The classic Capitol Hill screetscape is a row of colorful homes along tree-lined streets. But we cannot forget: that vision really is iron-clad. Ironwork is visible along every street — from black iron fences running along our front yards to iron staircases with elaborate newel post form the entry to many of our homes. These are punctuated by cellar security grills, ornate window hoods and decorative motifs along the rooftops.
Why is ironwork so prevalent on the Hill? According a study by Judith M. Capen and Patrick Lally for the Capitol Hill Restoration Society (CHRS), it’s partly because Capitol Hill experienced a burst of growth during the post-Civil war period, a time when the use of cast iron in construction also experienced rapid expansion. Towards the end of the 19th century, there were up to fifteen foundries in the District alone. That made ornate work more accessible, as patterns previously too expensive to have carved in wood or stone could now be cast in iron.
Some of this ironwork is a century and a half old. But, say the experts, it can last indefinitely with proper maintenance.
Federal City Ironworks (federalcityiron.com) founder Marshall May suggests all metal be looked at or inspected by the homeowner at least once every three years. Rust is what you’re trying to spot. May says new rust is bright orange, morphing into a deep red and almost purple color as it ages. Also check for cracks or chipped or missing pieces, which weaken ironwork and create entryways for water.
Where rust is found, it should be scraped with a metal brush. If a brush won’t fit, you can use a flat head screwdriver, May said. Then the area should be wiped clean with a dry rag to remove any dust or particulates from the surface. Finally, the area should be painted over with a good quality paint that is meant to adhere to metal; May suggests homeowners use Rust-Oleum.
Sandblasting is one way to remove layers of paint, but this requires protection of the home’s masonry to prevent damage. An alternative CHRS recommends is stripping ironwork with a combination of heat, metal brushes and chemical strippers. The downside to this method is that most chemical strippers are messy and have a strong smell. Stripped metal should be primed immediately to prevent rust.
What about the stairs? “Cast iron stairs require less maintenance when it comes to paint, as missing or damaged paint will not hurt cast iron in the long run,” May said. It’s the joints that are at risk: the mechanical connections between risers and between railing, level and riser.
What homeowners need to look out for are bouncing or shifting on steps or landings, cracked or missing sections and falling pieces of the stairs. When you inspect the stairs, don’t forget to check underneath the riser, which may not have been painted. Also check places where pieces are bolted together, where rust tends to accumulate. That can weaken the connections and cause pieces to separate.
Cast iron stairs can be difficult to repair properly. For instance, did you know an iron stair post is generally hollow, attached to the stair by an interior post that is bolted to the riser and then capped? If that post is improperly reattached, for instance by welding, it can cause damage to the stairs.
“I would usually suggest that if you think you might have an issue with your cast iron stairs, call for a quote,” May said. He recommends basic maintenance on a cast iron stairs be done at least every five or 10 years. That is mainly to make sure the bolts on the stairs are still in a good condition and that expansion rust isn’t putting pressure on the joints. Most people wait much longer than they should before getting their stair repaired, costing themselves more money in the long run.
If your home is in the Capitol Hill Historic District, you must preserve these elements and replacement materials must be compatible with the defining characteristics of the area. CHRS recommends that homeowners repair staircases whenever possible, seeking parts from salvage or even having them replicated. Experts such as Federal City Ironworks can often find ways to replicate or repair pieces; in some cases, different materials can be used, depending on if the replacement is ornamental or structural.
It is a worthy investment. Victorian ironwork is durable, strong, fire resistant, beautiful and helps to define both individual homes as well as the historic neighborhood of Capitol Hill.
Learn more about Federal City Ironworks at federalcityiron.com. Read more about the history and maintenance of historical ironwork at chrs.org.