SoHo - the name is a blend of “South” and “Houston” from “south of Houston Street” - is today a fashionable shopping and cultural district built on the shoulders of artists. What became SoHo was to have been the locale of two enormous elevated highways of the Lower Manhattan Expressway before the project was derailed and abandoned in the 1960s. After abandonment of the highway scheme, the city was still left with a large number of historic buildings that were unattractive to manufacturing and commercial interests. Many of these buildings, especially the upper stories which became known as lofts, attracted artists who valued the spaces for their large areas, large windows admitting natural light. The cheap rents were nothing to sneer at either.
The source of these airy, well-lit lofts are the cast-iron facade buildings that were constructed during the period from 1840 to 1880. Cast iron enjoyed a brief flurry of popularity as a building material - it was easy to form into ornate French- and Italian-influenced architectural styles, it was quick to assemble and if was inexpensive. SoHo boasts the greatest collection of cast-iron architecture in the world with approximately 250 such buildings.
There was a profusion of cast iron foundries in New York whose badges can be spotted on many SoHo buildings - Badger’s Architectural Iron Works, James L. Jackson’s Iron Works, and Cornell Iron Works. The strength of the metal allowed building frames to be stretched and once dreary interiors of the industrial district were suddenly flooded with sunlight through the newly enlarged windows. The strength of the cast iron permitted high ceilings with sleek supporting columns, and interiors became more expansive and functional.
Soho’s gradual transformation the neighborhood from a short-lived residential area (1820s-30s), into a predominantly textile-oriented commercial district (1850s-1910s), a low grade manufacturing district (1910s-50s), and finally into a neighborhood containing galleries, artists’ studios and trendy boutiques (1960s-present).
Our walking tour of the Cast-Iron District will begin at the intersection of Broome Street and Broadway, in front of the most influential and beautifully proportioned of the metal masterpieces...
E.V. Haughwout Building
488 Broadway, northeast corner of Broome Street
Daniel Badger was born on the family island off the New Hampshire coast in 1806. He began his working life in a blacksmith shop and by his thirties had his own foundry and rolling mill in Boston. Badger claimed to be the first ironmaster to craft building exteriors in the early 1840s and although that probably is false, there is no doubt he became one of the most famous. After coming to New York City his Architectural Iron Works covered an entire block in the East Village and shipped building fronts around the world. Badger was so proud of the Haughwout Building and its 92 keystoned arches from 1857, that he put its picture on his widely-distributed catalog. The architect of the Venetian-inspired five-story building was John Gaynor and the client was Eder V. Haughwout, who sold fancy cut glass, porcelains, mirrors, chandeliers and more here. On the fourth and fifth floors, his factory employed a staff of women who turned out hand painted china, and craftsmen who worked at glass-cutting and silver plating. Mary Todd Lincoln, who purchased porcelain finery for the White House with a pattern depicting an American Eagle surrounded by a wide mauve border, the Czar of Russia, and the Imam of Muscat who bought chandeliers to illuminate the royal harem were all loyal customers.
WALK SOUTH ON BROADWAY.
Richard Morris Hunt, best known as builder of mansions for the Vanderbilts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was the first American to be trained at the classically influneced Ecole de Beaux–Art in Paris. Decades before, in 1874, Hunt created this commercial building at the tail-end of cast iron mania.The Roosevelt Building stands on land that was the home of James Henry Roosevelt, great–uncle to President Theodore Roosevelt. Following his death in 1863, his estate donated the house and its adjacent lot to Roosevelt Hospital, which decided to erect two commercial structures to provide revenue. At the time, the area now called SoHo was becoming the fabric center of the city, and the building housed firms involved in various stages of textile wholesaling and the garment trade.
TURN LEFT ON GRAND STREET AND WALK TO MULBERRY STREET.
Grand Street and Mulberry Street
Hard by SoHo to the south and east is Little Italy where new arrivals from southern Europe carved out a community in 19th century tenement buildings. Many of the area’s settling families filtered out as they became more prosperous but today you can still find a little slice of Little Italy along Mulberry Street, four blocks from Broadway.
RETURN TO CENTRE STREET AND TURN LEFT.
