New York City: Cast in Iron

Approach Guides, an independent publisher of travel and wine guides, has just launched its most recent guidebook in e-book and PDF format: Cast Iron Architecture in New York’s SoHo and TriBeCa.  

Below, an excerpt from the book’s introduction.



New York City’s TriBeCa and SoHo neighborhoods in downtown Manhattan are home to the largest concentration of cast iron facades in the world.

These architectural gems are the legacy of a now-defunct textile merchant industry that prospered from 1850 to 1890.

While construction in the zone slowed briefly during the Civil War (during the Draft Riots of 1863,  close to sixty buildings were burned to the ground) and the Panic of 1873 depression, it was generally a frenetic period of construction.

As quickly as it began, the cast iron building boom came to an end as steel frame buildings rose to preeminence.

A precursor of steel, cast iron was the first material that could be prefabricated for architectural purposes, making it ideal as a strong, durable, and low-cost building medium.

With cast iron, all elements of the facade could be mass manufactured by heating iron to a temperature that would eliminate all impurities; this was a dramatic improvement over wrought iron that required that impurities be hammered and rolled out by labor intensive processes.

The primary difference: Cast iron, which has high compressive strength, is best suited for columns; and wrought iron, which has high tensile strength, is best suited for beams.

photos courtesy of Approach Guides

General prevailing characteristics include:

“Store and loft” building profile. The typical cast iron facade building in SoHo and TriBeCa is twenty- five to fifty feet wide, consisting of three to six bays; it is five or six stories in height.

The “store,” where sales were executed, was the ground floor; and the “loft,” which was used for storage and light manufacturing, consisted of the upper floors.

Prefabricated elements that increase facade uniformity. Builders could select from a catalog of stock pieces (columns, bays, window frames, cornices, etc.). The widespread use of these stock parts created a high degree of consistency both within a single facade and across facades on buildings throughout SoHo and TriBeCa.

Greater decorative detail. The prefabricated nature of architectural elements freed up building owners to opt for increased decorative details, the execution of which would have proved time-consuming and prohibitively costly if they had been rendered by hand carving in stone.

Variety of style blends. While there are certainly many “pure” examples of the five styles — Italian: Roman, Italian: Venetian, Italian: Sperm Candle, French: Second Empire, and French: Neo-Grec (all discussed in detail in subsequent sections) — a large portion of buildings display a blend of styles.

Step vault lighting. Buildings typically have storage basements that run under the sidewalk. Over this subterranean space, many employ a cast iron frame punctuated by thick glass lenses (often round and in manifold colors) that allowed daylight to pass through and illuminate the interior; it is called a step vault light. A large number of these step vaults survive — they were employed from 1845 until the end of the 19th century, when electric lighting rendered them unnecessary.

To order the e-book version, click here:  Guide to Cast Iron Architecture in New York’s SoHo and Tribeca (with Walking Tour)