Iron Manor in Montgomery, Texas, marries old and new steel to create an industrial and artistic triumph.
In 2015, while obtaining weathered steel for another project, Houston developer Ryan Aikin came across what would become the bones of the complex Iron Manor project. He was floored by the beauty and incredible intricacies of the historic structure, which sat at the Honea Settlement on the West bank of the San Jacinto River in Montgomery County, Texas. From an impressive chain-driven 8-ton overhead steel crane to the remarkable Carnegie Steel columns, Vector Land LLC, Aikin’s development company, acquired the building, disassembled it piece by piece, moved it to its current location about 10 miles away and spent about 2,000 labor hours wire brushing the original 6,250 sq. ft, 117-year-old steel building. Then came the fun part—restoration, expansion, and an innovative reimagination of industrial design.
Aikin brought in General Contractor Rip Horkey with Woodford Homes to oversee the massive endeavor. Aikin says, “Rip’s got a unique perspective from a lot of builders. He has a lot more ‘art’ to him.” It was this artistic eye that set the unique project in motion. The vision included using the old, existing steel in conjunction with new steel to design an artistic masterpiece—creating a beautiful event venue to be used for weddings and other events such as birthday parties and fundraisers. They wanted this to be a special destination, not just “another boxy strip center-type structure” that is familiar throughout the region.
Recognizing the complexity and intensity of the project, Horkey and Aikin then called upon Larry Beaulieu, president of Houston-based Aero-Fab Steel Systems, Inc. Aikin explains, “Larry is incredibly detail oriented. He loves challenges and complex projects.” One of the biggest challenges on the project was there were no drawings of the original structure. Aikin assesses that Beaulieu spent around 400 hours doing a 3D model of the complete project.
Beaulieu then took the architectural plans and completely reworked them. According to Aikin, the original architectural plans basically had I-beams and H-beams, which looked like a strip center construction He says, “That is not what we wanted. One of my favorite buildings in history is the old Penn Station in New York, which had phenomenal architecture. I wanted to capture that same aesthetic. I did not want welding plates everywhere. Instead, we wanted bolts and open trusses to give it that old-fashioned feel. To do that, we needed the new steel to mesh with the old steel.”
The project entailed taking the existing 1903 building, along with the operational hand-driven crane inside (the crane has since been electrified to move chandeliers across the room), and incorporating that building—now known as Crane Hall—as a main focus with add-ons to enhance it.
Beaulieu field-measured the existing steel since there were no drawings of the original structure. He says, “One of the big challenges was that since the same precision/building standards didn’t exist in the early 1900s, a lot of tolerance was required. Steel profiles originally used are no longer made, so they could not be replicated. We had to find a solution to attach the old and new steel and tie it all together for the venue as a whole as well as for the addition of the new chapel structure.”
The chapel, the bridal suite, groom suite and a lean-to area added to the old building all used new structural steel from MBCI.
Beaulieu, who has a longstanding relationship with MBCI, enlisted the metal building components manufacturer to work hand in hand with the project team to get over thousands of pieces right. Beaulieu took the custom designs and the 3D models (1,117 structural drawings) to MBCI to have them manufacture all the new steel pieces, which would then be combined with the old steel. The intricate and ornate new chapel called for bolt-together trusses with a parabolic arch, lots of valleys and roof slopes, and a spire, with the building reaching a 60-ft elevation. The installation could best be described as a puzzle, with several acres-worth of pieces and bolts spread out with the task of finding the right piece to fit in the right place.
When you have a 117-year-old building and things are supposed to be at a certain measurement, even three quarters of an inch difference is important in terms of alignment. Aikin says, “When any issue arose, MBCI did an excellent job turning around and getting the piece out to us ASAP, which really helped us keep the project on track.”
The installation of every bolt was an interesting process. Larry painstakingly designed how every bolt would fit together. The team had a laptop and phones on site, running programs where they could zoom in on an individual bolt and see which way the threads were to be put in. The team took on the assembly themselves, using four different forklifts and eight scissor lifts, all being overseen by the general contractor, superintendent, Aikin’s superintendent and about eight crew members. Through incredible patience and teamwork, they put the structure together piece by piece.
Beaulieu explains that this is not a traditional MBCI project, that is, there were no exterior metal panels. The exterior, instead, was comprised of traditional materials such as brick and composition shingles. MBCI provided the bulk of the framing material as well as channels (not radiused angles or gussets), providing the structure with all the advantages of a metal-framed building: longer lifespan than conventional materials, easier installation, long-term cost savings and less maintenance. To create the desired aesthetic, the steel was brought in raw with no coating. The project team then applied a special coating to keep it from rusting, and design-wise, it meshed beautifully with the existing steel.
The whole project took about 2-1/2 years from start to finish, with about 14 months spent on the Chapel. Iron Manor opened its doors officially on January 1, 2020. Aikin remarks, “The design is what drove this whole process. We have people who tour the venue who have been in construction their whole lives and are just amazed by it. A lot of modern commercial buildings, especially here in Texas, are part of the urban sprawl. You have the exact same building popping up every 10 miles. It makes people stop when they see something that is different and unique and touches the old-world style. They appreciate it. We want the architecture to be what stands out.”
To meet the unique design standard of this ambitious project, Aikin concludes, “It was like a Lego set to end all Lego sets. Between Larry’s precision and MBCI’s manufacturing capabilities…to mesh a 117-year-old building with new steel in the fashion it was done…you cannot tell the difference from the old to the new, and that’s really what we were trying to capture.”
100 tons of fabricated structural steel
A325 structural bolts
Perimeter drip-edge trim
Metal deck support plate
Location: Montgomery, TX
Architect: Aero-Fab Steel Systems
Developer: Vector Land LLC
General Contractor: Woodford Homes Inc.