240 Centre Street between Grand and Broome streets
Smack in the middle of Little Italy’s tenements is this spectacular Baroque-revival-style palace that could easily pass for some state’s capitol building. Architect Francis V.L. Hoppin’s goal was to “impress both officer and prisoner with the majesty of the law” when designing this jaw-dropping 1909 police headquarters. Just the ornate columned dome would have sapped the building budget of most towns in the country. Abandoned by the NYPD in the 1970s, today it is home to multi-million dollar apartments, not the usual fate of former precinct houses.
TURN RIGHT ON CANAL STREET. CROSS BROADWAY AND TURN RIGHT ON GREENE STREET.
10 Greene Street
Greene Street from Canal to Houston streets contains the densest concentration of cast-iron facade buildings in the world. Built by John B. Snook & Sons in 1869, this Renaissance-inspired building has a cast-iron facade adorned with Tuscan columns. Look up and see fire escapes that would not have been seen a century ago. Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in the Triangle Waist Company on the top floors of the Asch Building at the intersection of Greene Street and Washington Place. Before the conflagration could be snuffed out, 146 of the 500 employees had died, many trapped in upstairs factory rooms with limited access to exits. Victims made desperate leaps from ninth floor windows, a horrific sight that directly led to new regulations demanding fire escapes across New York City.
28-30 Greene Street
This is the “Queen of Greene Street,” a commercial building rendered in the fanciful French Second Empire style in 1872. The elaborate entrance bay is shoved out towards the street with windows framed by Corinthian columns. The entire confection is contained under a mansard roof.
TURN RIGHT GRAND STREET.
91-93 Grand Street
Architect John B. Snook put his stamp on mid-19th century New York with Alexander Stewart’s landmark department store and the massive Grand Central Depot from the 1870s. But the English-born, self-taught designer’s most enduring work comes down to his via his cast-ion buildings which have survived and been re-adapted. These diminutive twins were his, created for different owners and raised quickly in the summer of 1869 for only $6,000 each.
RETURN TO GREENE STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
469-475 Broome Street, southwest corner of Greene Street
William H. Gunther was a fur dealer and he built this warehouse in 1872 to display his stylish wares. Today it does duty as an art gallery and artists’ studios. The six-story cast-iron building adopted the French Second Empire style and the curved corner testifies to the advances made in cast iron and rolled glass technologies.
470 Broome Street, northwest corner of Greene Street
Cast iron was going the way of the horse and buggy and gas-lit streets by the late 1890s when this commercial tower was raised in the late 1890s. Terra-cotta tile was all the rage as the building material of choice to dress the new steel skeleton frames. Like cast iron, terra-cotta could be formed into a wide range of ornamental details that could be produced easily and inexpensively in great quantity. Terra-cotta had durability issues, however, and its day too would pass in favor of artificial stones.
TURN LEFT ON BROOME STREET.
477-481 Broome Street
The Cheyney Brothers of Hartford, Connecticut operated the largest post-Civil War silk manufacturing concern in the United States. In 1872 they settled their sales and distribution center into this Renaissance Revival building executed by Elisha Sniffen. Sniffen consciously related the Cheney Building’s facade to that of the Gunther Building, echoing the latter’s story heights, balustrade, flattened arches, and even decorative urns, while gussying up the exterior more lavishly to show who was top dog on the block.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS ON BROOME STREET AND CROSS GREENE STREET.
453-455 Broome Street
The classic loft was originally the Hitchcock Silk Building, designed in 1873 by Griffith Thomas, one of the busiest and most stylish architects working in the city. Its burly facade features heavy rusticated piers. The building was later home to A. Millner Company, a specialty-food importing business and has since been converted to lofts.
RETURN TO GREENE STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
72-76 Greene Street
The French Renaissance-inspired building at 72 Greene Street was long known as the “King of Greene Street.” Each of its five floors has its own set of Corinthian columns as designed by Isaac Duckworth in 1872 with five stories and 10 bays. “The King” was built for Gardner Colby to house his enormously successful dry goods business. He endowed the college that bears his name in his hometown of Waterville, Maine. The last time the property changed hands, in late 2012, the price tag was $41.5 million.
TURN RIGHT ON SPRING STREET.
101 Spring Street
When architect Nicholas Whyte designed 101 Spring Street in 1870, he created an elegant structure for a store and offices that is the only remaining completely intact, single-use, cast-iron building in the SoHo Cast-Iron Historic District of Manhattan. Donald Judd, an American Minimalist, bought the five-story cast-iron former sewing factory in 1968 to serve as his house and studio. It is considered to be the birthplace of installation art.
