Showing Her Mettle

Cast-iron architecture found a friend in Margot Gayle

Order a copy of Dwight Young's book of Back Page essays

Looking for an interesting little research project? If so, I have a suggestion: Check out the sales figures for magnets over the past 40 years. If they indicate, as I suspect they will, that more pocket-size magnets sold in the years just before and after 1970, you can bet that a woman named Margot Gayle was responsible.

When she first arrived in New York City, Gayle's primary interest was politics. After an unsuccessful run for city council, she turned to preservation—and turned her Greenwich Village apartment into a busy meeting place for people who shared her dismay over the speed with which New York's 19th-century buildings were being flattened. In 1960, she helped persuade the city to repair the tower clock in the Jefferson Market Courthouse; a few years later she spearheaded the campaign that saved the courthouse and turned it into a library; and in 1966, her kitchen table became the birthplace of the Victorian Society in America.

Then she discovered what she later described as "my all-consuming passion": cast-iron buildings. During the middle of the 19th century, cast iron was hailed as an ideal building material because it was strong and fireproof, and because it could be used to produce an enormous range of architectural components. Cast in molds, these prefabricated parts—columns, door and window frames, keystones, balustrades, ornamental masks, and on and on—could be shipped anywhere, then bolted together to create elaborate facades for structures of all kinds, from warehouses and department stores to family mausoleums. More than a century later, these iron fronts are still impressive.

They're what caught Margot Gayle's eye—and inspired her passion—as she walked around Lower Manhattan's SoHo (South of Houston Street) neighborhood. Realizing that the area's cast-iron buildings were unique but underappreciated, she founded the Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture and started a campaign to make SoHo a historic district. Years later, the chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission said of Gayle, "Heaven help the person she gets her teeth into."

The buildings of SoHo filled the pages of Gayle's 1974 book, Cast-Iron Architecture in New York. It was one of the first architectural history books I ever bought, and it was a revelation. With authoritative text and razor-sharp photos by Edmund Gillon Jr., the book introduced non-New Yorkers like me to the wonders of SoHo and, equally important, opened our eyes to cast-iron facades in places as far-flung as Louisville, Richmond, and Portland, Ore.

That's where the magnets come in. When you joined the Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture, they gave you a little magnet so you could "test for iron" whenever you felt like it. As a newly hatched architectural historian, I felt like it pretty often. Marching up to a likely facade (and hoping that someone was watching), I'd hold my trusty magnet up to a column—and I tell you, the clunk of that little magnet glomming onto the iron was one of the most satisfying sounds ever.

A distant memory of that sound echoed in my head when I read that Margot Gayle recently celebrated her 100th birthday. Her friends in New York threw a party for her, complete with a cupcake pyramid topped with a replica of a historic building. I'm sure there were speeches, and I'm sure that more than one person called her "the Cast-Iron Lady." I hope she likes the title, because nobody else can claim it. Besides, it's absolutely right: It makes her sound like a superhero.  

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.