James Bogardus:
The Inventor’s Triangle



12 W Broadway, New York, NY

Neighborhood: Tribeca

Bogardus was a watch-maker and inventor who was awarded thirteen US patents and one British patent, for clocks, spinning machinery, grinding mills, gas meters, and devices for pressing glass cuttings, working with rubbers and making postage stamps. He built the first cast-iron fa?ade in history in 1848 at 183 Broadway (it has since been destroyed). In 1850, he patented his method for cast-iron construction.

As James Sanders, co-writer of the New York documentary series recently put it, "Cast Iron architecture is one of New YorkÕs greatest architectural achievements and James Bogardus was the premiere architect of cast-iron architecture." Made from separate cast parts that could be ordered from catalogues and then bolted together on site, cast-iron construction marked the birth of pre-fab architecture.

75 Murray Street

Until 1862, when his health began to fail him, Bogardus championed the use of cast-iron in developing industrial cities. His commissions extended from Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, San Francisco, to places as far-flung as Santa Domingo and Havana. The sturdiness of metal offered ample support for the soaring windows often associated with cast-iron construction. Since there was no electricity at the time and since, according to Sanders, gaslight only supplied 1/10 the strength of natural light, the light brought in by these large window openings proved especially useful for industrial purposes. (Natural light played an equally important role when these warehouses were converted to artist’s lofts and galleries in the 1960’s and 1970’s). Finally, Bogardus’ work in metal pre-figured the use of steel in the building of skyscrapers, and, by extension, what we have come to know as the Manhattan skyline.

In recent years, Manhattan’s architects and developers, and the population at large, have demonstrated an increasing respect for the integrity of what is now commonly thought of as New York architecture. The Landmarks Commission has become a force, with more and more buildings protected under its stringent auspices (some 25,000 buildings are now registered landmarks). Along with all of this, the life and work of James Bogardus has again come into the public eye. According to Margot Gayle, the pre-eminent scholar of cast-iron architecture, and author of the book, "Cast-iron Architecture in America: The Significance of James Bogardus," Bogardus was "quite well-known during his life." And yet, by the time Gayle began researching her book, which was published in 1998, she admits, "he was forgotten." Part of this is due to the simple fact that there are very few examples of his work still standing. Of his 23 commissioned buildings in Manhattan alone only three remain (a fourth at 63 Nassau Street has yet to be officially attributed to him).

I began my pilgrimage that day with visits to Bogardus’ three remaining buildings at 254 Canal Street, 85 Leonard Street, and 75 Murray Street, with a final stop at the James Bogardus triangle, as a kind of homage to the master.

George Bruce, an inventor and printer commissioned 254 Canal Street. Completed in 1856, the building is elegantly designed in the palazzo style, with fluted columns, as well as the details in Bogardus’ signature Medusa heads. The building offers a wonderful example of the soaring window spaces associated with most cast iron architecture. One major disappointment at 254 Canal was that the first story of the building has been, curiously, paneled in wood. Located in the heart of China Town, the building is now the home of HSCB and Fleet Bank and myriad lawyers, doctors and brokers. A tattered banner announcing RFR Textiles blows a little dejectedly outside 85 Leonard Street, a sad reminder that industry in this country has become more or less obsolete. One of the early supporters of cast-iron architecture, the textile industry embraced BogardusÕ own dream of inventing a building that was completely fireproof. This turned out not to be the case, for under extreme temperatures it becomes brittle. While 85 Leonard Street is badly in need of restoration, it is a beautiful example of the decorative possibilities presented by working in cast-iron. Leafy vines and bunches of grapes appear between the arched windows below the roof. The two sets of columns, rising up two stories, are designed in what is known as the sperm-candle style, because of the columns’ resemblance to the tall delicate candles made with the oily wax from sperm whales. A Tiffany plaque by the loading dock reads: "James Bogardus, originator and patentee of iron buildings, Pat; May 7 1850."

