SoHo's Iron Walls
August 9, 2017
American culture in the 19th Century was largely borrowed - first from the British, later from the French and Italians. The industrialization of mineral fuel and iron ore ushered in not just The Industrial Revolution, with all of its disruptive consequences, but also changes in the way people thought, felt, and built. Architecture, urban society's perennial preoccupation, rose up on stouter legs, bursting through the historic 5-story height limit in city after city, altering both the skyline and the way buildings were occupied and used. Cast-iron buildings are a case in point. Originally devised in England and Scotland, they saw their first use as factories, mills, and warehouses, utilitarian structures unworthy of the finer dressings of marble, granite, and limestone.
Almost immediately, however, the Americans joined in, energetically erecting aesthetically pleasing classical facades in places wherever there were none: Richmond, Baltimore, Chicago, Portland, Cincinnati, Louisville, and New Orleans. But it was in the burgeoning metropolises of New York and St. Louis, arguably the two most important and fastest growing American cities in the years between 1850 - 1900 that cast-iron took hold and dominated the urban surround. Huge cast-iron districts were thrown up seemingly overnight, providing much needed space for commerce, manufacturing, and retail trade. And because the largely wooden, and therefore highly combustible, 19th Century American city grew so quickly, it was a chronic and lethal firetrap. One after another densely crowded downtown went up in flames with horrific consequences throughout the century, making cast-iron's purported fireproof qualities difficult to resist. That, coupled with the availability of ever-larger sheets of vision glass, and the consequently greater amount of interior illumination it yielded, ensured their success. Cast in foundries in the East, promoted by catalogue wherever there were railroads, and put up by local laborers, masons, and carpenters, an entire building could be cast, shipped, erected, and put into service in a matter of days. Expedient elegance, American style.
Today, only New York boasts a unified, historically significant, district composed almost entirely of cast-iron buildings. This is SoHo, the grid of Manhattan streets girded by Canal Street on the South and Houston Street on the north - hence SoHo, the neighborhood South of Houston. St. Louis, which at one time had an even larger cast-iron district centered around LaClede's Landing, sadly has virtually none. It unwisely succumbed to the first sanitizing stirrings of urban 'renewal' during and after The Great Depression, when its entire riverfront district was razed to make way for what eventually became the site of the Saarinen Arch, an architectural exertion of dubious distinction considering what was lost.
Not surprisingly, SoHo was similarly pencilled in for demolition in the 1960s, around the same time the wrecking balls were knocking down Pennsylvania Station farther uptown (and what a remarkable success that has proven to be). Robert Moses, New York's self-styled master builder, had grandiose notions of a Lower Manhattan Expressway, one connecting the Holland Tunnel with the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges. Despite all his efforts to the contrary, however, community groups led by two doughty, undaunted, and highly prescient women succeeded in keeping the district intact: the great urbanist Jane Jacobs, and a genteel lady from Georgia named Margot Gayle. It is these two ladies that today's Manhattan citizenry may thank for the extraordinary experience of walking up and down SoHo's cobblestone streets. A near miss of great consequence. Yes, in life it's better to be lucky than smart.
Unfortunately, life also teaches that the barbarians are never far from the gate. I must report the imminent demolition of two extraordinary Griffith Thomas cast-iron fronts located at 827/831 Broadway, across the street from The Strand Bookstore. Unless the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission acts with decision and dispatch, these buildings will surely be demolished early one Sunday morning, carted off in the darkness to a salvage yard in New Jersey, and hastily sold as scrap to satisfy the manic vanity and suffocating greed of a group of real estate profiteers; marking just one more small step in the ongoing strip-mining of the Manhattan cityscape. Beyond their historical value, which is well documented and significant, they constitute a crucial part of the city's patrimony. Societies, like families, require a clear sense of self and shared identity to provide context for a life that's both meaningful and worthwhile. Absent this, and the community becomes a milling crowd of transient amnesiacs, innocent of its past social and civic capital. The erasure of a city's historical agenda constitutes nothing less than a self-inflicted lobotomy - to lose it is to induce cultural dementia.
Now, every city's citizens get the city they deserve, and are willing to fight for. Give the levelers and crass opportunists free rein, and be prepared for the disappointment, degradation, and mediocrity they inevitably leave behind. Their product is banal, their contribution trivial, and they debase everything they touch. They are society's carrion eaters, and ought to be shunned and despised. In this case, what price can be put upon two remarkably fine examples of Manhattan's irreplaceable socio-economic and architectural past? Or, as one might otherwise ask: how many strings of pearls must decorate the necks of Middle European supermodels to quiet the bulimic appetites of a New York real estate developer?
The image above is one of SoHo's surviving facades, now secure in the hands of couturier boutiques and hedge fund traders. And yes, it is a shame the artists, university students, and urban pioneers of the 1960s and 70s have long since decamped to parts less regal yet more affordable. But cast-iron buildings are, after all, big, complicated machines. They break. And they rust. And they're not cheap to own, operate, or maintain. And so it's necessarily a good thing that only the very well-to-do get to live in SoHo. As for the rest of us, we can always stop by for a walking tour and visit the next time we're in town. I hear the coffee's pretty good on Grand Street.
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