glass lenses set in cast iron frames allowed light into basement spaces beneath the sidewalk
Look down! You are walking on a unique lighting system patented by Thaddeus Hyatt in 1845. Thick glass discs (“lenses”) within iron grilles covered the sidewalk area so natural light could pass through the translucent circles and illumine the basement. In a pre-electric era, this made the workspace in the basement less vulnerable to fire and noxious fumes from gas lighting.
As you walk through SoHo, notice that some vault lights have damaged or missing lenses, causing small holes in the pavement and allowing views into basements. Because of leakage, vault-light covers have in many cases been replaced by metal plates or concrete. The vault light panels at this address show signs of rehabilitation with new glass lenses and grout.
See the tour entry for 99 Mercer Street (the northwest corner of Mercer and Prince streets) for more information about vault lights.