Written By: Marimar McNaughton
Sunlight streams into The Switchyard, an active railroad interchange on one of Wilmington, North Carolina’s backstreets. This place where two rail lines converge has become the hub for a community of architects, builders, artisans and writers. One among them, Ben Kastner, is the modern face of yesterday’s blacksmith. Kastner and his four-man crew work from a cinder block shop where they restore old wrought ironwork and fabricate new pieces for contemporary architecture and commercial installations.
Long before the others arrive and take their places, smoke curls from the chimney. It’s the first sign that Kastner is on site, lighting the forge with a small ball of paper. As the morning hours unfurl, the temperature climbs inside the old-timey furnace, eventually reaching 1,800 to 2,000 degrees, at which point most of the work is done, climbing even higher to 2,400 to 2,500 degrees for welding – “maybe a little bit more,” Kastner says as he welds the snub end scrolls of filigreed gates.
The restored gates now hang at the entrance to the Elizabethan Gardens in Manteo, one of six official sites belonging to The Garden Club of North Carolina. Closer to home, Kastner also restored the hallowed Airlie Gates that dignify the entrance to Airlie Gardens. Both sets of gates, with dates of origins into the 1700s, were transformed by Kastner and his team.
“I really enjoy making things the way they were originally made before,” he says. “Granted, there are some restrictions that keep you from doing it fully traditionally or exactly the way it was, but I do my best to do it exactly the same as it was — I may get a little carried away with it.”
This passion for preservation was stirred by a Penland School of Craft instructor and mentor, Peter Ross, also a modern blacksmith who hand forges museum quality historic hardware and tools from his Siler City shop.
Ross, Kastner says, “deciphers artifacts and figures out how they were made. In the end, there’s not too many ways to get to the final results.”
“Leaving Penland,” Kastner explains, “I went straight to his house and stayed a couple of days. I’ve been back multiple times.”
The first step in the restoration process is to dismantle the pieces and remove the paint to understand how they were made. The quintessential 18th Century village blacksmiths, Kastner says “were much higher skilled, had much more time working at the forge, probably (had) been doing it since they were little kids; they were going to make it the most efficient way possible … to get the higher quality results.”
Kastner’s commitment to honor the integrity of the old tradesmen has landed him other significant commissions beyond the garden gates, notably for Waynesville’s Public Art Commission and Greensboro’s Greenway Project.
“Kastner is a rare young smith to be tackling these kinds of projects and doing it in a conscientious way, with the values of a professional restorer rather than the values of a young artist,” said Ross.
But artistic was the license he was given to reinterpret architect Bruce Bowman’s design for a grand staircase inside the Dudley Mansion at 400 South Front Street. Wilmington’s landmark Federal Style white house has been renovated twice within a 10-year time frame. With cosmetic improvements completed in 2006 and extensive infrastructure improvements completed in 2015 by Bowman, of Bowman Murray Hemingway Architects, and Dave Thomas, of Thomas Construction.
Choosing a 1940 period of significance, Bowman added the grand staircase, at the rear of the solarium to mitigate the structure’s vertical circulation, he said during a May 2015 National Preservation Month talk hosted by Historic Wilmington Foundation.
Dave Thomas was among the attendees that evening.
“Bruce Bowman was asked to connect the basement with the main living area in the Governor Dudley Mansion and to provide a graceful access to the rear gardens. What he came up with was a remarkable transformation both architecturally and structurally,” Thomas says.
When it was time to address the details of handrail design and installation, Thomas says he could think of no better artisan to bring on board than Ben Kastner.
“Ben has always impressed me with his ability in both design and fabrication … Ben and his team at Intracoastal Iron … raise the bar tremendously in eastern North Carolina.”
One of Kastner’s perennial clients is interior designer Sherry Black, who uses ironwork in her high-end homes, but only when she feels it’s appropriate to the architecture. Case in point, when she redesigned the interior of famed North Carolina artist and furniture designer Bob Timberlake’s home on Figure Eight Island, she recruited Kastner to fabricate her vision for the interior staircase.
“Ben really has a passion for what he does,” Black says. “He’s a perfectionist.”
“We cater to what people want … architectural metalwork – contemporary clean fabricated welded stairs and railings,” Kastner says.
A frequent contributor to Kersting Architecture projects, Kastner has forged an unbending reputation for quality.
Principal architect and the firm’s founder Michael Ross Kersting recalls his first meeting with the young smith.
“We were designing a house renovation for a client of ours. We needed a short run of stair railing,” Kersting says.
The client, Anne Sorhagen, is a friend of Kastner’s mother.
“She requested Ben craft the rail, and he did an excellent job. From that point on, I was hooked on incorporating custom metal features in our projects,” Kersting says.
From simple stair pipe railings, signage, and incredibly complex forged architectural hardware, metal parts and components, Kersting, his project architect Toby Keeton, and Kastner have collaborated on many projects.
“One is a custom forged metal staircase that Ben fabricated and installed in a house that we designed called ‘Iron and Wine.’ For that project, the design called for an open riser stair that would become a showpiece in the house,” Kersting says. “The open riser concept was designed to allow daylight to flow into the center of the house. To support the stairs, our idea was to use small custom forged and hammered steel bars to support each wood step. The entire array of these steps would be supported by a grid of the same type of bars hanging from the floor structure of the floor that the stairs accessed. The intricate connections of all the bars would be held together with forged, pounded rivets. The overall effect of the finished staircase reveals a juxtaposition of heavy forged iron against the lightness of the wood stair treads. It’s quite remarkable and I consider it a true work of art that only a skilled craftsman could accomplish.”
Though Kastner began his collaboration with Kersting before Keeton joined the firm, their careers have overlapped in many ways.
“The most wonderful thing about Ben is he never says, ‘that can’t be done.’ There are always implications when it comes to time and cost, but he is always on board to figure it out. As a designer, that’s a very freeing thing, to be able to imagine something without worrying about the limits of the craftsmanship it would take to realize. More than that, like a good blues musician, he can take the beat that you are putting down and layer over it, or strip it down to get at the idea of the thing. When you have that combination of technical ability and soul in craftsman, it means you work with them as much as you can.”
Keeton has designed project details calling for sleekness or minimalism and others in which handcrafting was evident. Together they have also teamed up on a few public art projects, like the Waynesville Pocket Park and a recent installation for the Lower Cape Fear Hospice Memorial.
“Ben is always pushing the limits of quality,” Keeton says. “Once we had an interview for an art project in Kinston. On the way back, he said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a lead on some really high quality, low sulfur coal that some guy has in his cellar somewhere around here; mind if we swing by and check it out?’ We drove way out into the backwoods until we arrived at what I can only describe as a junkyard kingdom. After haggling with a character straight out of central casting … he came back with a sack of coal the size of a bag of groceries. ‘That’s it?!’ I asked. He said, ‘Yeah, it’s the good stuff.’”
Keeton and Kastner returned to The Switchyard, where the architect climbed the stair of the old warehouse and disappeared into the second-floor loft and the blacksmith toted his sack of coal into the block studio, where it will stoke the forge some other morning.