Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Lost Tower

This postcard of the Brooklyn Bridge and the adjacent waterfront, published by the Rotograph Co., was postmarked in 1905. Offering a view of the bridge at a time before automobile traffic had begun to transform the city, and of the rough-and-tumble district that, considerably scrubbed-up, is now anchored by the South Street Seaport, it's interesting for a number of reasons, but there's one particular detail that leaps out, and that's the curious structure on the far right that appears to be some sort of obelisk or monument, and which hardly seems to belong in the picture at all.

A bit of research soon revealed that the tower was not a ceremonial structure or an observatory for turn-of-the-century sightseers but, in fact, an industrial building constructed to serve a very specific purpose. It was one of two cast-iron "shot towers" designed by the 19th-century architect James Bogardus for use in the manufacture of lead shot. From a vat near the summit of the building, molten metal would be poured through a sieve; as the droplets fell from the heights they would be shaped by surface tension into tiny spheres, which would then harden when they fell into a tank of water at the bottom. This particular tower, which stood at 82 Beekman Street and rose some 215 feet high, was built for Tatham & Brothers around 1856; its construction followed by a year or so that of a similar but shorter structure which Bogardus had built further uptown for the McCullough Shot and Lead Co.

A pioneer of cast-iron construction, which relied on prefabricated elements that could be strikingly ornate, James Bogardus designed a number of important commercial buildings in Manhattan and elsewhere, but only a handful are still standing, including buildings at 75 Murray Street, 63 Nassau Street, and 254 Canal Street. A plaque at City Hall memorializes the McCullough Tower, and in TriBeCa a street sign officially designates James Bogardus Triangle.

The New York Times reported, in 1892, that the formerly dull red Tatham Tower had recently been repainted a yellow so vivid that "you can hardly see anything else as you look off toward the river." The color shown in the Rotograph postcard is not reliable, as it has been layered onto an image taken from a black-and-white original. Over the years the building suffered at least two serious fires, which were reported in the Times on February 8, 1895 and June 28, 1899. The image below depicts the earlier incident, which resulted in one death. Both shot towers were demolished in 1907.

The definitive volume on James Bogardus is Cast-Iron America: The Significance of James Bogardus, by Margot and Carol Gayle.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I had been wondering about those towers myself but hadn't started looking into them yet. Their explanation is even more interesting than I'd expected. Thanks for the detailed post.