Monumental Iron Masters
It began with the Astor Place subway kiosk in New York City. Now almost every city in the country visits Alexander City, Alabama to get its iconic ironwork done.
Ricky Robinson, center, and sons Luke, left, and Austin, right, by the Monroe Park Fountain from Richmond, Virginia, in the shop for restoration.
There were two paths looming in front of Ricky Robinson in 1973, when Robinson Iron was formed as a spinoff from Robinson Foundry, the company his father started in Alexander City shortly after World War II.
In one direction there was the basic production of metal casings, repetitive foundry work that Robinson describes as “hot, dirty and labor intensive.” The other, new direction of Robinson Iron promised something considerably more artistic, with the creation and restoration of ornamental iron works, ranging from backyard furniture to city lampposts to capitol domes.
“It’s not nearly as interesting to make 100,000 widgets for Ford as it is to make one courthouse square fountain for Montgomery,” Robinson says. “I like that side of the game better.”
That side is the only one remaining for the Robinson family, which sold Robinson Foundry a decade ago to concentrate solely on the rapidly growing Robinson Iron business. That company has produced some highly visible works in recent years, including the restoration of the Vulcan statue in Birmingham; the creation of four 33-foot-tall portal gates for Philadelphia’s City Hall; and a three-tier, 26,000-pound fountain in Toronto that has 27 dog statues within it.
“I can go to just about any major city in this country and we’ve done some sort of work there,” Robinson says. “We’ve done a lot of high-profile jobs, and each one is different. You do very few things twice in our business. It’s not like we can knock on somebody’s door and ask if they want a Vulcan.”
It has been an impressive rise for a company that had humble origins. Robinson’s father, Joe Robinson Sr., started Robinson Foundry and Supply Co. in 1946 in a building with a dirt floor and limited mechanical equipment. To make ends meet in those early days, Joe Robinson also sold kegs of nails and other construction supplies to go along with the foundry work.
Ricky Robinson and his older brother, Joe Robinson Jr., spent much of their childhood hanging around the foundry, helping out by picking up empty Coke bottles that had been tossed aside by the sweaty workers. As the boys grew older, it was assumed that they would go into business with their father, which they both did in the 1960s. “When you grow up around it, you get steeped in it. It’s just what you do,” Ricky Robinson says.
Along the way, Joe Robinson Sr. began to have an affinity for urns, fountains and antique metals. He built up a small collection of such items and began selling some of them, then started offering restoration work. That led to the formation of Robinson Iron, with Ricky Robinson as the president.
“By that time the foundry had grown to a pretty good size, with relatively high volume,” Robinson says. “So we decided to create a new company to get the low-volume ornamental in one place and the higher volume foundry work in another. There wasn’t much to do at first. My full-time job was still with Robinson Foundry.”
Then in 1975, Scott Howell was hired as vice president of Robinson Iron, a role he maintains today. Robinson credits Howell with increasing the company’s business and turning it into a thriving entity separate from Robinson Foundry.
“The foundry kept going its way toward automotive, and Robinson Iron kept going its way toward restoration and that sort of thing,” Robinson says. “The day-to-day activities of Robinson Iron have largely been managed and handled by Scotty Howell. He has really driven this train through the years far more than I have.”
That train gradually picked up steam, thanks in part to the existence of Robinson Foundry, which automatically provided Robinson Iron with name recognition. In addition, the company was able to use some of the foundry’s employees, such as Robert Burton, who began working at the foundry as a teenager and is now an 87-year-old vice president with Robinson Iron. This talent pool gave Robinson Iron an immediate level of expertise that most small companies simply do not have at first.
ABOVE A Robinson welder works on a custom bronze trivet.
“A huge advantage we had in the early years of Robinson Iron was we had access to the people,” Robinson says. “The foundry had all the pattern makers, engineers, machinists and metallurgists. They were not part of our overhead initially, but their experience and this composite of knowledge was always there. That provided us with a big plus.”
A milestone moment for Robinson Iron occurred in 1985, when the company won the bidding for a job to create a replica of the historic Astor Place subway entrance kiosk in New York City. The New York City Transit Authority supplied Robinson with old photos and one small piece of the original roof, and from that the company was able to recreate the kiosk.
“It was a wonderful project that got us some recognition,” Robinson says. “We hired a representative in New York who we paid on commission to keep our name out there. She’d talk to architects and other people, and whenever she heard of projects she’d call them and tell them about this little company in Alabama. We’ve done a lot of work in New York over the years.”
Within Alabama, Robinson Iron’s most famous project is the restoration of the Vulcan statue, a job the company completed in 2003. Robinson says the 50-ton, 56-foot-tall cast-iron statue originally had been filled with concrete up to its chest to stabilize it atop the pedestal. But since concrete expands and contracts in the heat and cold differently from cast iron, the interior filling repeatedly pushed against the iron structure over the decades, creating hundreds of small cracks.
ABOVE A full barkery of dogs — still bearing the dots that facilitate laser scanning for pattern purposes — on the way to their future on Toronto’s Berczy Park Fountain.
“So we had to go up there and take the concrete out, take the statue down, fix the cracks and design a structure for the inside to stabilize it and then put the statue back up,” Robinson says. “What further complicated this is we couldn’t just slip around and do it quietly. We were being monitored constantly, because we were right next door to all those TV stations (on top of Red Mountain). And sometimes you’d like to not let everybody see how you make the sausage.”
Despite the challenges of the Vulcan restoration, the final product received rave reviews. So has the new dog fountain in Toronto, which was officially unveiled on June 28. That project has quickly become a popular attraction in the city, with estimates of 2,000 dog owners visiting the park every day.
“Fountains are the things we do that get seen the most,” says Ricky Robinson’s son, Luke, who has joined the family business along with his brother, Austin. “Fountains are usually downtown, and they draw a lot of attention.”
Which in turn brings more attention to Robinson Iron and the fact that the company is based in Alex City. “I can’t tell you how many times people have come to our offices from New York or Washington D.C. or California,” Luke Robinson says, “and they’re absolutely blown away by what we’re able to do from a small town in Alabama.”
Cary Estes and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.