A Look at Architecture

Madison’s cast iron features
to be subject of Cornerstone speaker

Preservationist Thomason
helped prepare the city's historic guidelines

By Nichole Osinski
Contributing Writer

(February 2012) – Madison, Ind., is known for its ornate architecture and historical significance. Each year certain measures are taken to help maintain its old world charm in a modern world.

Phil Thomason


One man who has helped preserve Madison’s historic exterior is Phil Thomason. Thomason, principal of the preservation planning firm Thomason and Associates, has previously prepared Madison’s historic guidelines. While here, he took notice of the unique 19th century cast iron architecture in the downtown buildings.
When the Cornerstone Society was preparing to hold its annual meeting, Thomason, 58, was mentioned as a speaker. It was decided that he would come back to speak not only about the cast iron but its history and importance in the town. Cornerstone Society is a historic preservation group based in Madison.
The presentation for the annual meeting will be at 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 4, at the Madison-Jefferson County Public Library, 420 W. Main St. Thomason has previously spoken in Madison while preparing the historic guidelines. However, this will be his first time speaking specifically about the cast iron architecture.
Thomason’s interest and knowledge of preservation was influenced by the historic neighborhoods he grew up in. He eventually earned an master’s degree in Historic Preservation from the University of Middle Tennessee.
Thomason shifted into consulting work and was a preservation planner for Building Conser-vation Technology Inc. In 1982 he became the founder of his current business, Thomason and Associates in Nashville, Tenn.
Thomason’s specialization goes beyond just building facades though. His company has also covered cultural resource surveys, environmental assessments and even military architecture.
A few years ago when he was asked to come to Madison to do the town’s designer review guidelines, something caught his attention: the cast iron.
“Madison has a really great collection of cast iron store fronts,” he said. “It’s found really in just about any downtown area but the quality and quantity of Madison’s is particularly high.”
The mentioned guidelines were geared for the board of architectural review to use them in the future. While preparing these guidelines, Thomason and his team worked to keep the character of the buildings. Therefore, any major future changes would use the design guidelines for reference.
Former Cornerstone Society president Rich Murray was involved with the project and remembers Thomason’s offhanded comment about wanting to come back and study the cast iron.
So when the project was finished in 2009, Murray remembered Thomason and his eye for cast iron.
“Madison is unique. And unfortunately many people here in town don’t recognize just how unique it is,” said Murray. “I feel we need people like Phil to come here and tell us.”
Thomason plans to speak about why cast iron was so popular during the 1800s and how it enabled business people to do additional marketing. He also intends to discuss how in the early 20th century the cast iron began to fade out with a rise in steel and commercial buildings.
Thomason explains that many communities have these cast iron store fronts that coincide with the buildings dating primarily between the 1840s and 1880s. When the cast iron was manufactured during the 1800s, it provided a very good compression strength and could convey the weight of the building while also opening up the front to allow more freedom for designs such as decorations and larger windows.
Thomason wants his audience to know the significance this has held in architectural history. Not only did it create a new way of supporting buildings, but it gave way to different molds, such as stars or floral designs to make the outside more appealing. These designs can be seen everywhere from Main Street in Madison to Soho in New York.
For Thomason, the main issue is being able to preserve and maintain the cast iron. Many buildings have enclosed the original designs with later materials, and Thomason encourages revealing these primary pieces of construction. However, he credits downtown Madison for a number of buildings that have a round columns made of cast iron and overall original design work.
But why should anyone care about cast iron other than being used for cookware? For Murray, it is saving something that has survived in some areas but lost in others. Even downtown, many people may not realize they are looking at cast iron storefronts. Sometimes, it can look like wood, while other times it’s due to simply not realizing what is there. This is why Thomason is coming to speak about this topic and how it makes Madison unique.
Jan Vetrhus, Cornerstone Society president, said that Thomason’s dedication for historical preservation is just another reason to have him come and speak.
“We’ve walked up and down Main Street, and we’ve taken it for granted,” she said. It’s always nice to have people who are really experts in their field and remind us how special the Madison district really is.”
And it’s the steps such as this that make the effort to help locals recognize what is in the community. Problems of losing bits and pieces of history are sometimes inevitable, but it’s preserving what is here that keeps that history rich and the cast iron shiny.

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