SoHo, short for South of Houston Street, is a section of Lower Manhattan in the City of New York. Numerous artists’ lofts and galleries have called this area home since the 1970s; the area is also well-known for its eclectic mix of stores, from hip, high-end boutiques to outposts of well-known chains from all over the world. The area’s history encompasses economic, cultural, political, and architectural shifts, making it a paradigmatic case study of urban revitalization and gentrification.
Fashionable SoHo attracts shoppers from all around, not just locals, thanks to its abundance of high-end boutiques, upscale department stores and prestigious art galleries. The neighborhood’s sophisticated cast-iron façade and cobblestone alleys create a charming setting for the area’s many chic eateries and clubs. Street merchants stock their wares with everything from handmade jewelry to original paintings during the day.
New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District in 1973; the district’s boundaries were expanded in 2010; the district was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978; and in 1978 it was designated a National Historic Landmark. There are about 500 buildings spread across 26 blocks here, and many of them make use of cast-iron detailing. Belgian blocks can be found on the pavement of many of the neighborhood’s side streets.
SoHo is home to the world’s largest concentration of cast-iron buildings. The majority of New York City’s about 250 cast-iron structures are located in the SoHo neighborhood. Initially, cast iron was only utilized for the façade of an already-existing structure. Older industrial buildings were renovated by adding contemporary, ornamental facades in order to appeal to a wider range of commercial tenants. Between 1840 and 1880, the majority of these facades were built. Buildings in SoHo were eventually constructed to include cast iron, and it was used to rehabilitate older structures as well.
Cast iron was an American architectural breakthrough that was less expensive than alternatives like stone or brick when used for building exteriors. Many structures shared the same ornamental molds that were manufactured in foundries; if a piece was broken, it could be easily replaced. Some of the structures were even erected in as little as four months. The quality of the cast-iron patterns was not compromised despite the rushed timeline of construction.
In the 1960s, the two branches of the Lower Manhattan Expressway were supposed to meet in the SoHo neighborhood, creating two massive elevated roadways. The plans were disputed by the fledgling historic preservation movement and architectural critics who were angered by the potential loss of a large number of 19th-century cast-iron buildings and still smarting from the 1963 destruction of the original Pennsylvania Station.
After the highway plan was scrapped, the city was left with a surplus of old structures that weren’t conducive to the kinds of industry and trade that were still thriving there in the 1970s. Many of these buildings’ top stories were originally intended as commercial Manhattan lofts, giving manufacturers ample room to spread out. Artists were drawn to these facilities because of their affordable prices, spacious layouts, and abundance of natural light.