Cast-Iron Architecture in SoHo, New York City

Tour curated by: Margot Gayle and Robin Lynn with photographs by Edmund V. Gillon, Jr. and Leslie Schwartz

In 1983 Margot Gayle and Robin Lynn developed a walking tour of the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District in New York City with the Friends of Cast Iron Architecture. This twenty-six square block site in Lower Manhattan was a center of nineteenth century cast iron commercial design and from the 1960s on has been home to a lively art and gallery culture. The tour was expanded and reprinted in 2011 through the support of HPEF and the Victorian Society of New York.

Locations for Tour

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the family firm of P. & G. Lorillard commissioned John Snook to build four structures between Spring and Broome streets as warehouses for its successful snuff and tobacco business. Snook designed…

The building at the northeast corner of Broome Street and West Broadway was erected in 1874 in less than five months. Such rapid construction accounted, in part, for the popularity of cast iron construction. After multiple cast iron pieces were…

Before the tall five- and six-story commercial buildings were constructed in SoHo in the second half of the nineteenth century, the streets were lined with small Federal-style residences and shops such as this three-story masonry building, which…

The form of this beautiful 1890 Romanesque Revival masonry building shows a shift in architectural styles at the close of the nineteenth century. The gifted architect Alfred Zucker simplified the shape of this facade by grouping its windows and…

A compelling reason for the popularity of cast iron architecture was that builders could imitate the decorative features of stone without the expense. To do this, patternmakers carved a wooden pattern, which was rammed into moist sand inside a flask…

Even before the Civil War, the area that encompassed present- day SoHo and Tribeca was the center of the dry-goods trade in America. New York had an excellent port, and was ideally situated between cotton plantations in the South and New England…

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…

Lest anyone forget who was responsible for this striking structure, William H. Gunther, a leading furrier, had “Gunther Building” inscribed above its entrance. He probably had cast iron statues installed on the now-empty pedestals at either side…

The Broome Street Reformed Protestant Dutch Church, a pretty wooden Greek Revival building surrounded by a picket fence, occupied this corner until 1860 when the streets west of Broadway began losing their residential character. That year this stone…

This building at the southwest corner of Broome and Mercer streets is the former headquarters of Welcome Hitchcock & Co., a venerable dry-goods firm that began operations in 1818. The firm was the source of an endless variety of mourning goods,…

Dry-goods firms played a prominent role in transforming SoHo from a residential to a commercial area. The largest cast iron buildings in the district were generally occupied by prestigious dry-goods firms. C. A. Auffmordt and Co., “importers and…

This edifice was six bays wide on Grand Street when it was constructed in 1872—the date placed in the curved pediment above its facade. When owner James Fisher enlarged the building in 1883, he repeated the same design for a new three- bay section…

There are elaborate buildings on this narrow street, full of the intricate detailing that can be quickly and economically executed in cast iron. Number 28‒30, designed by the architect whose work dominates the block (32 and 23‒25 Greene Street),…

This pair of modest working-class houses with iron-and-glass storefronts on the ground level, and three upper floors of living quarters, is quite different from any other building in SoHo. The upper floors are of common brick covered by smooth, flat,…

In the years since they were built, no two cast iron buildings have received the same treatment. Number 23 Greene Street remains attractive even though a stoop and ornate fire escape have been added to its front. Just down the block to the north,…

It is hard to appreciate the facades of these two cast iron buildings because their fronts are hidden by fire escapes. Following the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York in which 146 people died—mostly seamstresses trapped behind…

Today, the tiny brick buildings on the north side of Canal Street are cluttered with signs, banners, fire escapes, antennas, air conditioners, merchandise, and traffic. When this row of seven buildings was built in 1821—two years after the canal in…

Arnold, Constable & Company, a venerable department store providing “elegant clothing from cradle side to graveside,” opened in 1827. Founded by Englishman Aaron Arnold who was joined by his son-in-law James M. Constable, this fine store at…

