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September 26th, 2006

Cast-Iron Royalty an exploration of SoHo’s beloved Cast-iron building facades

by Alexandra Schwimmer

To Canal StreetThere are approximately 250 cast iron buildings in New York City today, the majority of which are in SoHo. Big Apple Tour Buses used to make the turns onto the narrow one-way side streets like Spring at West Broadway in order to give riders a glimpse of these historical structures. I grew up with the knowledge that SoHo has the greatest number of cast iron buildings in the world. Beautiful, twisting fire escapes and brochures boasting The Queen and King of Greene Street are found in almost any restaurant in the neighborhood. We are special for something other then just art galleries and boutiques. We have buildings. We live in them, work in them, play in them, smoke in them, and daydream on their fire escapes and rooftops.

“Iron is the fourth most common element on Earth,” as my dad says as he hands me a piece of the building we’re standing in.

It is a cast iron rosette; the gray iron has been painted a neutral buff color and there are chips in the paint where the piece bounced on the concrete when it was dropped. We’re in a Hard Hat Zone and it’s still winter. None of the workers have hard hats on; most have bandannas with woolen hats as a second layer. The walls are exposed brick, there are some panels of sheetrock in places, the ceiling is nothing but hanging wires and there are conduits being run along the walls. What is going to be an oak floor is still construction dust on top of cement. “There’s a lot of iron in our blood too,” I offer. The cast iron rosette is heavy in my coat pocket. I take it out and turn it over, running my gloved thumb along the swirling edges.

The majority of SoHo’s cast iron facades were constructed in the time period between 1840 and 1880. Molds for the decorative fronts were fabricated and could be used interchangeably between structures, making the manufacturer of cast iron facades not only rapid but also extremely cost-efficient. Complex forms could be cast cheaply and easily this way and fractured pieces are easily replaced. America’s realization of this, as with many other things, came from England. England had been molding in iron since the early Nineteenth century. There were cast iron bridges, cast iron furniture, and cast iron machines. The virgin forests of America allowed for elegant imitation masonry to be carved of wood as is still done in many restorations today but cast iron was soon to make an appearance.

The decorative fronts were either retro fitted to pre-existing buildings or used in new structures that could be completed in as little as four months. Classical French and Italian architectural styles appear to have been the most popular styles. At the time, it was thought that cast iron was structurally sounder and more fire resistant than steel. But, since cast iron usually served to cover wood and brick exteriors, it was soon discovered that this did not guarantee fire safety. When cast iron was exposed to heat, it fractured. The heated cast iron would crack when cold water hit from the fire hoses. By 1899 building codes required that cast iron be supported by masonry, not brick or wood.

Cast iron offered more than mere decoration and ornamentation for previously bland structures. It’s very strong material and this strength allows for the architectural design of large windows. The size of these impressive new window frames from the 1800’s ensured that there was a copious amount of natural light. Sunlight entered the expansive new interiors and brightened them considerably. The strength of the metal permitted high ceilings, larger windows, and sleek supporting columns. The neighborhood was beginning to change.

At 22 Mercer Street there is a building with a story. Rising five stories, this structure is classically composed in the Italianate commercial palace tradition. The building’s architect, Griffith Thomas imported an architectural style from England–which was a fusion of the ornate charm found in various British cities. Thomas’s architectural company (created by his father) designed this specific building for a man named Ludlow. The ground floor is cast iron and was intended to be a retail space with large storefront windows and wood framed doors that open onto the street on both building sides. Today, delivery trucks rattle and bump along the Mercer Street side as they navigate the Belgian paving stones.

Over the past five years the facades on both sides of the building have been lovingly restored to the architectural specifications of what the building looked like in 1860, when it was built. The Mercer Street facade was originally classic red brick with eyebrow-arched windows on the four floors above a ground floor retail space. Arched windows were beautifully composed and proportioned with surrounding white ornamentation around the arches. The Broadway facade was constructed out of white marble from a quarry in Tuckahoe, New York. The marble was brought specifically for this building and others below Fourteenth Street through a friendly business arrangement involving Mayor “Boss” Tweed. The Broadway side–which is the commercial facing side–is more ornate. There is a Juliet balcony with urns on each side, and high windows with carvings in the marble around the frames. This is how the building was originally designed and exactly how it stands today. However, the architectural blueprints are in conflict and a single walk through the building begins to point towards a deeper more hidden history within the building.

The blueprint sketches show the building lot as being slightly irregular on the South side. The answer to this irregularity is a SoHo Secret. Mr. N. Ludlow, the original owner of the building, had a small side building on that section of the lot. It is a secret hideout, almost a “garconer”, or bachelor hideout. The ‘Little House’ as the present day owners and eventually the construction crew began calling this unique structure within a structure, is a quiet space. It is removed from the bustling Broadway side and tucked away nearer to Mercer Street. A secret stairway runs all the way from the basement up two levels. Although the stairway is a plain wooden one there is a banister between the two levels just above the basement that suggests a secret stair in a palace. It is not a decorative banister yet the banister’s existence points to actual use of the Little House. The basement floor is a space of 15 by 20 made of slate. In the basement there is a vault made of eighteen-inch thick brick walls with iron doors. During the course of construction the words “Beware he who insults my name with impunity” appear painted in Latin above the doorway. Poe would have enjoyed spending time down in the basement of The Little House.

This is just the surface story of one of the two hundred and fifty cast iron structures in New York City. The King and Queen of all cast iron structures stand just a few blocks away from 22 Mercer. Greene Street, the heart of the Cast Iron District, boasts over fifty of these buildings. Architect J.F. Duckworth is responsible for number 28-30 Greene Street, The Queen, with her ornate fire escape and window frames that appear to have been delicately frosted and carved onto the ledges. Her King is at number 72-76 Greene. These two buildings, from 1872 and 1873 respectively have continued their reign over a SoHo street with the largest number of these buildings in the world. Even the lampposts on Greene Street are architectural gems. Their bishop’s-crook style, adorned with various cast iron curlicues from their bases to their curved tops add to the charm of the street.

While Manhattan buildings get taller, SoHo has maintained a low profile. This is part of the downtown charm. While skyscrapers go up in neighborhoods all around the streets of SoHo, this neighborhood spends its money on the upkeep of our world famous historic buildings. The repair of chips and cracks is an ongoing and never ending job. Plates of iron are delivered on flatbeds to be tacked up where old ones have come off the brick beneath. New coats of neutral toned paint are swept across cast iron that has stood for over a century. The respect that SoHo pays to the history of New York City is a daily event. We look up at our buildings, we watch the winter sunlight filter through the tendrils of fire escapes and enjoy the summer sun as it glances off of twisted iron in the shape of a star. There is a reverence to a walk through SoHo.


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