Endangered Cast-Iron Buildings in NYC - A Project of the Metropolitan Chapter of the Victorian Society in America  
112 4th Avenue
Click to Return to the Project Summary Page

Project Information (click on the links to go directly to a section)

Survey Background

Survey Methodology

Notes on the Entries

Survey Background (Click to Return to the Project Summary Page)
In 2004, the New York Metropolitan Chapter of the Victorian Society in America commissioned a survey of the cast-iron-fronted buildings in New York City that had not been designated as landmarks or were not located in designated historic districts. Appropriately, this was the first project funded by the chapter’s Margot Gayle Fund for Preservation of Victorian Heritage. Margot was not only a founder of the Victorian Society in America, but she was  the person most responsible for recognizing the contribution that America’s cast-iron buildings made to nineteenth-century architecture; she was the founder of the Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture; and she had been the most vocal advocate for the preservation of these buildings.

New York City has the world’s largest collection of buildings with cast-iron fronts. Many of these buildings have already been designated by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, either as individual landmarks or within historic districts. Some, such as the masterful Haughwout Building on the northeast corner of Broadway and Broome Street, and Cary Building, with facades on Chambers and Reade Streets at Church Street, are individual landmarks, while many others are located within the boundaries of historic districts. The SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District, designated in 1973, includes dozens of cast-iron facades and was an early recognition of the importance of cast iron. Other cast-iron fronts are located within the various Tribeca historic districts (notably in the Tribeca West Historic District, in the NoHo Historic District, in the Ladies’ Mile Historic District, and in other local districts.

Even with these designations, there are still a significant number of cast-iron fronts that remain unprotected by any designation. This survey has identified 69 cast-iron fronts (representing 63 entries in cast iron database); 56 in Manhattan and 13 in Brooklyn, dating from the 1860s to the early 1900s. These buildings represent all aspects of the history of cast iron. The survey has identified several important, relatively early cast-iron fronts, dating from the 1860s, including the narrow arcaded building at 63 Nassau Street (c. 1860; attributed to James Bogardus), designated as an individual landmark in 2007 after the completion of this survey.  Other notable early examples are 262 Canal Street (c. 1861-62) and the pair of remarkable buildings at 39 and 41 Worth Street (c. 1866).

A significant number of buildings in the survey date from the 1870s, a period of major cast-iron construction when tastes veered away from the palazzo forms that had prevailed in commercial architecture in previous decades. By the 1880s, other popular eclectic Victorian styles were represented in cast-iron.  There are a large number of examples of cast-iron architecture from the 1880s and later in the survey. Some of these, such as the Baumann Brothers store at 22-26 East 14th Street, designated in 2008 after the completion of this survey, and the small building next door at 28 East 14th Street, have ornate facades, but others, such as 824-826 Sixth Avenue are extremely simple with the iron members framing large windows. Several of the late examples of cast-iron fronts are alterations – new facades on earlier buildings. The latest example of a cast-iron front identified in this survey is the 1909 structure at 20 John Street, an ornate frame for a largely transparent facade. Several of the later buildings identified in this survey combine cast iron with an extensive use of pressed metal. This is evident, for example, at the 1894 building at 256-262 West 116th Street and at the 1906 building at 1026 Sixth Avenue.

Buildings were discovered in the styles most popular for cast-iron construction – Italianate, French Second Empire, and Neo-Grec, but examples with Aesthetic Movement, Neo-Renaissance, and Queen Anne details are also present [click on the links to see buildings in the survey by style]. A major question that remains unanswered concerning cast-iron fronts is just how much impact the architect had in the design of the individual facades. Did architects design the individual castings or did they choose items that already existed from the cast-iron foundry stock? Did the foundries cast new pieces or adapt older designs for individual commissions? Although the answers to these and related questions need further investigation, the survey did identify buildings associated in building records with both little-known architects and major nineteenth-century designers. Among the better known architects whose work is included in this survey are Henry Fernbach, Stephen Decatur Hatch, D. & J. Jardine, John Kellum, Edward Kendall, Francis Kimball, Napoleon Le Brun & Son, Griffith Thomas, and William Wheeler Smith [click on the links to see survey buildings designed by these architects]. The buildings range from the small, two-story former restaurant at 815 Broadway to such monumental buildings as the former James McCreery & Son store at 801 Broadway and 134-136 Grand Street, both in Manhattan, and the former Smith, Gray & Co. building, designated in 2005 as the survey progressed, and Sparrow Shoe Company building, both on Broadway in Brooklyn.

