Cradle of liberty, cradle of craft

Samuel Yellin
From about 1915 until his death Samuel Yellin was the nation's foremost creator of architectural wrought iron. Most sources have recorded his birthplace as Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now divided between Poland and Ukraine), and his birth date as 1885. However, Joseph Cunningham has recently discovered that naturalization papers filed in 1917 and 1924 state that he was born in Mogilev, Russia (now Belarus), in 1884 and immigrated to Philadelphia in 1900 at the age of sixteen.1

Restored wrought-iron gates by Samuel Yellin as recently installed on the third floor of the Old Yale Art Gallery building in the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut. Photograph by Christopher Gardner.

Yellin came to Philadelphia as a master blacksmith, having begun his training in a manual arts school at the age of seven. In 1906 he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art to study the history of ornament. Recognizing his skills, the Museum School hired him to teach blacksmithing from 1907 to 1919; one of his students was Parke Edwards (1892-1975), who would go on to execute metalwork at Glencairn and Bryn Athyn Cathedral. In 1909 Yellin opened his first workshop in Philadelphia, and a commission for exterior gates from financier J. P. Morgan in 1911 is credited with launching his career. By 1920 his workforce had expanded to about two hundred, and during the ensuing decade's building boom, he filled over twelve hundred commissions for clients ranging from Yale and Princeton Universities to cathedrals in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., to residences for Henry Clay Frick, George Eastman, and Edsel Ford. The two hundred tons of decorative ironwork he created for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in 1924 was the largest single commission for wrought iron by any American craftsman.

As early as 1912 The Craftsman reported that Yellin's ironwork "rivals the industrial achievements of the Middle Ages."2 He worked exclusively in forged iron, creating weathervanes, interior and exterior gates, window grilles, door hinges, staircase railings, lighting fixtures, and fireplace equipment, all inspired by past models. He is best known for work in the medieval style, although he worked with equal facility in the Renaissance and baroque styles. He maintained a collection of historical ironwork for his workmen to study; fifty-one of the finest examples were sold in 1931 to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Despite this reverence for tradition, Yellin also worked in modern materials such as aluminum and Monel metal (a patented alloy of nickel and copper), and he used electronically powered blowers for better control of temperatures in the forging process.

An archetypical craftsman of the arts and crafts movement, Yellin organized his shop on the Old World model, with himself as the master craftsman supervising the work of many skilled individuals. He believed that each artist's hand should always be visible in his work, whether in the chiseled decoration on bolts or whimsical elements incorporated into the design. Above all, Yellin believed in expressing directly the character of his medium: "There is only one way to make good decorative metalwork and that is with the hammer at the anvil."3 DLB

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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