Preserving for the Future: Cast Iron Stairs

Here at the Heurich House Museum we’re busy gearing up for future preservation projects.  We established an extensive conservation management plan for the building and grounds.  One urgent project that topped the list was the original cast iron stairs and porch in the rear of the house.  The cast iron work dates from 1914 when the North wing addition was added.  Over the decades there were several temporary attempts to stabilize them. But the structure holding everything up was beginning to fail.  Pieces of steel added here and some floor jacks add there.  With the financial help of a grant, it was time to bring this porch and stairs back their original beauty and functionality.  

Cast iron stairs like ours once adorned many DC residences.  From row house on Capitol Hill to Mansions on Dupont.  Local iron workers cast the parts and local stair builders installed the porches and stairs all over the city.  Like many things of the past, cast iron stairs fell way to cheaper shorter-lived stairs made of concrete and wood.  Our cast iron stairs were made in the DC foundry of Fred J White.  Like his father and his brother Fred White made cast iron parts that were used all over DC.  Cast iron stairs were both ornate and functional.  Cast iron only suffers from surface rust and broken parts could be replaced.  Just as cast iron stairs disappeared, so did the craftspeople that knew how to repair and restore them.  After some searching, we found Fred Mashack at Mashack Ironworks.  Fred won’t work on any ironwork less than 100 years old.  

When the day came to remove all the iron work, Fred made short work of disassembling the stair and porch parts.  All the pieces could be unbolted.  All the parts were then sent to a paint stripper and all the old paint and rust was removed.  Some of the original cast iron parts had broken pieces.  The pieces were welded back in place and with only a few small exceptions all the original cast iron was saved and put back in the stairs.  Fred needed to design a new under structure to hold all the cast iron porch plates and railings as well as the stairs.  Everything was primed and painted and ready to re-install.  Once everything was back in place it looked as it did in 1914.  With care to keep the paint intact our stairs will last another century.  No one reading this will live long enough to see the day when they need to be restored again.

Such is the key to historic preservation.  There are quick fixes and cheap fixes, but as the old timer craftspeople used to say, “I can’t afford to buy inexpensive tools, because when you buy cheap tools you need keep replacing them”.  Quality and durability were the benchmark of a good tool, even if it cost more to buy, it cost less to own over time.  Like our cast iron stairs, they were an investment, but they lasted more than a lifetime (even when you live to 102 like Christian Heurich).  So raise a Heurich beer and toast the stairs to another 110 years. 

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