A particularly interesting issue relating to cast-iron construction that also needs further examination is the history of patronage. Just who commissioned cast-iron buildings? Were these owners primarily small-scale builders or men with large-scale real estate interests? Did they only erect cast-iron-fronted buildings or did they also commission buildings with masonry facades? Among the buildings identified in the survey are many that were commissioned specifically by the company or individual who would occupy all or most of the space. Others were built by individuals who sold or leased the finished structures. It is evident, however, that several major New York City real estate developers, with large land holdings, also commissioned cast-iron buildings with the intent of leasing the space. Thus, the survey identified buildings erected by such prominent landowners and real estate developers as Amos Eno, the Goelet family, and the Roosevelt family [click on the links to see survey buildings by these developers].

Perhaps the most interesting discovery of this survey is the presence of a small group of hitherto unknown residential buildings with cast-iron facades. In his catalogue for the Architectural Iron Works, published in 1865, Daniel D. Badger illustrates a “Design for Front of Dwelling House." This is, however, merely a single design in a catalogue that presents designs for many commercial buildings. Clearly, Badger did not think that there was a major market for residential facades of cast iron. Nonetheless, six tenements with rusticated cast-iron fronts are included in this survey – a single building on West 3rd Street in Greenwich Village, a pair on East 53rd Street, and three on First Avenue between East 53rd and 54th Streets. The buildings were all erected between 1869 and 1871, to the designs of three little-known architects. It is probable that these architects had little to do with the actual design of these street fronts, merely ordering the forms from the unknown cast-iron foundries.

The buildings cover a wide geographic area. The Manhattan buildings identified stretch from Nassau, John, and Fulton Streets in Lower Manhattan, north to West 125th Street, while the Brooklyn buildings extend across the northern portion of that borough, from Fulton Street in Downtown Brooklyn to Williamsburg and Bushwick. There are several significant concentrations of cast-iron buildings. There are a number of unprotected cast-iron-fronted buildings on the streets just west and just east of the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District; four cast-iron fronts are located on the west side of West Broadway, just outside of the district, while five other buildings are located to the east, on Broome, Grand, and Howard Streets. The New York Metropolitan Chapter of the Victorian Society in America has been advocating for an expansion of the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District to incorporate these buildings and adjoining masonry structures, many with cast-iron storefronts.  The LPC held a public hearing on the proposed district expansion in October 2009, and will hopefully designate it in 2010. There are also three important cast-iron fronts just outside of the Tribeca historic districts – two, 39 and 41 Worth Street, have had landmark hearings, but have not been designated, while the third, 262 Canal Street, has never been considered.

Another important concentration of buildings with cast-iron facades is along Broadway and adjacent blocks, north of the NoHo Historic District and south of 14th Street. Historically, this area was part of Ladies’ Mile, a portion of which, north of 14th Street, was designated a historic district in 1989. There are five cast-iron fronts on this short stretch of Broadway and another example on East 13th Street between Broadway and University Place. The architectural fabric in this location, with a mix of cast-iron and masonry department stores and loft buildings is similar to the character of the NoHo and Ladies’ Mile districts. Thus, an historic district could be delineated in this area that would incorporate all of the identified cast-iron fronts. Five cast-iron-fronted buildings have also been identified along 14th Street – three on the block between Fifth Avenue and University Place and two farther west. These could be designated individually or in groups. Many other buildings identified in the survey should be designated as individual landmarks

