Family forges history at Baltimore ironworks shop
G. Krug and Son fabricates ornamental pieces the old-fashioned way
Peter Krug in a room full of work samples made by his company, G. Krug and Son, the oldest continually operating blacksmith shop in America. (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore Sun / August 10, 2011)
All around me were the goings-on of a bygone era. Peter Krug, owner of the Baltimore workshop that has been in business since the early 19th century, crafts steel scrollwork by hand, the old-fashioned way: hammer and anvil shaping red-hot metal heated in a 2,500-degree forge.
You don't know hot until you've stood in front of that forge on a summer day in a building that has no air conditioning.
All of that heat is the genesis of some of the most beautiful wrought-iron gates, railings, fences and ornamental ironwork around, created for clients ranging from homeowners to museums. Known for Old World-style blacksmithing, G. Krug & Son is the oldest continually operating blacksmith shop in North America.
Still in its original location on Saratoga Street, just north of Lexington Market, the building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Along with newer additions constructed in the mid- to late-19th century, it includes the small original structure built around 1810 when Augustus Schwatke established a blacksmith shop on the site.
The Krug story begins a few decades later, when Gustav Krug traveled to America from Germany in 1848 and became a journeyman apprentice to Andrew Merker who had taken the over from Schwatke. Gustav soon became Merker's partner and then sole proprietor when Merker retired.
"In 1875," says Gustav's great-great-grandson Peter Krug, "the business became G. Krug & Son. I am the fifth-generation Krug."
Well, one of that generation. His elder brother, Stephen Krug, worked alongside him in the business for almost 30 years until he retired about four years ago. Like the family name, much of the business has remained unchanged for over 150 years, and everything is still crafted by hand, using mostly centuries-old techniques.
Inside the shop, which Peter Krug occasionally opens up to group tours, you'll find equipment nearly as old as the building itself alongside newer, more efficient machinery designed to cut the labor time without altering the handcrafted look and feel of real wrought iron.
The machines speed up the process, but most of the decorative work and craftsmanship is still done by hand or with the assistance of antique equipment that has been updated for modern use.
"It is like working in a museum; we use lots of the old equipment," says Krug. "We still use an old drill press, a large bench grinder and a power hammer that were originally steam-powered, and [we] had them retrofitted for electricity."
Although steel has replaced wrought iron as the preferred material, there's little visual distinction between the two and much of the work Krug and his team produce is identical to that produced by his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather.
"We always have preserved our heritage," says Krug. "We have files of drawings that date back to the 1800s and refer back to those when doing work in historic neighborhoods. We are always aware of the Krug style, and when we design new pieces [we] do so keeping that style in mind."
Of course, times change, and there isn't the same demand for decorative ironwork now as there was at the height of G. Krug & Son's prominence in the late 19th century. At one time, the business employed over 100 people, and it was hard to find a building in Baltimore that didn't include something produced at the shop.
However, the decorative value of ornamental ironwork remains strong, and the shop now typically employs anywhere from eight to 12 full-time employees. Of those, a little more than half are active in fabrication.
Like most architectural components, wrought iron can be purely function — unornamented security doors, for example — but it has also been elevated to an art form. And it's no surprise that someone who has dedicated his life to perfecting the craft would be drawn to the artistry.
"I love working on ornamental gates and railings," says Krug, "and we have done some really beautiful curved interior stair railings."
With a client list that includes homeowners, interior designers, architects, contractors, churches and museums, the range of products being fabricated in shop is wide and varied. The day I visited, Krug was hammering out scrollwork at the forge and, in the workshop upstairs, employees were fabricating a flagpole holder for the Walters Art Museum and an intake manifold for an automobile.
"Probably my favorite project is the first really ornate work I ever did," says Krug. "A few years after I started working full time, I made the crestings [arched ornamental sections across the top] for two ornamental pedestrian gates at Johns Hopkins University — one for the entry to the lacrosse fields included a crossed lacrosse sticks motif and the other incorporated the Maryland seal."