How Cast Iron Took SoHo From Factories to Fancy Lofts

Contrasting facades sit side by side in SoHo
Contrasting facades sit side by side in SoHo | © Francois Roux / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Amber C. Snider
Home & Design Editor14 March 2019

Modern-day SoHo has no shortage of high-end boutiques, chic restaurants and pop-up shops, but less well known is the district’s standing as a historic neighborhood with the world’s largest concentration of cast-iron buildings.

Cast iron facades and ornamentation. Nineteenth century buildings in Manhattan's Soho neighborhood. New York City. | © Francois Roux / Shutterstock

The SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District currently comprises nearly 500 structures, most of which were built in the late 1800s. “Cast iron in architecture is really the beginning of the Industrial Revolution transforming architecture, ultimately leading to the skyscraper,” says Anthony Robins, a New York-based architecture historian. A cheaper alternative to granite and marble, cast iron was ultra-strong and mostly fire resistant and allowed for spacious interiors, making it a highly desirable material with which to construct the warehouses and factories that dominated the neighborhood in the mid-to-late 19th century.

Cast iron could support a building’s structural weight (something that granite and wood couldn’t do) without relying on bulky interior columns that took up space. “[Cast-iron] buildings have much [larger] windows because you don’t need nearly as much iron to hold up a wall as you do stone,” says Robins, who worked at the Landmarks Preservation Commission for 20 years and wrote his master’s thesis on SoHo’s cast-iron architecture. “Especially in the 1870s in SoHo, the [buildings were] 80 percent glass. That was simply not possible before. [Iron] was economical and you got a lot of light. And it caught on really fast.”

Left: A typical cast-iron building in SoHo, NYC. Right: Architectural element of a building on Broadway in the Cast Iron Historic District, Soho, New York City. | Left: © Soma / Alamy Stock Photo, Right: © Mary Kent / Alamy Stock Photo

Robins says the Haughwout Building, on the northeast corner of Broadway and Broome Street, is a particularly stunning example of cast-iron craftsmanship. “It’s one of the three oldest surviving cast-iron buildings in the city, and it’s also one of the most beautiful.” The Haughwout echoes the “grand monuments of Europe,” Robins points out, adding that it also contained the world’s first steam-powered elevator, which was invented by Elisha Graves Otis (1811-1861).

Robins describes cast iron as the “plastic” of its day. “With cast iron, you make one mold and pour the iron into it as often as you need – so it’s fabrication and multiples,” he says. “Suddenly it’s possible to build buildings much less expensively and they’re much stronger.”

Left: E.V. Haughwout building, Cast Iron District on Broadway in Soho, New York. Right: Detail of the classical cast iron facade of E V Haughwout building with Corinthian style columns & restored old clock. | Left: © travelstock44 / Alamy Stock Photo; Right: © Dorothy Alexander / Alamy Stock Photo

Arthur Platt, a member of the American Institute of Architects and a SoHo Cast Iron Tour guide for the Center for Architecture, highlights 101 Spring Street, a five-story building now home to the Judd Foundation, as a noteworthy structure in the area. “Architecturally, it’s a beautiful example of cast iron,” he says. “It’s different than others that can be quite standard, in many ways.” In the early 1870s, architect Nicholas Whyte didn’t simply pick cast-iron parts out of a catalog (like many other architects at the time) but added more architectural design to the project.

“Well-known minimalist sculptor Donald Judd bought that building in the late 1960s, and today it remains a great example of the single-use building in the district,” says Platt. “It’s also on a corner site – and cast iron always is at its most powerful when it’s on the corner site because you see more of it.”

By the early 1960s, when SoHo was disparagingly known as ‘Hell’s Hundred Acres’ because of its high number of fires, the buildings were left vacant. It was then that a surge of artists – attracted to SoHo’s affordability and high-ceiling interiors with ample windows – found new use for these former factories.

Typical Soho building facades with ornamentation and terraces, Manhattan, New York City. | © Francois Roux / Alamy Stock Photo

Yukie Ohta, the founder of the SoHo Memory Project, says that “the idea of ‘adaptive reuse,’ which leads to loft living, started in SoHo. Artists moved to SoHo because there were abandoned factory buildings where they could have a studio and a place to live at the same time.” At first, these artists lived in the spaces illegally since the ‘lofts’ were unfit for habitation.

“This was the first time where a neighborhood outlived [the] usefulness of what its [original] built environment was: people came in and changed it,” Ohta says. “Now, people build apartments as lofts, but this is where the idea came from.”

Once the artists firmly established themselves in the area, then came the art galleries, followed by tourists and then restaurants. In 1965, after the neighborhood was threatened by the prospect of a ‘superhighway’ by Robert Moses, local artists banded together with other neighborhood alliances to fight for the preservation of the buildings. “The artists in SoHo managed to get the neighborhood designated [as a] historic district, so even though the purpose of the buildings has changed and the socio-economics has changed, you can’t alter the buildings from the outside and you can’t knock them down,” says Ohta. “The architecture has been preserved.”

Architectural detail view of cast iron fire escapes in New York City. | © lazyllama / Shutterstock

The SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District Designation Report (1973) notes that artists had “given [SoHo] new life, making feasible the preservation of an irreplaceable part of our cultural heritage.” According to the New York Preservation Archive Project, the ‘SoHo Effect’ became “a model for repurposing an industrial district for mixed use, both commercial and residential, while preserving much of the existing structural integrity.”

Cast-iron architecture may have been a short-lived style, but its influence on what we now call ‘loft living’ remains. Structurally, it formed the aesthetic allure for what is now one of the top five most expensive neighborhoods in all of New York City, and continues to attract buyers and tourists.

Insider tip: Bring along a magnet to find out which of the neighborhood’s stunning buildings are authentic cast iron.

Our debut short film, The Soul of Soho, explores neighborhoods separated by oceans, history and culture but united by craft community and change. Neighborhoods bound by one name: Soho. Intimate portraits of city living in the Sohos of London, New York and Hong Kong reveal rich stories of the people who bring life to these iconic neighborhoods. Explore Soho here.

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