An Iron in the Fire

“I want to die with a hammer in my hand.” So said David Paul Kloete Sr.—and it is clear he passed this same passion and respect for the ancient craft of ironwork on to his son. David Kloete Jr.’s own life has been spent, almost without interruption, either as an apprentice at Anvil Iron Works, the company his father founded in 1966, or as its helmsman—guiding it into the 21st century.

 Anvil Iron Works was originally created to fabricate steel components for offshore refineries and local construction projects, and in fact the company has manufactured the platforms, columns, and beams of some of New Orleans’ more familiar landmarks. If you have been in the alligator exhibit at Audubon Zoo, stopped by the Aquarium of the Americas, or walked through Concourse D of Louis Armstrong International Airport, you have—at least indirectly—benefited from the structural underpinnings produced by the Kloete family business.
 
“I used to fall asleep at the [drafting] table, watching my father work,” says Kloete, and by the age of 11 he had already mastered the art of mechanical drawing. “Eventually, I was given more responsibility cutting, fitting, and welding component parts.” 

Fifteen years ago, he took over the company, and when Hurricane Katrina blew in, he was juggling the management of the business while caring for his ailing father. As for many people, the storm affected all aspects of Kloete’s life. It took away his father, who passed away shortly as a result of the heat and stress of evacuation. “He died in my arms. I was on the phone with 911 when it happened,” he says.

The storm also brought an unexpected opportunity to change the direction of Anvil Iron Works, which Kloete welcomed, having burnt out on the realities of general contracting. “The work was not conducive anymore to my well being—spiritually or mentally,” he says now with a sigh. After Katrina, the chance to focus on ornamental iron design grew organically. “The need was there. There was so much damage to people’s property and the phone just started ringing,” he says. The work proliferated until Kloete had a six-month wait list for gates, staircases, handrails and decorative garden ornamentation.

 The urgency to replace ironwork—a design signature of New Orleans—is powerful in this city, where the love affair with iron design on porches, fences and interiors dates back to the late 18th century. Much of the “lacy iron grillwork” in the French Quarter actually appeared after many of the buildings burned down in the great fires of 1788 and 1794. When the Spanish took over and started rebuilding, they eliminated peaked cypress shingled roofs in favor of tiled flat roofs, and open space disappeared, as houses were built curbside, and set close together to create effective, man-made fire barriers. It was at this time that the Spanish put the first decorative cast-iron galleries on their homes. When the United States purchased Louisiana in 1803, ironwork became the fashion of the moment. American foundries were commissioned to make the ironwork that we see everywhere throughout the French Quarter, today.

Just as wrought iron gave way to cast iron during the 1800s, so now has cast iron been replaced by steel. This metal alloy which consists mostly of iron is both less costly to produce and more flexible to work with than iron, alone. Anvil Iron Works continues this evolution, embracing many contemporary techniques and materials that keep the tradition of ironwork alive, but are also more affordable for the customer. This being said, the hand of the worker is always involved in all aspects of the final product at Anvil Iron Works and as Kloete is fond of saying, “Everything starts in the shop. Not only do we sell the bread, we make it, too.”

Using his skills as technical draftsman, Kloete draws the original design, which his foreman, Ronnie Mason, uses as a guide when he lays out pieces of flat bar or stock steel on the table. After a shape is roughed out, Mason slowly bends each piece of heated metal around a jig—a rounded cylinder—to make the individual curves and scrolls which he then welds together until the whole trellis, handrail or staircase is complete. After the final welding, each joint will be meticulously modeled and sanded until a seamless piece of iron craftsmanship emerges.

 Kloete has many plans for the future of Anvil Iron Works, and it is with excitement that he speaks of the water jet machine he expects to arrive any day now. This emerging technology will allow him to scan almost anything, and turn his clients most elaborate dreams into a three-dimensional reality. In order to stay alive, traditions don’t need to die, but they must evolve, and this is exactly David Kloete’s approach to the historic art of ornamental ironwork.

David Kloete, Anvil Iron Works, 975 Hickory Ave., Harahan, 737-2211

Categories: Masters of their Craft