By Carter B. Horsley
Directly south of Greenwich
Village and west of Little Italy, SoHo is a relatively small neighborhood
bounded roughly by Broadway, the Hudson River, and Houston and
Canal Streets, which are major cross-town streets.
The main street of SoHo is
West Broadway, which to the north becomes Fifth Avenue on the
other side of Washington Square Park, but the other streets in
the district, Broadway, Prince, Spring, Broome and Grand and Wooster,
Greene and Mercer are all very interesting, both architecturally
The primary SoHo properties
are in the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District, which was created
in 1973 and is bounded by West Broadway, Broadway and Crosby Street,
and Houston and Canal Streets. Most of the buildings are fairly
old, but very solid and with quiet elaborate architectural designs.
Living spaces are among the largest in the city housing many artists,
photographers and designers who often work where they live.
The area attracted many artists
who moved into old and decrepit lofts illegally but eventually
so many moved into the neighborhood that they were legalized and
the artists attracted art galleries which attracted well-to-do
patrons in need of elegant food. Before long, all this success
attracted fashionistas and clothing stores began pushing out the
art galleries and driving retail rents up. Many of the galleries
relocated to cheaper digs in West Chelsea in a rather amazing
full swoop. SoHo has better older architecture but West Chelsea
became very chic especially with the birth of its High Line Elevated
Park and many superb architectural gems began to sprout amidst
the former industrial buildings and tenements.
Surprisingly, SoHo did not
dry up although its character has changed dramatically. Pedestrian
traffic is intense with a wild mix of students, tourists, Prada
shopper, Dean & DeLuca consumer, and strays from nearby Little
Italy, Chinatown and TriBeCa as well as the East Village and Greenwich
Village, all of which experienced tremendous growth in the late
1990s and early part of this millennium.
Though prices are not cheap,
locations not that central and large supermarkets not that frequent
many people like this neighborhood for its very quaint, relaxed
and somewhat chic atmosphere. Many of the streets are cobblestone
and most of the buildings are low-rise although the Trump International
SoHo tower on Spring Street created a storm of controversy in
2007 and 2008, not so much because of its height as because of
its hotel-condos upsetting some preservationists who were concerned
that they were a loophole that would lead to more towers.
These former industrial areas
had declined severely for most of the 20th Century until artists
began to move into many small, older industrial buildings in SoHo
(South of Houston Street) in the 1960's in search of inexpensive
studios and housing. Fairly quickly, a substantial community of
residents were living illegally, because of zoning laws, in the
area and successfully pressured the city into changing the zoning
to permit "artists" to continue to live in the converted
What attracted first the artists
and then their followers was the delightful cast-iron architecture
of many of the area's low-rise buildings. While Greenwich Village
had for many decades had a reputation as a haven for artists,
it did not have that many available lofts and it was expensive.
Many of the buildings were
erected between the 1850's and 1880's. Cast iron parts for the
facades were mass-produced locally and this district contains
the world's largest collection of such facades, many in the Italianate
or French Second Empire styles.
The district has several non-cast-iron
buildings of distinction as well. Richard Morris Hunt designed
the rather delicate 1874 Roosevelt building at 478-483 Broadway,
Vaux & Withers designed 448 Broome Street, Renwick & Sands
designed 34 Howard Street.
Some of the more important
structures are the Haughwout Store building at 488 Broadway, erected
in 1857 and designed by John P. Gaynor and restored in 1995, 484
Broome Street, an impressive and massive Romanesque-Revival, non-cast-iron
structure designed by Alfred Zucker. The tall building at 587
Broadway is a "kitchen-sink" building because every
floor has a different facade treatment.
"A proud and handsome,
but not egocentric, building here proves that quality does not
demand originality for its own sake. Built for Eder V. Haughwout,
a merchant in china, cut glass silverware and chandeliers, it
also housed the first practical safety elevator, installed by
Elisha Graves Otis, founder of that ubiquitous elevator company.
The Corinthian columns that flank the arches are sometimes remembered
as Serlian, after the drawings and writings of Sebastian Serlio
(1475-1554), later lifted by Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) and most
elegantly displayed at the Basilica in Vicenza", observed
Elliot Willensky and Norval White in their great book, "The
A.I.A. Guide to New York City, Third Edition", (Harcourt
Brace Jovanovich, 1988).
The early cast-iron buildings
were cheaper to erect than stone buildings but by the end of the
19th Century developers were beginning to favor steel-framed brick
and terra-cotta loft buildings, many of which were designed to
accommodate garment factories, including the superb, "L"-shaped,
Little Singer Building at 561 Broadway, designed by Ernest Flagg
and completed in 1904 with its curved steel braces, recessed windows
and fine detailing.
The many fine conversions and
restorations in this district is one of the preservation movement's
great success stories, not only in New York, but the nation, and
many credit Margot Gayle, an architectural historian, with much
of that success in waging the campaign for landmark status.
The area's success is not confined
to the boundaries of the official SoHo district and Saatchi &
Saatchi, the advertising agency, relocated from midtown in the
1980's to a new, large office building nearby on Hudson Street
in large part because of the boundless creative energies of SoHo.
Indeed, in the late 1990's a new hotel was built at the southern
end of the district even as many art galleries were beginning
to relocate from SoHo to less expensive spaces in the Chelsea
district to the north and west.
The tremendous popularity of
the area took the city by surprise as foreigners flocked to the
art galleries and soon chic restaurants and boutiques sprang up
to capture their trade and traffic and soon people looked up at
the buildings and found them lovely, many with arched windows
and high ceilings and that most precious commodity in the city,
space. The phenomenon of SoHo would result in the rediscovery
and renaissance of several other districts that had fallen into
neglect, or at least out of popularity, such as the Union Square
and Flatiron Districts and the immense and undeniable desirability
of these areas and their excellent architectural legacies was
a strong factor in the willingness of many major residential developers
in the city to move away from their typical "white-brick
monstrosities" that categorized so much of post-war building
and to pay at least some attention to "design."
Close to SoHo is the small
but charming group of fine Federal-style townhousses in the Charlton-King-Vandam
Historic District to the west of the Avenue of the Americas. To
the west of this district are many large industrial buildings.
New construction projects included
a large dark residential condominium building at 40 Mercer designed
by Jean Nouvel with large windows that rolled down,and a slick
modern through-block residential condominium at 311 West Broadway
by Gwathmey-Siegel, among others.
The area abounds in many very
popular restaurants included Cipriani's and Barolo on West Broadway,
Balthazar on Spring Street, Pravda on Lafayette Street and Public
on Elizabeth Street.