TURN LEFT ON MERCER STREET.
14. 105 Mercer Street
This is the second-oldest house in SoHo, dating to 1818. The oldest home is around the corner at 107 Spring Street. Before this area west of Broadway became known for cast-iron architecture, the Federal-style buildings that lined these blocks were a notorious red-light district. This was one of the brothels, apparently run for a time by a madame named Cinderella Marshall.
TURN RIGHT ON HOUSTON STREET.
295 Lafayette Street, southeast corner of Houston Street
This bustling red brick building of Romanesque arches was built in 1886 as the printing facility of Puck Magazine, the nation’s premier journal of graphic humor and political satire at the time. The weekly magazine was founded by Joseph Ferdinand Keppler in St. Louis and began publishing English and German language editions in March, 1871. Five years later, the German edition of Puck moved to New York City, where the first magazine was published on September 27, 1876. The English edition soon followed, on March 14, 1877. The magazine ceased publication in 1918 and the building, that features two gilded figures of the impish “Puck” from William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream on its exterior, housed offices and printing presses after that. One tenant was an office stationery company, S. Novick & Son, that occupied the second floor. A salesmen for the firm was Alger Hiss, the former assistant Secretary of State who was one of the country’s most notorious spies in the 1950s. Ironically the building became home another satirical magazine in the 1980s - Spy Magazine.
RETURN TO BROADWAY AND TURN LEFT (SOUTH).
Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art
The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art collects and displays comic and cartoon art. Every genre of the art is represented: animation, anime, cartoons, comic books, comic strips, gag cartoons, humorous illustration, illustration, political illustration, editorial cartoons, caricature, graphic novels, sports cartoons, and computer-generated art.
Fur trader and America’s first millionaire, John Jacob Astor, owned a big chunk of this block and built stately Federal-era houses along it. The houses were torn down and in 1896 replaced by a twelve-story building that carries the magnate’s name forward. The versatile team of Robert Cleverdon and Joseph Putzel, who designed everything from rowhouses in Harlem to a crematorium in Queens, emptied their bag of architectural tricks on this facade - look up to see a rhythm of arches and beltcourses and cornices and gargoyles. Almost every story gets a different style here. The New Museum of Contemporary Art breathed new life into the space at the end of the 20th century before moving on in 2004.
Guggenheim Museum -SoHo
Here is another building on the ancestral Astor homesite. It was raised in 1882 on designs from architect Thomas Stent. The cast-iron age was waning - the ground floor boasted the familiar metal piers but the upper stories were fashioned from red brick. Its recent history has boasted names as famous as Astor - in the 1990s the Guggenheim Museum began a ten-year run in SoHo here and most recently it has been the flagship New York store for Prada.
Little Singer Building
In 1902 Ernest Flagg, a Beaux-Arts trained New York architect designed the “Little Singer Building” - “Little” being assigned to distinguish it from Flagg’s 41-story Singer Tower that would become the world’s tallest building a few years later. Flagg employed red brick, steel, reddish terra- cotta and glass to frame the elegant facade, which has a nine-story recessed central bay five windows wide. Arching over this bay is a flourish of magically ornate wrought iron tracery. Decorative iron work at the second level includes large iron letters spelling out “Singer Manufacturing Company.” The attic level is surmounted by an extremely ornate roof cornice held on intricately curved iron brackets. The tower came down in 1967, but fortunately the former sewing machine headquarters at 561 Broadway survived. Since 1979, it has been a co-op with an unusual mixture of residential and commercial uses: 20 offices and 15 live/work units for artists.
This five-story building was completed in 1860 - just as cast-iron facades and window shopping were becoming fashionable. Fourteen-foot tall “sperm candle columns”- so named because they looked like the sperm whale oil candles of the day - frame the upper window bays.
New Era Building
This 1898 building has been declared an architectural treasure, a rare example of the Art Noveau style in the city. The mid-block show-stopper begins with squat Doric columns at cubside and flows upwards eight stories to the copper mansard roof. It was built for the New Era Printing Company and its nameplate survives to this day but their tenancy was brief. The mail order company of brothers George and Edward Butler moved in almost immediately. In 1927 the Butler Brothers Company developed the Benjamin Franklin five-and-dime stores and by the 1940s were one of America’s largest wholesalers.
A FEW STEPS MORE AND YOU HAVE RETURNED TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT THE INTERSECTION OF BROADWAY AND BROOME STREET.