It’s fitting that much of the ironwork in the National Cathedral was supplied by a Philadelphia blacksmith shop: Samuel Yellin’s. To this day, downtown Philadelphia is a showcase of wrought iron, especially visible on the gates to residential gardens. And gates figure prominently in the tour of Washington’s National Cathedral provided by “Beauty in the Shadows,” a large, beautifully illustrated book by Nol Putnam. Color photographs, mostly by Christopher Budny and James Pittman, highlight the extraordinary detail on Coonley Gate, Moe Gate, Blakeslee Gate and Monk’s Gate, to name just a few. Many of these gates have their own locks and lockboxes, the creation of which was a rite of passage. As the text notes, “Since medieval times and the establishment of blacksmith guilds, the graduation of a journeyman [blacksmith] to a master consisted of the design and creation of a lock and lockbox.” The book’s preface reminds us of the elaborate process leading up to the point where a journeyman is deemed ready to tackle a lock/lockbox combination: “Today the French apprentice program lasts six years, the German four.”
Most of the ironwork in the cathedral, which is also called the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, was done the old-fashioned way, with an anvil, but an exception is the Godart Gate, which features clusters of grapes and multiple leaves on vines. Traditionalists have sniffed at the use of what the text calls “the dreaded welding torch” to create Godart, but in this case, it’s hard not to concede that the flamboyant result has justified the means.
My favorite caption in the book comes in a section called “The Ironwork: Details.” “Iron, when hot, is a plastic material,” the caption says — above the photograph of a section of Moe Gate in which a convoluted iron bar looks like a poured strand of metallic taffy.
Drabelle is a contributing editor at Book World.
By Nol Putnam et al.
Blue Moon. 192 pp. $56