Cast-Iron Wonderland

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Cast-Iron Wonderland

Soho, one of New York City's downtown neighborhoods, is synonymous with postmodern chic — an amalgam of black-clad artists, hip young Wall Streeters, track-lit loft apartments, art galleries, and restaurants with a minimalist approach to both food and decor. It's all very urban, very cool, very now. In fact, SoHo is an abbreviation for the district South of Houston Street, bounded by Broadway, Canal Street, and Sixth Avenue. But nearly 50 years ago, the area was virtually a wasteland.

Historical preservationists discovered that it held the world's greatest concentration of cast-iron architecture, and fought to prevent its demolition. Almost all of SoHo is included in the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District, designated by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1973. It consists of 26 blocks and approximately 500 buildings, many of which incorporate cast iron architectural elements.

The best way to discover this cast-iron wonderland is to walk up Greene Street. The block between Canal and Grand Streets contains the longest continuous row of cast-iron buildings anywhere in the country. Between 1860 and 1890, cast-iron buildings were all the rage because they didn't require massive walls to bear the weight of the upper stories. With no need for load-bearing walls, they were able to have more interior space and larger windows. They were also versatile, with various architectural elements produced from standardized molds to mimic any style — Italianate, Victorian Gothic, neo-Grec, to name but a few visible in SoHo.

For example, take a look at 28-30 Greene Street, an 1873 building nicknamed the Queen of Greene Street. Notice how many decorative features have been applied — dormers, columns, window arches, and projecting central bays. Handsome as they are, these buildings were always commercial, housing stores and small factories, principally textile makers. Also, notice the iron-loading docks and the sidewalk vault covers studded with glass disks to let light into basement storage areas. In front of 62-64 Greene Street there's one of the few remaining turn-of-the-century bishop's-crook lampposts, with various cast-iron curlicues from the base to the curved top.

At 72-76 Greene Street is the so-called King of Greene Street, a five-story Renaissance-style building with a magnificent projecting porch of Corinthian columns.

At the northeast corner of Prince and Greene streets, turn to look at the corner diagonally opposite for a rare glimpse of the side of an iron-front building. You'll see the same window pattern and decoration continued, with one window open and a cat sitting on the sill — where it has sat since 1973, when artist Richard Haas first painted this meticulously realistic mural on the blank side wall.

Take Prince Street west to Wooster Street, which, like a few other SoHo side streets, still has its 19th-century pavement of Belgian blocks, a smoother successor to traditional cobblestones.

Continue west to West Broadway, which runs parallel to and four blocks west of regular Broadway. This is SoHo's main drag, and on Saturday it can be crowded with smartly dressed uptowners and suburbanites who've come down for a little shop- and gallery-hopping. In the block between Prince and Spring streets alone there are three major art stops, with six separate galleries including two of the biggest in the neighborhood.

Go east to Broome Street and Broadway where, on the northeast corner, you'll see the classic Haughwout Building, nicknamed the Parthenon of Cast Iron. Built in 1857 to house Eder Haughwout's china and glassware business, the exterior was inspired by a Venetian palazzo. Inside, it contained the world's first commercial passenger elevator, a steam-powered device invented by Elisha Graves Otis.

Head north up Broadway, which temporarily loses its SoHo ambience in the midst of discount clothing stores. Just below Prince Street, the 1907 Singer Building shows the final flower of the cast-iron style, with wrought-iron balconies, terra-cotta panels, and broad expanses of windows. Across the street is one of New York's gourmet shrines, the gleaming Dean & DeLuca food market, whose bread and produce arrangements often are worthy of still life paintings. The smartly restored 560 Broadway building also houses a respected multi gallery exhibit space; another such space is just up the street at 568 Broadway.

On the west side of Broadway, the New Museum of Contemporary Art shows experimental, often radically innovative work by unrecognized artists, none of it more than 10 years old.

A few blocks farther south, The Museum of Holography has a permanent exhibit on the history of holograms — three-dimensional photographs created by laser beams. This combination science show and art gallery projects a film on holography and has three changing exhibits a year.

You'll find a stroll through this cast-iron wonderland an uplifting experience. Afterwards, settle into one of Soho's many cafés and bistros for light lunch or an early dinner. For a less expensive way to get to New York City, search for cheap flights online.