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America’s Buildings: Architectural Copper on Display

America’s Buildings: Architectural Copper on Display

What built America? Trust, Perseverance, and Freedom come to mind.  But what built the architecture that represents these things?  This is why we would like to share with you this week a defining work covering the architectural history of America—Metals in America’s Historic Buildings: Uses and Preservation Treatments.

Featured in this book is the effect of metal on both the design and structure of leading architecture.  Discussing the favored metals of architects and fabricators throughout American History, this book looks into the importance of copper, nickel, iron, and others in America’s buildings.  A great read, we would like to first share with you the effectiveness and usage of copper throughout America’s history: Copper Roofing, Decorative history, and statue architecture.

Architectural Copper

Since 8000 BC, copper has been making its impact on architecture and product.  In America, copper deposits drove the westward expansion into what is now Michigan, later taking miners to the states of Montana, Colorado, and Utah.  Still a very viable metal, America is self-sufficient in the production of copper.  Both durable and malleable, copper finds use in many applications.  Architectural copper has found uses in roofing, architectural entries, statues, gates, and ornamental applications.

Copper in Roofing

Sheet copper used as roofing is lighter than wooden shingles and much lighter than slate, tile, or lead. Roofing copper can be folded readily into waterproof seams, or shaped over curved frameworks for cupolas and domes.

Some of America’s most important buildings had copper roofs, and many lasted for nearly two centuries. In 1795 the First Bank of the United States in Philadelphia was covered with a roof of English copper sheets (24 by 48 inches), with standing seams held in place by copper clips and cast nails. The section over the front pediment is still in service, although the rest of the roof was drastically altered in 1902.

The initial cost was traditionally high, but copper’s length of service more than compensated for the price. Because of copper costs, high quantities were used only on major structures, mostly public buildings. However, copper in small quantities was widely used on more modest buildings for roof flashings, gutters, downspouts, and decorative elements. Copper was also commonly used for weather vanes and finials.

Copper’s resistance to corrosion, malleability, and long-term price provided value throughout architectural history.  It could be shaped to the bends and angles around chimneys and at roof edges and dormers.

Copper Statues

Sections of sheet copper can be hammered over wooden or other forms to create statues. Once the copper sheets have taken the shape of the form, they are removed and soldered together over a wooden or metal framework. The most famous example of this type of statue is the Statue of Liberty, which consists of copper sheathing over a steel framework. The 152-foot-tall statue, erected in New York Harbor, was a centennial gift from France.

Another widely known sheet copper statue of great beauty is Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ “Diana,” which he designed as a weather vane to top the tower of the old Madison Square Garden in New York City. The 13-foot gilded statue, a huntress poised on one toe with bow and arrow ready, stood silhouetted 347 feet above the street from 1895 until 1925 when the Garden was demolished. She was constructed of 22-unce copper, die-struck in sections riveted together then braised to make the form smooth and waterproof. An armature centered on a 7-inch wrought-iron pipe that ran from the head through the toe and 9 feet into the tower supported the statue. With counterweights and a ball-bearing system that allowed her to rotate she weighed somewhat under 1,500 pounds. The statue can now be seen in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

An earlier 22-foot version weighing 2,200 pounds hat had proved to be out of scale when placed on the Garden’s tower in October 1891 was taken down and sent to the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago to grace the dome of Agricultural Hall, which like the Garden was the work of the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White. The whereabouts of that statue since the close of the fair is unknown.

The color of antique copper, which is a little more orange than new bronze, was much admired in the late 19th century. Victorian cast-iron hardware was some-times copper-plated, although brass-plated hardware was more common. Cast-iron stair railings and newel posts were sometimes copper plated. An excellent example is the copper-plated cast-iron staircase, designed by Louis Sullivan in 1894, that was saved from the demolished Chicago Stock Exchange and has been re-erected in the American Wing of New York’s Metropolitan Museum.

Special Thanks to the US National Park Service for Metals in America’s Historic Buildings.

Copper has a Vibrant History, but a Better Future

Although you just read an example of the history of copper in America’s historical architecture, copper is still a vital part of architecture in the country today.  Whether native or copper alloy, this metal makes for a durable and versatile material that will continue to be featured in American Architecture for years to come.

Mac Metals is a purveyor, extruder, and supporter of copper in architecture.  Located in Kearny, New Jersey, Mac Metals has provided custom extrusions of native copper and copper alloys to many high profile clients.  Our recently renovated gallery features top Mac Projects.  Contact us for more information, color kits, or advice.