The History of the Pencoyd Iron Works Office
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Penn Real Estate Group
620 Righters Ferry Road
Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004

Phone: (610) 668-0300
Fax: (610) 668-0365

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The History of the Pencoyd Iron Works Office

620 Righters Ferry Road, Bala Cynwyd
Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania
 

By 1880, Pencoyd Iron Works had developed an international reputation for its high-quality steel and iron bridgeworks and had supplied bridges and bridge parts for hundreds of projects throughout the world. Significant additions to the Pencoyd plant are reported during the early 1880’s, including a new headquarters set in and amongst its industrial bridgeworks facility. As a testament to the building’s and Lower Merion’s industrial roots, an early Pencoyd-built bridge spans the Schuylkill River to the Manayunk Section of Philadelphia just steps from the Pencoyd Iron Works Office.

Most industrial buildings of this time were constructed by builders practiced in the construction of such structures without the aid of an architect. The Pencoyd building, however, features a number of architectural elements associated with Frank Furness. It is also during this time that Furness received numerous commissions for Roberts’ family homes in Lower Merion Township. While we can not say with absolute certainty that Furness was the architect, there is more than a passing likelihood that the Pencoyd building is a minor work of his firm.

Pencoyd Iron Work historic renderingThe Pencoyd building continued in service for a series of companies – including US Steel - and underwent a series of inappropriate renovations over the next 80 or so years - each designed to “modernize” the building. The final blow came in 1990 when a severe fire substantially gutted the building. The building was boarded up and abandoned. While abandoned, the building began to deteriorate rapidly. The windows rotted out; a substantial portion of the roof collapsed; masonry walls began to separate and all of the interior materials that were susceptible to water were destroyed.

When Penn Real Estate Group acquired the property, in 2000, it found the building just as it had been left following the fire ten years before – boarded up and overflowing with burnt rubble. Fortunately, from a preservationist’s point of view, there were a number of elements of the building that withstood the ravages of poor stewardship; fire, water and abandonment. The original building was magnificent and featured all masonry and steel construction. Structural and functional elements doubled as design elements and finishes included glazed brick, vaulted ceilings, fireplace mantels, masonry arches, eight-foot high-arched windows, copper-capped piers at each exterior corner and remarkable brick and stone detail.

Pencoyd Iron Works historical photo

Unfortunately, however, the extraordinary brick and stone detail of the exterior had been covered in stucco during one of the buildings numerous “modernizations” and major portions of the interior masonry had been destroyed for purposes such as the installation of an enormous oil-fired hot air furnace. The windows had been “downsized” to conserve energy and the interior was a victim of various interior renovations that included drop-ceilings, paneling, wall-to-wall linoleum and carpet. Had these materials not been so flammable, then the damage to the original structure might not have been so severe. The heat from the fire was so great that bricks shattered and the steel trusses in the building’s annex were twisted and distorted.

After a careful removal of the charred materials, Penn engaged several masonry restoration contractors to painstakingly remove the stucco from the exterior brickwork. After removal of the stucco, the immense job of repairing and re-pointing the original exterior brick face was completed. To advance the restoration of the interior masonry, a process known as baking soda blasting, the same process that was used in the restoration of Ellis Island, was utilized to remove the carbonized deposits from the surface of the original bricks. In total, seventy tons of baking soda were used in the restoration of the interior brick surfaces of the Pencoyd building. The damaged steel trusses were repaired and a new roof was installed, including the restoration of the building’s original tower.

Pencoyd Iron Works OfficeWith the assistance of the Lower Merion Historical Society, Penn learned the original window fenestrations were an unusual 3 over 2 design. Custom windows – the full eight-foot height with arched tops and original 3 over 2 design – were built and installed to complete the exterior of the building.

Penn continued with infrastructure improvements; bringing water, gas, electrical and phone service to the building – some for the first time. Penn learned that the original floor of a critical stone arch culvert (that carries storm water from the water shed up-gradient along Righter’s Ferry Road) had washed out. This culvert is essentially underground (at the elevation of the Schuylkill) and carries a constant stream of water from other portions of Lower Merion. Penn proceeded to replace approximately 300 feet of the culvert floor. This replacement stabilized the stone archway and served to prevent the extension of Righters Ferry Road from collapsing. The buildings driveways were paved and brick drainage inlet boxes were re-pointed and repaired improving drainage around the building.

A custom-designed interior has been put in place to showcase and highlight the finest aspects of this venerable piece of Lower Merion’s industrial history. Mahogany entrance doors have been built to the original design while radiant floor heating has been added to avoid covering up any of the original features. The steel trusses, glazed brick, barrel vaulted ceilings, and original fireplaces are prominently featured (instead of being hidden) in a way that would make the Roberts family feel at home.

Historic images courtesy of Lower Merion Township Historical Society

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