SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District
Despite threats from an expressway that would have torn through the neighborhood, the impressive cast-iron architecture of SoHo survives today through the concerted efforts of area residents.
The SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District is a section of lower Manhattan bounded by Broadway, West Broadway, Canal Street, Howard Street, Crosby Street, East Houston Street, and West Houston Street. The district comprises about 500 buildings, many of which are characterized by their cast-iron facades.1 Development of the district began in the late 18th century as a few businesses and wealthy residents moved in. The population surged after the War of 1812, and some homes from this era still remain. The latter half of the 19th century saw the district evolve into a center of commerce and entertainment, and the majority of the cast-iron buildings the district is known for were constructed during this period. The use of cast-iron allowed for ornate facades that were a much cheaper alternative to granite and marble. However, an increase of industrial production along with rising crime and “immorality” steadily drove residents out of the area.2
Manufacturing and dry goods businesses flourished after the Civil War, but the district began to decline in the early 20th century, leaving many spaces vacant for decades and leading some to refer to the area as Hell’s Hundred Acres.3 It was not until the late 1960s that artists became attracted to the area because the large, unoccupied loft spaces made affordable studios. Many of those who moved into the area lived in their workspaces, even though it was illegal to do so, and the area was not sufficiently equipped for residential life, lacking basic necessities such as trash collection.4
At the same time, the entire landscape of SoHo was threatened by plans to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX). LOMEX was a proposed ten-lane elevated highway that would connect the Hudson to the East River, but would require the demolition of much of SoHo and Little Italy. Artists in the area collaborated with other preservation advocates in the first, unsuccessful attempt to designate SoHo as a historic district for its architectural significance. Although that failed, they also formed Artists Against the Expressway and ultimately helped defeat the plans for LOMEX, which saved the architecture in the area.
Around this same time, the Artists Tenant Association, which worked to ensure the availability of affordable studio space for artists around the City, aided the newly formed SoHo Artists Association in their efforts to gain legitimacy in SoHo. They successfully campaigned for a law allowing approved artists to continue living in the industrial buildings in the area. The “SoHo Effect” has become a model for repurposing an industrial district for mixed use, both commercial and residential, while preserving much of the existing structural integrity.5 Today SoHo is known for its unique cast-iron architecture, desirable loft living, and upscale boutiques. In 2010, an extension was granted that added about 135 buildings that were not included in the original boundaries of the district.6
In 1973, SoHo was designated an historic district by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, with an extension to the district approved by the Commission in 2010.
1959: The Artists Tenant Association is formed
1965: The first attempt to designate the SoHo district as an area of architectural importance is made
1968: The SoHo Artists Association is formed
1969: The Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX) plans are halted permanently
1973: The SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District is designated by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
1981: The SoHo Alliance is founded
2010: The extension to the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District is designated
by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
2011: The SoHo Memory Project is launched
Several preservation-minded groups have fought to preserve the SoHo area over the years. The first was Artists Against the Expressway (AAE). The concept of the Lower Manhattan Expressway was first developed in the 1930s, but gained more traction in the 1950s and ‘60s. Running along Broome Street, its construction would have destroyed what is now SoHo and Little Italy. The AAE brought together artists and academics in the interest of halting these plans. Julie Finch, resident of SoHo and then-wife of artist Donald Judd, chaired AAE, which organized a letter writing campaign and a public forum.
Another group that fought to preserve SoHo was The SoHo Artists Association, made up of artists living where they worked in SoHo. Their residency in SoHo was illegal but overlooked, and they organized to legalize loft living in SoHo. In 1971, the Board of Estimate permitted them to reside in the manufacturing buildings of SoHo. In 1972, they connected with the Department of Sanitation to schedule regular trash pickup once the area was officially considered residential.
The fight to continue the preservation of the SoHo area continues to the present day. For example, The SoHo Alliance aims to preserve the quality of life in SoHo by monitoring new development plans. The Alliance fervently opposes New York University’s 2031 expansion plan to build high-rises in the area.7 In addition, the Metropolitan Chapter of the Victorian Society in America was the organization that proposed the recent historic district extension of the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District, and in doing so hoped to honor Margot Gayle, an expert on cast-iron architecture who was highly involved in SoHo preservation efforts. Furthermore, The SoHo Memory Project, a blog that aims to present a more comprehensive picture of SoHo as a community of both artists and non-artists, was founded by lifelong SoHo resident Yukie Ohta.8
- Archival material related to the preservation of SoHo is held by the SoHo Alliance and the SoHo Memory Project.
Friends of Cast Iron Papers
National Trust for Historic Preservation Library Collection
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742
- Margot Gayle Photo Collection
New York Preservation Archive Project
174 East 80th Street, New York, NY 10075
- The New-York Historical Society has an extensive collection of Gayle's papers, focusing on her later preservation activism. Contact the Manuscript Department for more information or click here for the NYHS's "Guide to the Papers of Margot Gayle."
- Manuscript Department
The New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Tel: (212) 873-3400 ex. 265
Fax: (212) 875-1591
- Oral History with Margot Gayle
New York Preservation Archive Project
174 East 80th Street
New York, NY 10075
Tel: (212) 988-8379
- City of New York: Landmarks Preservation Commission, “SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District Designation Report,” 1973, page 1.
- Ibid, pages 4-6.
- Susie Ranney, “SoHo: Beyond Boutiques and Cast Iron: The Significance, Legacy, and Preservation of the Pioneering Artist Community’s Cultural Heritage,” Master’s thesis: Columbia University, 2012, page 1.
- “The SAA: Trash Talkin’ and Beat Walkin’,” The SoHo Memory Project. Article retrieved 14 July 2012.
- Susie Ranney, “SoHo: Beyond Boutiques and Cast Iron: The Significance, Legacy, and Preservation of the Pioneering Artist Community’s Cultural Heritage,” Master’s thesis: Columbia University, 2012, pages 7-11.
- City of New York: Landmarks Preservation Commission, “SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District Designation Report Extension,” 2010.
- “Keeping Watch: The SoHo Alliance and the Preservation of SoHo,” The SoHo Memory Project. Article retrieved 1 July 2014.
- Yukie Ohta, ed. The SoHo Memory Project. Article retrieved 24 February 2016.