Icon: The South End Rail Way
When designing the South End’s signature brick bowfront homes, 19th-century developers added an old-school version of house bling: intricate cast-iron railings, balustrades, and fences. In a city teeming with foundries, the material was an obvious—and cheap—choice. From Roxbury to East Boston, the same coal- and coke-fired ovens that created the industrial revolution’s workhorse loom frames and giant gears also produced decorative metalwork.
With just a few molds, a caster could churn out a block’s worth of
railing metal, which was then shipped to the site and installed using steel
pins and pegs. “The more iron you had in front, the wealthier you were,” says Jeff Schiff of Schiff Architectural Detail, who spends his days recreating and restoring ironwork at his Chelsea foundry.
The French-inspired Rinceau, or “running rose” pattern, is the South End’s predominant rail style. It’s woven with cast-iron leaves, flowers, foliage, and vines into a detailed, rounded railing, which can weigh up to 1,600 pounds per set. Schiff explains that rails of this style, introduced to the area in the 1860s, were intentionally installed low to the ground to make townhouses seem even grander. Amusingly, he adds, “They’re useless as railings.”