The Prehistory of the SoHo Loft

The Prehistory of the SoHo Loft

The name SoHo is synonymous with the big, arched windows and light-flooded interiors of loft-style living, thanks to the generation of creative souls who helped transform the now-famous neighborhood from a former industrial corridor into one of New York’s loveliest residential enclaves. Today, SoHo is synonymous with chic: the neighborhood’s characteristic blend of industrial architecture with contemporary art and high fashion is acknowledged far and wide as an enduring brand of urban sophistication.  

There was little indication in the late 1960s that SoHo would eventually become a leading light in the development of thoughtfully designed New York City condos. During that time, Soho was filled with painters, sculptors, and photographers who lived in the area’s loft spaces.  The presence of these artists saved some of New York’s most compelling historic buildings from falling into neglect. The area’s creative pioneers also precipitated SoHo’s eventual rezoning to allow for live/work spaces after the city realized their growing presence would likely prevent the 

hoped-for return of industry to the area. As soon as rezoning happened, many artists purchased buildings, set up studios, and began raising their families here.SoHo boasts an extremely high concentration of cast iron buildings, many dating to the mid-19th century, when the area was first developed as a shopping enclave for residents of lower Manhattan. During this period, 14th Street was considered “uptown.” New methods of building with cast iron made the construction of large facades relatively inexpensive for the first time, just as the thriving metropolis was eager to fill the new spaces with light industrial workshops and retail meccas. The E. V. Haughwout Building, built in 1857 on the corner of Broome Street and Broadway, was designed with two street-facing cast iron facades. The Haughwout building was also the first to boast a passenger elevator that worked well and was safe thanks to the efforts of Elisha Otis, founder of Otis Elevator Company. 

SoHo was transformed again in the early 20th century, when the United States absorbed a tidal wave of immigrants. Many new arrivals, skilled in the needle trades, went to work in SoHo loft buildings to manufacture textiles, hats, and other goods. During this period, much of SoHo’s original retail presence gradually shifted uptown as the residential population of Manhattan continued to expand out from what is today the Wall Street area. 

The artists who first occupied what would become modern SoHo found the neighborhood’s gritty elements a fascinating allure when combined with the neighborhood’s rich history and aesthetic foundation. Eventually, the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol would stroll the cobbled streets of Soho, elevating the neighborhood’s reputation among the cultural elite. Today, any part of New York in which artists move into a previously industrialized area is immediately compared to SoHo.  

Many fail to realize, however, that the lofts of SoHo were seriously threatened by the city at the beginning of their artistic renaissance. A long-planned expressway, originally championed by firebrand NYC mayor Robert Wagner, was meant to connect the Holland Tunnel to the Williamsburg Bridge, bisecting what is today protected as the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District. 

The project was in advanced planning stages by the late 1960s, and a budget for eminent domain acquisitions in the area had been set. Only the organized efforts of urban preservationists and residents effectively thwarted the destruction of key buildings in SoHo, as well as the descent of the rumble and shadow of a freeway over the beloved neighborhood’s famous cobblestone streets.

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