Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Steel Beam Vernacular: 222 Chapel St

Structurally superior to older materials, steel could facilitate larger spans. William Le Baron Jenney developed the steel frame system in the 1890s, which facilitated the Chicago skyscraper. In all cases, however, the innovative metal structure needed to be covered to avoid exposure to fire. A generation earlier (1850s), wrought iron had been used as the primary material for tall manufacturing buildings (e.g. SoHo Cast Iron Historic District) but with great risks for fire.

In Philadelphia, the incorporation of steel in the exterior of buildings was limited but interesting in trying to marry the old language of masonry with the new language of metal. A modest building in Old City shows the process of stylistic incorporation. The building is located around the corner from the historic Christ Church, at 222 Chapel Street. It is a four story brick building with traditional stone lintels spanning the windows on the upper stories. On the first floor, where a shop front would have existed, the vernacular architect has placed a long horizontal steel beam to support the upper brick façade. Although redundant, two wrought iron columns bring an interesting twist. Their capitals are Byzantine and inspired from Ruskin’s Stones of Venice (1853). In addition to its material innovation, 222 Chapel Street testifies to the significance that Ruskin’s Byzantium played in the creative development of American culture.

We have already mentioned that Frank Furness was the first American architect to unite the steel beam with the decorative vocabulary of traditional materials. Our steel beam shows the Furnessian touch of making a practical steel bolt into a flower, thus bridging the gap between new technology and tradition. Tomorrow, I will show you another great example of this floral bolt detail from West Philadelphia.


John Kim said...

What happens when steel meets fire? it expands or something?


It simply melts and the building collapses

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States