The Legend of the Cornstalk Fence
The Ultimate Guide To The Cornstalk Fences In New Orleans And Beyond
“The most famous piece of cast iron in New Orleans”
If you walk down the 900 block of Royal Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, sits a unique home that stands out amid the French and Spanish buildings typically seen in the Vieux Carre. This is a beautiful Queen Anne-style house with a single bay one-story window and turret towering menacingly over the home. Normally, a unique home like this would hold its own, but the cast iron cornstalk fence that graces the front nearly upstaged this house. It is this fence that has spawned a beautiful story of true love and heavy metal.
A Legend Is Born
New Orleans has a long history of never letting the facts get in the way of a good story, no matter how mundane that story could be. Something so normal as a fence can spawn stories that go beyond an urban legend to become almost storied truth. This lore becomes so ingrained into the tapestry of the city that the story becomes a cherished oral history to be passed down.
Here is the story heard daily upon the streets of the Quarter, where ghost tour guides and mule buggy “drivers” will stop to weave the tale of love, homesick brides, and a man going to extreme levels to make his new wife happy.
Enter Dr. Biamonti And His New Bride
Legend has it that Dr. Biamonti and his bride moved into the home here on Royal Street, but his young bride was terribly homesick and yearned for the cornfields of her childhood in Iowa. Her husband, wanting to make his young bride happy, commissioned the fence so that his true love could look upon her faux cornfields every morning.
On cue, the collective “ahhs” come out, women squeeze their partner’s hand, and the glow of love permeates the air like a whiff of Axe Body Spray after a group of middle school boys pass by. There it is, a story of true love, cast iron, and a love-struck man wanting to make the love of his life happy.
Who doesn’t love a good love story? This story has it all: homesick brides, true love, and a Grand Gesture (™ pending) to prove that love. This story also has the bonus of having a name attached to the story, which makes it easier to start the research. The city also blessed us with a fantastic organization, the HNOC that makes researching a lot easier with their archives being both physical and digital.
In the first blush of research, here is what I have found so far and from there we can fill in some blanks with some educated guesses based upon norms.
915 Royal Street
Original fence dates to 1857. Came from the forgery of the family across the street.
1448 Fourth Street
Col Short’s Villa is the most complete example of the fence.
A beautiful example of how the fence was painted.
A Cast Of Corn
The home has a lot going on and would still be a stop on many a French Quarter tour with its beautiful Queen Anne design. So even without the rare cast-iron fence with its own history, it is easy to see the need to appreciate this unique architecture.
Construction on the brick townhouse started in 1850 and finished in 1860, but there was a fire in 1900 that gave the owners the ability to add the quirky Queen Anne turret and bay
Original Home – The first official documentation on the property shows up on Monday the 8th of May in 1787 when the property is sold to Dr. Luis Fortin for the price of $700 pesos. The property changes hands until 1834 when yes indeed Dr. Joseph Biamonti takes possession of the home and property. The basis for the legend is holding up to scrutiny here, as property records do put Dr. Joseph Biamonti at this address in 1834.
Enter The Cast Iron Age
Dr. Biamonti’s Daughter Enters The Picture
We now have a nearly 20-year gap in the records before a flurry of activity happens. The good doctor parcels up the property to his children, including two daughters, who receive the property as part of their dowry. It is in the daughters’ era that the brick townhouse was built.
According to the legend, Dr. Biamonti commissioned the fence for his homesick wife. The cornstalk pattern shows up in 1858 in the Wood & Perot and Miltenberger cast iron catalog for the first time.
1834 Iowa was not a hotbed of commercial farming, it was a handful of subsistence farming European settlers sharing the territory with several Native tribes. Iowa was still very much Native American Territory with multiple tribes laying claims to the grasslands of Iowa. In fact, contemporary sources describe Iowa as “a sea of grass”.
While Iowa was a part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1802, it wasn’t until the 1830s that negotiations started with the various tribes. In the 1820s when she would have been a child, Iowa would have been a handful of farmers scattered in with native tribes growing mostly beans, squash, and yes, corn. She would not have seen large fields of corn as commercial farming did not take off until the 1850s.
Here is where the legend starts to falter a bit, as the Iowa connection does not hold up well under scrutiny.