By turning north onto Mercer from Canal Street, one escapes commercial and traffic congestion and enters into a typical SoHo streetscape. Almost all the buildings were constructed before 1870 and have iron storefronts below stone facades. Number 11,…

This building is a straightforward example of the typical features of cast iron construction. Standard brick walls support its sides while wooden floors and joists span the distance between them. Thin cast iron columns support the weight of the…

The modern building along the north side of Grand Street was designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel and completed in 2007. The site was once the location of the beautiful Lord & Taylor department store. Lord & Taylor, established in…

These two narrow five-story cast iron buildings on the east side of Broadway are identical but look somewhat different because of the way they are painted. Although separated on Broadway, they are joined at the rear (along Crosby Street) to form a…

The size of this cast iron building and its prominent location on the northeast corner of Broadway and Grand Street signify its original importance as a commercial palace. It is an impressive six-story building, unusual in having three cast iron…

Richard Morris Hunt, the prominent New York architect who designed the Fifth Avenue section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the base for the Statue of Liberty, also designed a few cast iron buildings in New York. Fortunately, 480 Broadway…

At the close of the nineteenth century, the advent of steel-cage construction together with the elevator made possible the erection of buildings of unprecedented height. Tall buildings with masonry walls needed enormously thick bases to support the…

The Haughwout Store is the oldest and the most famous cast iron building in the Historic District, built as a department store in 1856 for E. V. Haughwout, an importer of silver and glass and a manufacturer of fine chandeliers and hand-painted china.…

Cast iron storefronts like this one were becoming increasingly popular by 1860, when this building was constructed. Shrewd businessmen realized the advantages of using cast iron columns at ground level, where large plate-glass windows permitted…

How Broadway has changed! This stretch of roadway between Canal and Houston Streets was the prestigious midtown area of pre-Civil War New York, boasting the fanciest shops, hotels, and theaters. Today this ordinary-looking stone building reveals…

Look above the ground floor to see this building’s rhythm. The architect repeats the same design unit along most of its facade. Flattened arches cast in a single mold spring from identical three-quarter-round columns with composite capitals.…

Corrosion (rust), the most common enemy of cast iron, is apparent on some buildings in SoHo where the paint coating has not been maintained, or has been removed and the cast iron left exposed for “aesthetic” reasons. For the maintenance of cast…

This was the last iron front erected in the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District. The spare use of the metal supporting the glass facade shows a more sophisticated appreciation of the qualities of iron than is seen in the iron front of the beloved…

Charles “Broadway” Rouss’s exuberant spirit is reflected in this ten-story building, the tallest structure using cast iron in SoHo. Rouss, who came north after the Civil War, placed a sign at the construction site in 1889 reading: “He who…

The graceful L-shaped skyscraper at 561 Broadway, with its exquisite exterior ironwork and extensive terra cotta decoration, was built as a factory by the Singer Manufacturing Company for the production of sewing machines. It is often called the…

The twelve iron columns along Mercer Street, at the back of this substantial brick-and-stone building facing Broadway, brilliantly demonstrate how the metal can be fluidly shaped into decorative forms. Swirling bands of iron twist around the smooth…

In the era of gas lighting, cast iron was often used for large window enframements that opened up the interior to light and air. This ornate brick building of the 1880s, with continuous glazed areas along its Broadway front, reflects this practice.…

The original folding iron shutters—offering both security and fire protection—still cover the lower level of these three buildings on Mercer Street, which share a common Broadway facade. The once functional iron screens, cast by G. R. Jackson and…

Once a standard light fixture on city streets, only a few cast iron lampposts still exist in SoHo. (Another light stands at 542 Broadway.) After 1903 this “Shepherd’s Crook” design became a standard feature throughout the city when several…

Circular glass lenses, through which natural light can pass to illumine the basement, are embedded in cast iron sidewalk panels and stairs in front of a large Romanesque Revival masonry building. This is likely the largest surviving vault light…

This no-nonsense iron-front warehouse with large windows and minimal decoration was converted into residential lofts by the 1980s. Its iron elements were cast by the big Cornell iron foundry located alongside the Hudson River at West 26th Street. The…