THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE SOHO NEIGHBORHOOD


THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE SOHO NEIGHBORHOOD

Since the early 1980s, SoHo has been recognized as one of the country’s great art and fashion meccas, and its selection of unique architecture contributes considerably to its charm, not to mention status as one of the most coveted neighborhoods in the world.

A simple stroll through SoHo’s streets reveals why the blocks south of Houston Street are known for their abundance of beautifully renovated lofts, high-end boutiques, and pioneering contemporary art galleries. Many architecture buffs and real estate lovers are familiar with the story: SoHo’s housing stock is composed largely of renovated factories built in the 19th century. Their open floor plans and huge windows attracted artists in droves in the 1960s, and led the neighborhood to become a center for contemporary art and culture of all sorts. Architecturally, SoHo is also known for the fine ironwork that gives its buildings both timeless curb appeal and much-needed structural support.

The area bound by Varick, Charlton, MacDougal, and King Streets on the western edge of SoHo was labeled Richmond Hill for the colonial estate and mansion built there in 1760. In 1776, George Washington used the Richmond Hill home as his Revolutionary War headquarters, and John and Abigail Adams lived there for one year from 1789-1790. The estate and mansion were then purchased by Aaron Burr, who lived and entertained there with his family for some years as he rose in political power to become U.S. Vice President, only to have to mortgage what was left of the property after his infamous, and fatal, duel with his rival, Alexander Hamilton. Eventually Burr’s creditors sold the estate to fur magnate John Jacob Astor, who razed Richmond Hill to build a new Federal-style home on the site. This is the style that prevails in parts of SoHo even today; red brick and rectilinear designs abound on Charlton Street.

Though it would fall into disrepair and suffer overcrowding in the middle of the 19th century, SoHo did remain home to many politicians, including those who ran Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party political machine. It would also become an enclave of Italian-American immigrants.

Despite all these changes, Charlton Street in West SoHo looks and feels much as it did in decades—and even centuries—past, though now it is surely more comfortable, accessible, and well-preserved than it has ever been. This street seems to have been impacted by almost every major historical chapter in American history, from Dutch settlement and the Revolutionary War through immigration and industrialization, right up to the opening decades of the 21st century. Some of this history can be read in the language of its houses and their varied historic styles, all of which contribute to the SoHo of today, which seems to brim with vitality as it balances the new and the old with a cultivated yet nonchalant elegance.