Soho, NYC's Design District

Long before the latest fashions were on display in boutiques, Soho had a reputation for design. Makers of all stripes—from artisans of glassware and china to cabinet workers crafting pianos—worked in the neighborhood. This booming industry is responsible for two of Soho’s signature traits: a creative spirit and its popular cast-iron architecture.

But before Soho could develop into a design district, there was one problem to be addressed: fires. In the 1800s, factory fires in the neighborhood were extremely common and a danger to all business that inhabited the area. From the 1870s to the 1890s, flammable buildings were replaced by sturdy cast-iron structures, and one of New York’s most architecturally beloved districts was born. The new factories had open interiors with oversize windows and decorative cast-iron exteriors.

Broadway & Houston, 1875

At first, small industry thrived, including brass and copper makers and book publishers. Larger industry came next, like textile firms from silk manufacturers to lace producers. But after World War II, the textile industry moved south, leaving many of Soho’s buildings vacant and building owners bankrupt. At one stage, the business became so slow that buildings were in danger of complete demolition. It was at this point when a proposal for a “Lower Manhattan Expressway” was floated in government (this project was ultimately abandoned in 1962 after a grass roots battle to preserve the neighborhood).

The buildings didn’t stay empty for long, however; high ceilings and empty lofts were a natural match for the new generation of artists and makers that slowly trickled into the neighborhood. In the 1960s, trends in art included work on larger and larger canvases. The former factories of Soho had the space and light artists needed—and the price tag was right, too: warehouse-style spaces were dirt cheap. Artists migrated to the neighborhood, including spaces like the co-op at 80 Wooster Street where Andy Warhol, Philip Glass, and John Lennon all presented their work.

Meeting of SoHo Artists Association Planning Committee, 1968. Credit: Smithsonian

The factories-turned-art-studios became historic landmarks in the 1970s (the Soho Cast Iron Historic District was declared in 1973 and the neighborhood was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978). To see Soho’s oldest cast-iron façade, dating back to 1857, stroll over to Broadway and Broome where the Haughwout Building, with its arched windows and Corinthian columns, stands on the northeast corner.

From the silk manufacturers of the 1890s to the iconic artists of the 1960s, makers have established Soho as a haven for creativity and breathed life into the neighborhood we know and love.

Words by Jessica Colley Clarke