Historic Structures

Watervliet Arsenal Cast-iron Storehouse, Watervliet New York

Date added: February 2, 2010 Categories: New York Military Facility

May well be the only remaining all-iron building still used for its original purpose. It is also an early example of prefabricated construction, all its parts having been constructed by Architectural Iron Works in New York and shipped up the Hudson to be erected on the site.

In 1813 the United States and Britain were engaged in military skirmishes that later historians document as the War of 1812. One of the problem spots to the Americans was the area around present-day Troy, New York. Expecting an attack from the north at Lake Champlain, or from the west at Niagara Falls, the U.S. Army Ordnance Department (that department of the Army which purchases, manufactures and repairs weapons and ammunition) decided to locate an arsenal in that vicinity. To that purpose the U.S. Government purchased twelve acres of land from James Gibbon and his wife for the sum of $2,585. On the west bank of the Hudson River, the Village of Gibbonsville was directly across the river from Troy. In later years the name of the arsenal (and the surrounding town) was changed to Watervliet (flooding waters) and the installation grew and achieved national attention under that name.

Perhaps its most significant years of growth began under the leadership of Major Alfred Mordecai, commanding officer from July 1857 to May 1861. A civil engineer and member of the Ordnance Board, Mordecai had been sent by Army Ordnance to an ailing installation, and his substantial training and experience proved a great aid in the rehabilitation of the Arsenal. Watervliet, since its beginning, had been subject to floods from the Hudson and the buildings constructed before the Erie Canal were often lower than the level of the Canal, thus increasing flood damage. In addition to the effects of these natural disasters, the Arsenal's commanding officer before Mordecai, Major John Symington, had been ill since 1854 and was unable to devote sufficient attention to the duties of a commanding officer. Thus, Watervliet in 1857 was a disorganized and disoriented installation, badly in need of strong command.

Within two weeks of his arrival, Mordecai was making recommendations for building plans to the Chief of Ordnance. In a letter to Colonel H. K. Craig 10 July 1857 he discussed the need for more "suitable offices. " The existing ones were too small and too near the Canal; the spring flood, an annual event, had left its watermark at four and one-half feet that year. He also noted, in the same letter, the need for a storehouse.

The need for a storehouse was the more pressing to the Arsenal, which had Just begun to manufacture Iron Sea Coast Carriages, and Mordecai immediately began to work on plans for its construction. He wanted "to cover a large space with a shed under one roof and one story high (something like a railway depot)..., a shed about 125 feet wide and 250 feet long." Specifying that, the warehouse should have room for 300-350 gun carriages, Mordecai also argued that "the floor should be paved with stone and sufficiently raised to secure it from floods and the drainage of the Canal...."

Following the common practice of engineers to consult with various builders and contractors, Mordecai apparently discussed his building plans with James Reed, president of Architectural Iron Works (AIW) in New York, in a chance meeting at West Point. Late in October 1857 Mordecai made further overtures to AIW when he sent a sketch of a building to Daniel D. Badger, the foundry's superintendent. With his remarks to Badger, Mordecai enclosed a sketch of the building he needed and invited AIW to submit a design and estimate. He also noted that he wanted a fireproof building and was interested in comparing the costs of iron and brick structures. The initial estimate seemed prohibitive but by 17 December 1857, Mordecai was able to supply Colonel Craig with a drawing from AIW and his own recommendation regarding the storehouse.

The design referred to was submitted by AIW and since the $60,000 estimate attached was higher than Army appropriations promised to be, Mordecai invited other bids the following spring and summer. He suggested that if funds proved insufficient for an adequate storehouse, the Army could construct a simple shed and he invited A. H. Vancleve, of Trenton [New Jersey] Locomotive & Machine Manufacturing Company, to submit a bid for that reduced structure.

Interestingly, Mordecai added to his demand for a fireproof building, the request that "it also be ornamental. To answer these conditions," he wrote, "I have procured plans and estimates of iron buildings."

In an effort to "answer these conditions," Mordecai procured many plans and estimates. Though most came from iron foundries, the Major also considered a brick building since it would be cheaper; and he received a plan from Harris & Eriggs, of Springfield, Massachusetts, that furnished more store room at a lower cost than the iron proposals. For his final plans, however, Mordecai returned to AIW and on 5 January 1859, he announced to Craig: "I enclosed herewith a contract with the Architectural Iron Works Company of New York, for building an iron store house at this arsenal."

In the person of James Reed, AIW agreed to build the storehouse on a site to be selected by the commanding officer. The foundation was to be prepared by the Army and the foundry promised to have the building finished "on or before the thirty-first day of August, 1859." It was also subject to inspection by the commanding officer. Because of the expense incurred for materials and casting, before construction could begin, the United States was to pay almost one half of the fee before AIW's builders ever arrived at the site.

Army Ordnance agreed to pay AIW a total sum of $47,360, in several installments. The first $10,000 was due when half of the building parts were completed at the foundry in New York. Upon full completion of iron work at the foundry another $10,000 was due; and the third on its delivery to the Watervliet Arsenal. The remainder was promised upon full erection and satisfactory inspection of the storehouse. "The stipulations with regard to the mode of payment," Mordecai admitted, were "unusual."

Mordecai considered the contractual agreements equitable under the circumstances; but to spare the. Army any embarrassment he demanded a $20,000 bond from Reed before they were binding.

By 17 March 1859, half of the work at the foundry was completed; and on 3 May Mordecai wrote to notify Reed that the foundation would be ready and dry well before June 1. As the building progressed, Mordecai invited other Ordnance officers to inspect the work and on 16 June 1859, the Inspector of Armories and Arsenals, Lt. Colonel James W. Ripley, recorded his approval of it.

