THE ART OF METALWORK

BY MARYLYN HASPEL

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Tucked away at the end of Meeting Street Road in North Charleston is an unassuming little building whose front door is answered by the affable David Dieter and his ebullient Boykin Spaniel, Molly. Charming as they both may be, there’s no way of knowing what treasures reside in this humble place of business.

Dieter is the owner of Charleston Awning and Metal Company—a decidedly unromantic name, admits Dieter— a small business that turns out much of the decorative metalwork— gates, trellises, pergolas— that embellishes many of Charleston’s storied homes.

This family-owned enterprise, established in the early 1940s, was acquired by Dieter’s grandfather as a manufacturer of “little old lady awnings.” So well made were these awnings, invented and manufactured by the company, that they lasted for years. Encouraged by its success in awnings, the company expanded its product line to include jalousie doors, windows and blinds made mostly in aluminum. But when that market was flooded with competitors’ products, the company modified its means of income to focus on decorative metalwork, such as stair rails and gates, in addition to awnings. Business grew in the wake of Hurricane Hugo, when the need for restoration and replacement of decorative metalwork increased greatly.

For Dieter, working in metal is a labor of love. It has to be. The workroom is hot in the summer and cold in the winter, and the work is physically challenging. As he says, “You have to be involved with both feet, or you get out of the pool.”

The beauty of the work is undeniable, as is the creativity, labor and dedication that go into each and every piece. As an example, Dieter offers a picture of a front gate at a Legare Street residence, its graceful arches welcoming the trailing roses that embrace it.

Everything is custom-made, much of it subcontracted to the company by architects. “Everything is made-to-order. Our products are not something you just take off a shelf,” Dieter says.

The work is precise and meticulous. Each design starts out as a drawing done to scale and is usually rendered by Dieter. It then goes to the shop foreman, who determines what materials are needed. From there a cut list is made for metal cutting and pieces are laid out. The frame is built separately. Decorative features are fashioned using the same process and welded onto the frame.

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Although the tradition of working in wrought iron has existed in Charleston for centuries, iron is no longer the material of choice. It rusts and bleeds down, according to Dieter. For this reason, much of the company’s work is done in steel and sometimes aluminum. Both can be powder coated black for durability. Alternatively, for a different look, the finish can be acid etched, varnished or painted.

“This work takes commitment. We treat our workers like the good side of family,” says Dieter, who presently employs four metalworkers whom he praises for their vision and skill. “They are artists who want to make their mark.”

His team also restores and even copies historical metalwork, such as the gate they created to match one from the early 1800s at Ashley Hall School on Smith Street. In fact, their work can be seen on some of Charleston’s most historic buildings: the Dock Street Theatre’s front exterior and interior rails, and the curving stair rails and medallions that embellish City Hall, to name just two. Additionally, they’ve completed projects at many homes on East Bay Street, Murray Boulevard and South Battery.

Charleston Awning and Metal also produces contemporarystyle products for homeowners, such as hand-forged tables, lamp bases, headboards and fireplace screens.

“Some of our inspiration comes from nature, some from the people we encounter every day. But all our creations pay homage to the tradition of making wrought-iron products in Charleston,” Dieter says with pride.

Marylyn Haspel is a freelance writer in Charleston. She can be reached at marylyn.haspel@yahoo.com.