Of all of the remaining Bogardus buildings in Manhattan 75 Murray Street is by far the best restored. This is largely due to the diligence of the current owners, George and Christiane Aprile. Since buying the building in 1991, George Aprile has become something of a James Bogardus aficionado. Built in 1857 for merchants of fine table china and paint, 75 Murray Street resembles a late-fifteenth century Venetian palace. The building is three bays wide and sits on a 25-foot lot. Corinthian columns frame the windows and Medusa heads decorate the keystones on the third and fourth floors

85 Leonard Street

As I was photographing the building from across the street the elevator opened at street level. When I crossed the street to peak inside, I noticed two articles on James Bogardus hanging on the elevator’s walls (one from the New York Times by Christopher Gray, from August 20, 1995, the other by Oliver E. Allen, from the May 1995 issue of the Tribeca Tribune). The Tribune article suggested that the current owners actually lived in the building, and I asked the elevator operator if there was any way I could get in touch with them. He said that in fact Mr. Aprile was upstairs. He went to ask if I could see him. Mr. Aprile very generously invited me into his home, where he keeps a veritable treasure trove of James Bogardus literature and memorabilia. Aprile confessed that when bought 75 Murray Street in 1992, heÕd never heard of James Bogardus. "No one had," he said. He credited Margot Gayle for rescuing Bogardus from obscurity.

Our animated conversation about Bogardus and cast-iron architecture in general lead to a top to bottom tour of 75 Murray Street. According to Mr. Aprile, the building had no windows water or electricity when he bought it, but it was convenient to his child’s school and the price per square foot, was reasonable, at least by Manhattan standards. What he didnÕt know when he bought it was that one of the drawbacks of owning what some might call a monument is the cost of restoration. On one floor, a fallen piece of wall on the inside revealed the bolts that affixed the cast iron to the front of the building. It was like seeing a skeleton. It occurred to me that I was as close as I would probably ever get to the ghost of my late ancestor. A trip to the cellar revealed the vault area under the sidewalk, and assorted fieldstones from the original foundation, which had most likely been collected from nearby building sites. Before I left, Mr. Aprile informed me that Margot Gayle lived in New York. He mentioned that she was in her eighties and encouraged me to call her.

It was several days before I spoke to Margot Gayle. A founding member of the Friends of Cast Iron Architecture, Gayle used to host walking tours "to get people acquainted with iron clad architecture." The tours, she said, would meet on a concrete area, which was actually a traffic island. There were a couple of trees, not big, and concrete benches. According to Gayle, "The City paid very little attention to it." The Friends tours had four volunteer guidesÑmostly architects. When the tours dispersed, it was Gayle’s habit to sit down and catch her breath. "Maybe "I’d have a coke," she said. "Then one day it dawned on me that the traffic island didn’t have a name and it would be appropriate to name it after James Bogardus." After a series of city council and committee meetings a bill was introduced. Gayle testified that it would be a fine thing to memorialized this famous figure. Mayor Koch signed the bill into existence. Gayle still has a picture of the group of them, standing around Koch as he signed the bill.

My grandfather, John Bogardus had recently died. Various letters and papers detailing our relationship to the Bogardus clan were passed into my mother’s hands. She has, in turn, passed them on to me. I have yet to make any sense of them. What has struck me, however, over the course of my research, is that my grandfather’s deeply practical nature, his almost defiant lack of pretension, traits described over and over again in the eulogy, are traits the late James seems to have shared as well. (A picture in Margot Gayle’s book also reveals a certain likeness to my mother around the eyes.)

"It’ll be a great place if they ever finish it," O. henry said of New York. At some time or other everyone looks for the story of their own past in the city, and every now and then I walk down to the James Bogardus Triangle and savor this small intersection of the public and the personal. Never mind the red bank awnings, this building at Lafayette and Canal Street is a Cast Iron Classic.


Photographs by Dorothy Spears

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§ One Response to “James Bogardus:
The Inventor’s Triangle”

  • Jan B. says:

    I recently found out I am related to James B. Do they have a family association
    that hooks up family members.

§ Leave a Reply

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