Wood & Perot Forgeries
Cast iron became a thing in 500 BC China and cast iron grew as cookware but it was the 1850s when cast iron became decorative. Robert Wood first fired up his forge in 1839 with simple window guards, smaller ironworks, and statues. Wood continued to grow as an artist and businessman who built large bronze statues. Robert Wood would continue to grow and retool his operations until the 1850s when he retooled his factory to do statues, fencing, gazebos, and other large iron works. In 1862 the Wood (who would partner with Perot, Miltonberger, & Cotton) ironworks had 153 fence patterns one of which is the cornstalk pattern.
Demand for cast iron skyrocketed in New Orleans mostly due to the Pontalba Buildings boasting the first examples of decorative cast iron. This had the fashionable people of New Orleans scrambling to put cast iron on their homes. Demand was so high that Wood and Miltenberger opened up a shop on Camp Street where they would supply the majority of cast iron to New Orleans until they closed up shop in 1878.
A fact that must be pointed out, directly across from 915 Royal Street is the several interconnected mansions of Michel Heine who was a wealthy financier who also happened to be married to Amélie Marie Céleste Miltenberger. It is Amelie’s father who is an architect and importer, with Amelie being neighbors, it is very plausible that Amelie and Maria were friends.
1797 – Dr. Luis Fortin buys property for $700 pesos
1800-1833 – Original lot is subdivided with several transactions on smaller tracts from the original plot
1834 – Dr. Joseph Biamonti purchases the largest lot
1857 – Lot is partitioned into 3 plots with a large annuity of $14,000 paid twice a year for life
1858 – Via a will transaction Dr. Joseph Biamonte property is transferred to Aimee Christine Biamonte and Maria A Biamonte
*Note the spelling difference in the last name spelling is per documents from HNOC archives
1878- Maria Biamonte is the last Biamonti(e) whose name appears on title records as the lot she owns is sold.
The property then takes on a title life of its own that goes beyond our original scope here. The property changes hands multiple times including the same parties passing the property back and forth.
Wrapping It Up
Conclusions can be drawn with further discussions regarding the timeline of the fence and the actual artist.
The facts as discovered in property title research and the history of the Wood/Miltenberger forgery give a substantial amount of information that we can then give some educated guesses.
The facts are that Dr. Biamonti(e) bought the lot where the current home sits in 1834 long before both Iowa and decorative cast iron would catch on. The pattern for the cornstalk fence appears first in the 1858 catalog which is also the year when Dr. Biamonti’s will divided his property between 3 heirs. Documentation supports that the current home did not get built until 1850-1860 which is also the time when the cornstalk pattern is born.
In 1834 when Dr. Biamonti arrives with his bride, Iowa was mostly Native people with just a handful of hardscrabble subsistence farmers. Corn would not see commercial production until the 1850s when there was a bump in population and improvements in agriculture for commercial purposes.
Cast iron for decorative means was not seen until the late 1850s this is also when Robert Wood starts producing window guards, door frames, and other decorative cast-iron fixtures. By the 1862 catalog, 153 different cast iron fence patterns were available including the cornstalk pattern.
The conclusions that can be drawn are that the property was purchased in 1834 by Dr. Joseph Biamonti with his wife and they raised their family until 1858 with the death of Dr. Biamonti. In his will, the good doctor parceled up his land between his children with an annuity to help provide for his survivors. The side hall townhouse was constructed from 1850-1860 and it was during the final leg of construction when the cornstalk pattern was first published in the Wood, Miltenberger, & Coton catalog. The most likely purchaser of the cornstalk fence would be the daughter Maria Biamonti when she had her brick side hall townhome built. It didn’t hurt that the Miltenberger had a branch of their family across the street.
Other Examples Around Town
The cornstalk fence pattern is rare, not only was it a very expensive pattern, but cast iron is usually the first to go in times of financial difficulty or even landscaping changes. That New Orleans can boost eleven examples is a stunning feat as it is difficult to find examples of this fence outside the city. The Banning Museum in California and the metal museum in Memphis have two famous examples and pieces and remnants pop up in antique stores on occasion.
So while the beautiful story of love with a grand gesture to prove that love isn’t true, we can enjoy the beauty and charm that it gives off.
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