Antique Cast Iron, LLC specializes in historic vault lighting preservation and repair. Vault lights, otherwise known as pavement lights or sidewalks lights, are essentially glass inserts placed into cast iron or concrete that were intended to allow light from the street to enter the area below the sidewalk, usually on business streets, that operated as storage or rental areas for the shop owners above. Due to the invention of cheap electric power, these lights fell out of favor during the early 19th century. Following the discontinuance of this architectural feature, many existing vault lights have suffered damage and decay with the passage of time.
Historic Vault Lighting
The concept of vault lights was born in the mid 1800’s from the use of deck lights, where large prisms of glass were inserted into a ship deck to allow lighting to the berthings below. With the primary source of lighting depending on the use of gas, many businesses were reluctant to install gas lights in the small, enclosed and subterranean spaces beneath their shops for concern of fire risk. Vault lighting allowed the distribution of sunlight to these spaces, creating an inexpensive and attractive means of providing light to the areas with no secondary fire risk that would be present with the use of gas. Thaddeus Hyatt patented his invention for in-sidewalk vault lights in 1845. While the original installations of vault lights were relatively simple affairs, before they fell out of favor in the 1930’s vault lights could exhibit an array of patterns with glass in circular prisms and iron supports, or streamlined square panels in windowpane-like supports. Vault lights may contain relatively small, circular frames with five to seven circular prisms, or they can be large panels consisting of a multitude of once clear glass prisms that span several feet of sidewalk. Note that the glass was ‘once clear’, because due to the aging process and the manganese used in turn of the century glass, the clear glass takes on a purple hue as a side effect to exposure from the UV light that is present in sunlight.
Vault lights enjoyed use everywhere, but were common in larger cities both in the US and abroad. Over the passing years,vault lights have been subjected to the rigors of the weather and pedestrian traffic, damaging the glass panels and in some cases removing them entirely, opening the basements to water and debris from the streets. In an effort to prevent this, many shop owners resorted to the use of asphalt, concrete or wood to fill the holes left by the failing glass. The end result of these repairs is that intact, historically accurate vault lights are becoming scarce. Fortunately, there is a growing movement for the preservation and restoration of vault lights, with more outspoken advocates for preservation of the history they contain.
Even with the movement to preserve these fixtures of history, difficulty in finding a qualified and experienced restorer to the panels is a concern for those interested in the preservation of vault lights. The ability to remove, restore or recreate historically accurate vault lighting is further complicated by the complexity of the repairs that may have been done on the existing vault light panels, as knowledge of the composition of old cast iron is needed to ensure that the original material can be salvaged as much as possible during the restoration process. Old glass is fragile, and cast iron that has been subjected to a high degree of wear or corrosion must be handled properly to salvage the remains, or forge an identical replacement panel. Hiring a restorer with both the knowledge needed to address these concerns and the capability to recast replacement panels that match the salvageable cast iron panels for the vault lighting can be a challenge for businesses that wish to preserve these features and the historic charm of their cities.
Antique Cast Iron, LLC has had the privilege of working on several projects to restore, re-create and re-install several of these historical architectural fixtures, to include streets and vault light installations on Broadway, Crosby, Hudson, Greene and Spring Street. You can see an article explaining more about the history and technical process of proper restoration here, which covers the steps needed to restore the vault lights to Broadway. Through working with vault light cast iron restoration, we have developed a deep passion for preservation of these fixtures and subsequently developed a prism plug that is available for vault light owners to order in order to help prevent further improper material plugs in lost light.
Vault lights deserve preservation and restoration as they are a unique feature in the architectural history of our cities. If you are interested in finding out more about how Antique Cast Iron, LLC can help retain the historic integrity of your vault lighting system, please feel free to contact us and visit our Vault Lighting Services Page to view images of past restoration projects we have completed with vault lighting.