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The Cast-Iron Loft Buildings of SoHo

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SoHo, as many of you know, is one of the New York City’s trendiest and most artsy neighborhoods. A blend of “South” and “Houston” from “south of Houston Street”, the name was coined - most likely by a real estate agent - when the area underwent a transformation in the late 50’s. Formerly a home to factories and warehouses, SoHo's reputation steadily declined in the late 30s and 40s until it became infamously known as "hell's hundred acres."  It might have continued as a slum if it were not for the imagination of a multitude of artists who seized the opportunity to rent and buy cheap studio spaces with high-ceilings and open layouts. By the 1970s art galleries and new residents began reinvigorating the district. SoHo became a haven for creativity, commerce and residential life and transformed from a manufacturing district into a creative community. The height of cool, as proved by the fact that Bowie lived there. Today the crowded thoroughfares of SoHo have morphed into what is essentially a mall of boutique shops, chock full of shopping-bag-wielding tourists and fashionistas. Above the ground level the creative spaces that once made SoHo so appealing to artists still remain, however now the spaces are occupied mainly by companies in need of bright loft offices and high-end residences.

Before being known as SoHo however, the area was famously referred to as the Cast Iron District because it contains one of the greatest collections of cast-iron architecture in the entire world. Cast-iron architecture was a mass produced American architectural innovation of the 19th century. Cast-iron was much cheaper than stone or brick and also allowed intricate design features to be prefabricated in foundries, an inexpensive way to garnish a structure with a face that was ornate, costly-looking and stylish but at a fraction of the price. Classically inspired Italian Renaissance and later, French architectural styles were to be found in many of the district’s iconic buildings, and at one time you could order any type of design you wished and have it quickly assembled and bolted to a building's frame.

The beauty of the cast iron is that it can also be painted in any color and matched to any style and, if need be, it can be easily removed from one building and placed on another.  Another advantage to using cast iron was that windows could be made larger, allowing more natural light into buildings where formerly there was very little.

Built by a variety of pioneers in urban architecture, cast-iron eventually became the metal of choice in the late 19th century. The material’s fire-resistant properties and tensile strength made it possible to erect large building facades at less cost than comparable stone.  Cast-iron buildings could be erected with much more speed and efficiency, and adding to the benefits is the fact that cast-iron is an alloy with a high carbon content that makes it more resistant to corrosion than either wrought iron or steel.

Daniel D. Badger, one of New York’s most well-known architects to work with cast iron, erected one of the earliest cast iron building facades in the United States in 1842. His company, Daniel D. Badger's Architectural Ironworks of New York, had an important role in constructing the cast iron facade for The E.V. Haughwout Building on the Northeast corner of Broadway and Broome Street.

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A.J. Ditenhoefer Building

Another example of early Soho cast-iron architecture is the Gunther Building at the southwest corner of Broome and Greene Streets.  Designed by the famous Griffin Thomas,  the building was completed  in 1873.

Greene Street is the heart of SoHo’s Cast-Iron district and some of the best cast-iron buildings can be found here. If you’re an architect,  shop-o-holic or just want to live in one of the hippest places in the city, there are plenty of SoHo condos, co-ops and office space available.

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Mar 15, 2012

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