Walk Leader: Scott Francisco, Founder & Director, Pilot Projects Design Collective
Text by: Scott Francisco
Twenty-five New Yorkers and I spent a beautiful blustery spring afternoon weaving through the historic blocks that Jane Jacobs helped save from a Robert Moses wrecking ball between Prince and Canal streets. Looking upwards as we walked, we talked history and industry, used magnets to test the metal, and even attempted a sand-casting (using wax instead of iron) on a windy Broome Street sidewalk.
Walking through SoHo today is a bizarre time warp. Wild-west facades meet industrial revolution tech, set off with the latest global fashion trends. Expansive storefront windows are working as well today as they were when innovative nineteenth century shopkeepers competed for visibility.
By the turn of the century, the invention of the elevator and the introduction of steel in construction led to the decline of cast iron architecture. As did concerns about cast iron’s strength in a building fire. SoHo plunged into a period of neglect as industry and commerce moved north into Midtown’s newly built skyscrapers. Once grand buildings were abandoned or used as unheated storehouses for scrap paper and the neighborhood became known as “Hell’s Hundred Acres” due constant fires. In the 1950s and ‘60s artists seeking low rent and light-filled open spaces for large art pieces helped save SoHo’s cast iron buildings from being razed, while Jane Jacobs staved off Robert Moses’ 10 lane freeway. In 1973 the “SoHo Cast Iron Historic District” was designated by the Landmarks Commission for protection in perpetuity.
Today SoHo has the highest concentration of cast iron buildings anywhere in the world. For better or for worse, throughout this neighborhood’s up and down seasons, the look and feel of cast iron architecture remains unique. Grab a magnet and come check it out.