In Brooklyn, the largest concentration of cast-iron fronts is on Fulton Street in downtown. There are six cast-iron fronts in this area, including the large mansard-roofed structure that for many years housed the great Abraham & Strauss Department Store (now Macy’s). Three of the Fulton Street buildings, Nos. 567, 569, and 571, are probably the most endangered structures identified in this survey, since they are located on a site that the New York City Planning Commission identified for development in its recent rezoning of Downtown Brooklyn.

Survey Methodology (Click to Return to the Project Summary Page)
The assignment for this survey was to identify and conduct preliminary research on all of the cast-iron fronts in New York City that were not protected by landmark designation and that still retain integrity of their original designs. The most important task was to determine how to find the relevant buildings in the most efficient manner since walking every block of the city was impractical. A decision was made to use land book atlases from the years around 1900 as primary resources for identifying buildings with cast-iron facades. These land book atlases illustrate the footprint of every building in New York City, with separate volumes for each borough. The atlas plates are color-coded by façade material. Thus, all of the buildings with cast-iron fronts are theoretically illustrated in blue. Atlases from c. 1900 were chosen because building materials were color coded (color coding later ceased to be used) and by that date the use of cast iron as a material for building facades had declined so that few new cast-iron fronts were erected after 1900.

In the spring of 2004, Jennifer Most, a graduate student in Columbia University’s Historic Preservation Program carefully examined selected atlases and made a list of all of the cast-iron fronted buildings. This list was checked against a list of individual landmarks and against the boundaries of historic districts. Unfortunately, what ideally would have been a fail-safe method of identifying all of the city’s cast-iron fronts proved to be slightly flawed. As it turns out, the atlases are not one hundred percent accurate and a few buildings with cast-iron fronts were not colored blue. Other resources, including books by Margot Gayle (particularly her Cast-Iron Architecture in New York), the consultant’s knowledge of New York, and walks through areas with concentrations of cast-iron fronts, added several buildings. Although it is possible that one or more cast-iron fronts exist in New York that have not been identified for this survey, this survey report provides as comprehensive a list of buildings as could be assembled.

Following identification, every building was photographed. The photographs in the report are the work of Jennifer Most, Mikel Travisano, and Andrew Dolkart. Prof. Dolkart visited each building in order to analyze its design and assess its condition. Basic research was also undertaken in city building and tax records in order to discover the date of construction, architect, and original owner.

Notes on the Entries (Click to Return to the Project Summary Page)
The Buildings Search page of this website enables one to see a list of all of the buildings in the survey or to search by neighborhood, architect, street, original use, and architectural style .  The entries are consistent for each building. They include basic information such as the address of the structure, its tax map block and lot number, the number of stories, and the size of the lot. When the building has a name, this is included. Research determined the date of each building. The dates preceded by “c." are approximate dates, generally gleaned from an examination of tax assessment records. Other dates were identified in building records or in projected building entries in the Real Estate Record and Builders Guide. A major effort was made to identify the architect and original owner of each building. However, for most buildings erected prior to the start of record keeping at the Department of Buildings in April 1866, no information is available about the architect. Each building was inspected in order to determine if a plaque identifying the foundry that produced the iron was visible; sadly, this information was found on only a few buildings. Major alterations to each facade have been enumerated, and its physical condition noted. Other interesting or important information discovered as research progressed has been included. If the building is discussed in period newspaper articles or if it is mentioned in secondary sources, these are noted. Entries simply noted as Gayle, are from Cast-Iron Architecture in New York: A Photographic Survey, by Margot Gayle and Edmund V. Gillon, Jr.  (Dover, 1974).




footer - Copyright Metro VSA  
Project InfoCast Iron History Building Search Map Further Reading Contact Us Home Metro VSA Home Metro VSA Home