Take a walk through any section of SoHo and you will quickly notice a glaring similarity running through the beautiful architecture that makes up this historic Manhattan neighborhood; the abundance of stunning cast-iron facades.
In fact, a large central section of the neighborhood is known as “The Cast Iron District” due to the district’s overwhelming presence of cast-iron buildings. Today, the SoHo-Cast Iron District is comprised of over 500 stunning cast-iron buildings, the majority of which were constructed during the neighborhood’s 19th-century origins at the advent of the Industrial Revolution.
In our SoHo Series Part 1, we charted SoHo’s industrial beginnings and its early function as a manufacturing hub for the then developing Manhattan metropolis. With a growing need for middle class housing options and the advent of powerful retailers like Tiffany & Co and Lord & Taylor, the late 1800s saw an increase in the construction of factories, retail spaces, and manufacturing warehouses. Fueling this momentum was the purveyance of a new popular form of architecture; cast iron.
“Cast iron in architecture is really the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, transforming architecture, and ultimately leading to the skyscraper,” says Anthony Robins, a historian of New York architecture.
A cheaper alternative to granite and marble, cast iron proved a popular and effective material due to its durability, fire-resistance, and the freedom it gave engineers and architects to design and implement large open concepts. By the mid to late 19th century, cast iron would become the prevailing construction material of the day, leading to its purveyance across select neighborhoods of Manhattan, especially the SoHo district.
“Cast iron could support a building’s structural weight without relying on bulky interior columns that took up space and the buildings, therefore, had much larger windows because you don’t need nearly as much iron to hold up a wall as you do stone,” says Robbins.
Ultimately, these designs transformed the history of the neighborhood and became a large factor in the neighborhood’s developing position as an artist mecca in the 1960s. The large open spaces and purveyance of natural light made the warehouse-style cast-iron buildings desirable for large swaths of artists as they set up communal living and workspaces amongst the neighborhood’s sprawling factory-style buildings.
Located on Broadway and Broome Street, the Haughwout Building serves as a standout for the kind of craftsman and architecture that dominated SoHo’s early origins.
”It’s one of the three oldest surviving cast-iron buildings in the city, and it’s also one of the most beautiful.” says Robbins, pointing out that the Haughwout holds echoes of “the grand monuments of Europe”.
With cast-iron ruling the day during this revitalization of SoHo, new business and artistic opportunities would quickly begin to sprout throughout the neighborhood. With a cheaper, stronger, and more malleable material, the architecture of the city could flourish in ways that were utterly unimaginable just decades earlier.
And today, the neighborhood is still experiencing the aftershocks of this architectural development. SoHo spaces today still take great advantage of the sweeping floor to ceiling windows and the cavernous open spaces for pop-up shops, fashion shows, product launches, and other events and parties.
It is incredible to think that one material development could come to define a neighborhood so strongly. SoHo’s cast-iron district will always serve as the heartbeat of this amazing neighborhood and its legacy will continue to stand as strong as the materials that create the foundations of these architectural wonders.