Hecla Iron Works

The five ” Black Arts” were the heart of Greenpoint’s nineteenth century industrial base. The black arts included oil refining,blowing glass. making porcelain or pottery, printing and creating cast iron. One of the most iconic firms in the production of cast iron was the Hecla Iron Works on North Eleventh Street in the Northside of Williamsurg. Niels technologies, most notably the Bower-Barff process which was used to treat the iron. In contrast to most cast-iron facades, which were painted to resemble stone and prevent corrosion, the panels were exposed to super-heated steam that converts rust to magnetite, creating an unusual black, velvety, surface that is unaffected by moisture.

Hecla’s contribution to New York City’s built fabric was extremely significant. Named for an active volcano in Iceland, this versatile firm supplied ornamental work for the exteriors and interiors of many designated New York City Landmarks, most notably the American Surety Building, New York Life Insurance Company Building, B. Altman & Co. Department Store, Macomb’s Dam Bridge and 155th Street Viaduct, and Grand Central Terminal. Hecla also produced the 133 original kiosks for the IRT subway system.

The Hecla Iron Works Building, a landmark structure constructed in 1896-97, is located on North 11th Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and is one of the architectural gems of North Brooklyn. Four stories tall, the front and rear elevations are faced with cast-iron panels enriched by simple classical details. While most iron fronts incorporate rows of weight-bearing columns, this facade is only a few inches thick, emphasizing its skin rather than structure. In combination with original metal frame windows ,it embodies the movement away from masonry fronts and towards the modern curtain wall.

A native of Denmark, niels Poulson (1843-1913) was trained in Copenhagen as a mason-journeyman. He moved to New York City in 1864. Two years later, Poulson relocated to Washington, D. C., where he was employed by the federal government as an architectural draftsman. In 1869 he returned and became head of the architecture and engineering department at the Architectural Ironworks of New York. It seems likely that he oversaw the installation of one of Badger’s largest commissions, the six hundred foot-long train shed at Grand Central Depot (1871, demolished). Costing more than a million dollars to build, the project employed fifteen hundred workers. Charles Eger (1843-1916) was born in Oslo, Norway, and emigrated to Brooklyn in 1869 to study the American building trade.5 Trained as a mason- journeyman, he had difficulty finding work and for a brief period served as a “common” laborer in the construction of Prospect Park. Hired by Badger as a draftsman in the early 1870s, he and Poulson established their own company in 1876. Poulson & Eger “started the firm in a little office not larger than a common hall room. At first, work was outsourced to a “Brooklyn foundry under Poulson’s personal supervision and at stipulated price on the weight. They moved the company to North 11th Street in 1881, leasing nine lots between Wythe Avenue and Third (now Berry) Street from Samuel H. Hunt The company prospered and in 1883 it leased nine adjacent lots along North 10th Street. Four years later, they purchased the entire site for $33,000. Neighboring businesses included a glassworks and cooperage, as well as Charles Pratt’s Astral Oil refinery. Metal Patination While most iron fronts were painted to give the appearance of stone and prevent corrosion, the elements used in the Hecla building were treated with the Bower-Barff process.As the business grew, large sums of money were spent in introducing new processes by which the work was made better and less costly; the Hecla Iron Works was the first concern to introduce electro-plating,galvano-plastic work, the Bower Barff process and plastic patterns, Patented by Frederick Settle Barff in 1876 and modified by George Bower in 1881, it was licensed for use by four American companies,including Hecla,in the mid-1880s.

To create the black velvety surface associated with this technique, iron is exposed to super-heated steam which converts rust to magnetite, making it hard and unaffected by moisture. Components treated this way require no painting and the facade is remarkably well-preserved. Poulson and Eger formed their partnership during the period when the demand for architectural iron was on the wane. To counter this trend, they adopted new technologies, rescuing traditional casting techniques with improved patination treatments. The Bower-Barff process won many international awards and supporters claimed it would dramatically increase the use of iron in structural building , and will be a boon to the architect who will thus have an opportunity of introducing ornate and florid designs to an extent, which would on account of the great cost be impossible in stone or other building material By treating the entire facade, Hecla demonstrated that the process could be used on a large scale. While such finishes were not unique to the firm, what set Hecla apart from rivals was its ability to work with “columns, cornices, statues and other large pieces.” Ultimately, the impact of this process was limited. Though frequently used in the manufacture of pipes and library stacks, the Hecla Iron Works Building is possibly the only extant structure in New York City to display this unusual protective coating.

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