Wrought iron business preserves a beautiful craft
Most people simply view a fence as a finishing touch … perhaps, a fixture meant to disappear in the background, or a simple way to provide direction. That's it.
Yet for Hoffman Estates' Fred Gebbia, fences rank somewhere between living objects and works of art, requiring both compassion and attention to bring out their true patina.
For the past 20 years, Gebbia has made a career of building new fences, repairing existing ones and making road trips across the country to find antique versions, some dating back to the late 1800s.
The result has been his ability to mend, mold and reshape neighborhoods with his ironwork, be it for function or ornamentation.
In the minds of many, the era of iron-forging blacksmiths may be long gone — the images of which vanished with television shows like “Gunsmoke” and “Little House on the Prairie.” But Gebbia, a second generation steel mill worker, continues.
“I started in Lincoln Park on one street. Pretty soon, I had worked on 35 houses on that same street,” he says of how he began his craft. “Now, I have done more than 5,000 projects in Lincoln Park, and worked on every street in Lincoln Park.”
Educated at DePaul University, Gebbia earned a management and marketing degree, yet he spent some of his young adult life working in a steel mill, much like his dad before him.
In fact, Gebbia credits his dad, a metallurgical engineer, with piquing his interest in the wrought iron. It didn't hurt either that his mother was an avid antique shopper. Combined, the two influenced his interest in preserving antique fences and building functionally fashionable renditions of other iron pieces.
Gebbia owns The Fence Doctors Inc. (www.fencedoctorsinc.com), a Chicago-based ornamental ironworks, fence and gate operation that serves Chicago and the suburbs. He runs the 22-year-old business with the help of a two-man crew. Though most of their time is spent fixing broken gates, he also completes pieces for safety like window guards, guard rails, garage gates and emergency stairwells. No job is too big or small when you love what you do. So it doesn't matter to Gebbia if the job is creating a balcony planter for a downtown hotel or a hand railing for a strip mall.
He also spends a fair share of his time driving around the country looking for true wrought ironwork to buy. “I search the country for antique ironwork” Gebbia says. “I have a warehouse with 20 tons of antique gates, window guards and fence sections.”
He has been featured on HGTV and Craftsman's local blog radio broadcast of “Down & Dirty with Frank Fontana,” among other media outlets.
Gebbia takes great pride in what he does and suspects he may be more passionate about what he does than his competitors. That devotion to quality came in handy when historic home enthusiast Gary Most, a construction engineer and city inspector for the village of Barrington, began his search for a 1800s antique fence. Somehow, he connected with Gebbia online.
The match was meant to be. Most bought a circa-1880s four-bedroom Victorian home on a three-quarter acre, corner lot in Wayne, a house he planned to restore over time. A big part of his vision involved improvements to the yard, and he wanted a period-perfect fence to complete it.
(He had already added other period pieces to the yard, including a hitching post and doctors' buggies.)
“I knew I wanted a wrought iron fence out front,” he says. “I told Fred, ‘I'm looking for one of the old ornate fences that fit the period of the house.' ”
One of Gebbia's road trips to Minneapolis yielded 140 feet of an 1800s wrought iron fence. It had a few dents and dings, but nothing a blow torch and a few hammers couldn't handle. The fence covers frontage on one side of the house.
“We started by laying out the post plumb-and-level within one-eighth inch in all directions. We added some steel welded extensions, dug deep holes, poured concrete for the posts three-and-a-half-feet deep and used about 30 feet of the found fencing to repair broken and bent pieces,” Gebbia explains. After seven to 10 days of work, the installation was complete.
At the middle of the fence sits a carriage gate with lilting scrollwork that looks as august as it probably did a century ago and a nameplate for Stewart Iron Works of Cincinnati, Ohio, the fence's original manufacturer (which is still in business). “I just love the stuff,” Gebbia says, surveying his handiwork at the Wayne property.
And his client couldn't have been happier. “Some people say it looks like it's always been there,” says Most of drivers who stops to admire the fence.
That's a great compliment in light of the fact that the fence had to also meet strict guidelines set by Wayne's historical committee.
Such a fence, even produced by its original manufacturer, could have easily cost Most $200 and $400 per linear foot the buy, ship and have installed, but Gebbia charged a fraction of that.
The resulting artistry is beautiful to the naked eye, but to Gebbia's it is also very functional, with each piece playing its part to keep the other in place. Even now, the fence with its roughened surface and peaked finials looks robust, full of character and as strong as ever.
“It's as solid as anything I could have made,” Gebbia says, proud to have made another customer happy, “and 130 years from now, it'll still be here.”
The Fence Doctors, firstname.lastname@example.org, (312) 404-4911. Shop: 6125 W. Dickens, Chicago, IL