Heavy Metal An Overview of Exterior Metal Work

After one cursory glance through the streets of Chicago, the reason becomes clear as to why The Windy City is well-recognized, architecturally, as a city of innovation. After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 ravaged many downtown properties, buildings that reflected the more classic aesthetic of New York and Boston at the time were demolished, replaced by the city’s fabled skyscrapers, immortalized by William LeBaron Jenney's Home Insurance Building in 1895.

James Collins, AIA, NABIE, LEED AP, the president of Criterium-Collins Architects & Engineers in Oak Park, pinpoints the 1880s as a turning point in Chicago architecture, when stonework became more prevalent, and designers left their marks through carvings. This was replaced by terracotta in the 1920s, according to Collins. “Iron work was never that popular around Chicago, in regard to decorations and what-not,” he says.

Metal work, however—ornamental and otherwise—still had (and has) a place in the city’s architecture. Whether via subtle touches (i.e., rails, cornices, gutters and busts, or outwardly exposed steel and aluminum structural work), those with a keen eye can spot metallic touches, both new and old, that reflect both the city’s past and future.

Metal work comes with a certain level of responsibility. Rust and decay can turn a shiny and vibrant, eye-catching addition to a property into a rusty albatross if not properly maintained, as the city’s infamously aggressive winds and weather bare down on a building’s various metallic instruments. With a careful touch and a commitment to maintenance, though, some flashy metal accoutrements adorning a property can provide a welcome respite amid a city crafted mainly from stone or brick.

Metal Detecting

While rarely the predominant exterior feature in Chicago co-op and condo properties, metal work can be spotted throughout the city's many unique neighborhoods. While types vary, steel maintains the top spot as the most frequently implemented, according to Rob Mueller, president of Mueller Ornamental Iron Works, Inc., in Elk Grove Village. "Especially in regard to ornamental metal decorations, years ago they were all made with sheet metal or cast iron," he says.

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