until relatively recently. But with help of Dental Associates, Inc., the Iron Block’s newest owner, the process of a completely renovation began in late 2012. Over the better part of a year, this building was covered by large swaths of white plastic to conceal the changes occurring beneath. Last Monday, the finished product was officially unveiled to denizens of the City and the world.
The processes behind cast iron has been around for centuries, which were first developed in East Asia during the 5th century BC and was used primarily for weapons. Under the Tang Dynasty, China developed uses for cast iron as building material in pagodas. In the West cast iron did not make an appearance until the 1400s, and was only used for cannons and shot. King Henry VIII was first to initiate the casting of cannon in Europe.
Due to advancement in technological processes, English industrialists were able to develop new production methods that allowed for large quantities of the material to be made quickly and cheaply. This allowed for entire building facades to be molded out of liquefied iron. The process took off during the 19th century, with numerous cast iron buildings constructed in New York City and Portland, Oregon. Due to their visual similarities to hand cut stone without requiring the expertise of stone masons, cast iron facades served as the industrial revolution’s answer to European carved stone.
The Iron Block Building, originally known as the Excelsior Block, was commissioned by James Martin in 1860. The facade was cast by D.D. Badger Company and is unique in the world of cast iron buildings in that it is on a corner, so it features two street-facing facades. And while iron cast buildings were popular throughout the second half of the 19th century, most were destroyed over the course of the following 100 years. The Iron Block is the last standing cast iron building in Wisconsin.
Because if its sheer uniqueness, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and underwent a serious renovation beginning in 1983. However, the materials used in the process did not hold up well against Wisconsin’s sometimes brutal weather and the exterior had began to deteriorate once again. When Dental Associated, Inc. purchased the building early last year, they agreed to help fund another complete renovation of the architecturally important building. The corporation’s goal was to “return this landmark to the stateliness it had when Abraham Lincoln occupied the White House.”
And by all accounts, Dental Associates, Inc. did just that. The Iron Block building stands as impressive today as it did before the Civil War. Every detail, from the lion heads to the grape vines, were painstakingly restored by Milwaukee and Beloit foundries.
To send the building off on her next 150 journey, the City organized a gathering of officials, employees and onlookers last Monday morning to unveil the completed work. Mayor Tom Barrett, Alderman Robert J. Bauman, building owner Dental Associates President Dr. Thomas Manos, and Architect Mark Demsky were all present when the plastic sheets came down. Each seemed more impressed than the last upon viewing the restored facade in all its former glory.
So when you’re walking down Wisconsin and Water, be sure to glance upwards and appreciate all the hard work and dedication that went in to restoring one of Wisconsin’s most beautiful buildings.
For a glimpse into the renovation process and a closer look at the building’s details, please visit ironblockbuilding.com,