Ripley's comments on the storehouse reveal a satisfaction that was not initially felt by either himself or Mordecai. In the planning and construction of the building, the two men encountered several problems and even clashed over their proposed solutions. When Mordecai first wrote to Craig 10 July 1857 concerning the need for "a shed about 125 feet wide and 250 feet long, he also specified the exact site on which he wanted to place the structure. Close to the Canal, so as to facilitate shipping, and convenient to the machine shops, where the iron carriages were built, the location was on the southeast comer of the arsenal and already occupied by the Arsenal Laboratory. While he admitted that the removal of the laboratory might raise "objections," Mordecai nevertheless recommended it because the building was "unfortunately placed." Its floor was a good deal below the level of the Canal, resulting in flooding and water damage. Mordecai had no hesitation in replacing a brick building with cracked walls and decayed floors with the storehouse, especially since he proposed to raise the foundation level and thereby avoid flooding. He requested, however, "the benefit of consultation.. .with some other officer of experience," and Ripley arrived shortly thereafter to survey the situation.

Ripley agreed with Mordecai that the arsenal was badly in need of a warehouse, but he had different views in the matters of size and location. He preferred "a much larger building... say 500 feet long by 200 feet wide" in an area west of the Canal, then occupied by a group of timber sheds; and he specified a fireproof structure. Ripley rejected Mordecai's site because it was on low and damp ground. His own choice, however, posed more of a problem since the carriages to be stored would have to be transported across the Canal (the machine shops being south of the Laboratory) and then up to the level of the timber sheds (to be replaced by the storehouse).

The debate over size ultimately was settled by Colonel Craig who preferred the small structure.

In addition to the choice of size, Craig also sided with Mordecai in regard to location, voicing the opinion that "the movement of heavy carriages to and from high ground would be attended with inconvenience and expense."

With the decision to build a relatively small storehouse on the east bank of the Canal, in close proximity to the machine shops, Mordecai once more faced a problem. He now admitted himself reluctant to tear down the laboratory, and instead suggested a site north of the paint shops. Ripley again disapproved "on account of its low and damp situation" and Mordecai admitted that Ripley's objections carried "a good deal of force." The final solution came from an earlier decision of Ripley which was entirely incidental to the plans of the storehouse.

"On the ground adjoining the front of the Arsenal on the south side and facing on the Canal there [was] a lumber yard, on too close proximity to [the] workshops." Ripley proposed to buy the property in the interests of future expansion and permanent improvement. The land was purchased on 7 April 1859, from Albert G. and Harriet D. Sage at a cost of $5,300 and it was here that Mordecai finally decided to locate the storehouse. Little more than 20 feet away from the machine shops, the ground was easily raised to the level of the Canal bank, "above the reach of inundation from the river. "

Although the question of size and location caused disagreement between the Ordnance inspector and the commanding officer, both men agreed on the need for a fireproof building and both voiced the hope that it would also be ornamental. The choice of a cast iron structure satisfied both these stipulations. Cast iron is made "by directly remelting the pig iron that comes from the blast furnace and thus is high in carbon and impurities. Comparatively inexpensive, it is easy to pour into any mold that can be made from founder's sand. It is also "fairly hard and resistant to abrasion and relatively high in compressive strength." Because it is stronger and proportionally lighter than masonry, cast iron is easier to work with than brick. It is also cheaper to erect because the fact that the elements can be factory-produced reduces the need for skilled craftsmen on the job. While it will not withstand much tensile stress, (the presence of carbon graphite flakes makes it brittle), it can be reinforced by wrought iron which has a much greater tensile strength. Moreover, although it will warp and buckle at high temperatures, it will continue to support its load thus making it a perfect choice of material for a warehouse whose contents are more valuable than its own walls.

At any rate, the choice proved satisfactory in the case of the Watervliet Arsenal storehouse. By 22 July 1859, a little more than two months after on-the-site construction had begun, Major Mordecai instructed the E. & D. Bigelow Company to "commence forwarding [flagging] stone for the iron building," suggesting that the iron workers' job was completed by that date. Finally, on 10 November 1859 Mordecai announced "the flagging was finished yesterday."

The completed storehouse answered all the specifications outlined by Mordecai, and seconded by Colonel Ripley. A long, one-story structure, it was slightly to the south of the workshops where the Iron Sea Coast Carriages were painted. On the east bank of the Canal, it was also downhill from the shops so as to facilitate the transporting of the heavy carriages. Relatively safe from fires, the structure was also secure from flood waters as Mordecai had raised the level of the floor above that of the Canal.

Architectural Iron Works was able to meet its contractual obligations in a matter of six months. Working at the foundry during the inclement winter months, the designers and the molders produced the parts of the structure for later assembly at the Arsenal site. The use of brick would have delayed the process by almost as many months, since all work for a brick structure would have had to be executed on the site. In addition to meeting the Major's demands for a fireproof and decorative structure, therefore, the design in cast iron proved more efficient, in terms of time saved.

Mordecai was generally satisfied with the building, as indicated by a letter answering an inquiry from James Reed regarding the warehouse. He wrote: "I have to say that the building which you put up last summer at this Arsenal has, so far, stood very well." The Major registered, in the same letter, a mild complaint that the ventilators had allowed some rain and snow leakage, but for 54 years, the building withstood heavy regional rains. In March 1913, the Hudson River, "exceeding all previous flood records," left a water mark of ten inches on the first floor level of the structure. No major damage was incurred and the building still functions as it was intended. Due to the Arsenal's expansion, however, the cast iron storehouse is no longer convenient to the manufacturing facilities, and it is now used for dead storage. In addition, some 6,000 square feet of the building have been converted to use as an ordnance museum.