A Walk to Remember

Today’s guest post comes from Linda Chiu at New York History Walks, a “history buff who loves exploring the city on foot.”  Her blog takes you on historic meanderings throughout the city, a must read for anyone interested in our city’s past.  The following post is about the history of SoHo as it revolves around the Haughwout Building at Broadway and Broome streets.

Hell’s Hundred Acres

by Linda Chiu

Soho has undergone many transformations throughout its history, and was not always the hub of trendy boutiques and chains that it is today. At the end of the Revolutionary War, Soho development earnestly began when Collect Pond was filled and its water diverted to the Hudson River. Middle-class families inhabited Federal-style rowhomes and by the 1800s, Soho had become a popular commercial district with theaters and retailers such as Lord and Taylor, Tiffany & Co., and the long-gone Haughwout Emporium.

Collect Pond looking south towards New York City in 1798. Lower Manhattan’s topography was hillier and some of the dirt from Mount Bayard on the left was used to fill in Collect Pond.

Niblo’s Garden was a popular 19th-century theater in Soho

The Haughwout Emporium, owned by Eder V. Haughwout, was opened for business on March 23, 1857 and a manufacturer/purveyor of fine china, cut glass, silverware and chandeliers. The New York Times described it as “the greatest china and porcelain house in the city” in the 1850s. The Haughwout Building also boasted the first commercial elevator designed and installed by Elisha Graves Otis for $300. The elevator moved at .67 feet per second and had an automatic safety device. The building’s first three floors were designated for retail and the 4th and 5th floors held its manufacturing operations.

The Houghwout Building in 1859. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Haughwout Emporium’s interior

The building stands on land originally bought by John Jacob Astor in 1802. After his death, Astor gave the land to one of his grandsons, Walter Langdon, Jr. His real estate advisor, Abner Ely, correctly predicted its location on Broadway and Broome would soon be part of an important commercial area and proposed a building on the lot years before Soho emerged as the city’s center of commerce in the years after the Civil War. While Soho was the place for upper-class New Yorkers to shop during the early 1800s, the area had deteriorated into New York City’s first red light district by the time the Haughwout building was built, with brothels mostly found along Houston and Mercer Streets.

Admirers checking out the offerings in the window of a Soho brothel. Illustration from National Police Gazette, 1880

Haughwout’s success established a new commercial housewares strip near Broome Street. Its most famous client was Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham. Dissatisfied with the mismatched and chipped White House china, Mary purchased a new set of serviceware with an American eagle design and wide mauve border. One can  imagine the husband-and-wife quarrel that ensued over the $3,000 bill, an amount Abraham thought was exorbitant.

Mary Todd Lincoln

Langdon’s estate sold the building in 1895 for $375,000. A number of textile and notions manufacturers and dealers occupied the building as the neighborhood shifted towards industry. In September of 1936, the Broadway Manufacturers Supply Company signed a lease for the entire building. By the 1950s, the textile industry had moved South and overseas; Soho became home to many printing plants and empty warehouses spaces. Rents were less than 50 cents per square foot and many spaces could be had for less than $100 per month (!). Around this time, Soho became a depressed commercial slum known as “Hell’s Hundred Acres”. Artists began to move into the neighborhood to take advantage of the cheap rents and spacious lofts flooded with sunlight.

The cornice of the Haughwout Building in 1967

Haughwout Building interior entrance

Had Robert Moses had his way, there would have been a downtown ten-lane elevated highway connecting the East River with the Hudson River. Moses’ proposal included the leveling of fourteen blocks along Broome Street. 1,972 families and 804 businesses would have been displaced, and the Haughwout Building would not have been spared. Around this time, the Landmarks Preservation Commission began to fight for the Haughwout’s designation as a historical landmark. Thankfully, Moses’ plans were defeated.

Lower Manhattan could have looked like this if Robert Moses had gotten his way. Credit: Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority

Despite the victory, the Haughwout building was still in need of restoration. The building was sullied with dirt and grime, and many of Soho’s cast iron columns had become rusted.

The Haughwout Building ca. 1980s.

The Kaufman family, owners of the building since the 1930s, spent $175,000 in 1995 for Joseph Pell Lombardi to strip and repaint the building for its new commercial tenant, Staples. A cream color reminiscent of the building’s original hue was applied to the cast iron to cover up the black paint that had been used during its industrial days. Haughwout’s elevator, replaced in the 1890s, was removed in 2001 and a modern one took its place. The upper stories have been converted to loft space and clothing retailer Bebe moved in during 2011.

The Haughwout Building can be considered one of New York City’s finest examples of 19th-century cast-iron construction. Its presence through Soho’s phases of growth, depression, and rebirth illustrate its importance as a neighborhood landmark and residents’ willingness to preserve a piece of architectural history. If you walk inside today, it can be difficult to picture its past with its renovated interior, but walk across the street and gaze at the building; you can begin to imagine the sights and sounds of a more genteel era in New York City history.

This post originally appeared on the New York History Walks blog on June 25, 2012.  Linda Chiu is a self-proclamined history buff who loves exploring the city on foot.

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6 Responses to “A Walk to Remember”

  1. Carol Goodden Says:

    Oh my, I do love being able to see my beloved SoHo’s history in this way. Another lovely SoHo building, 101 Spring St., occupied in the ’70s by Donald and Julie Judd, is being featured in a preview, in advance of its re-opening in June, by the Frieze Fair May 10-13. Frieze is also doing a sort of re-enactment of FOOD, “the legendary artist-run restaurant…originally conceived by Gordon Matta-Clark and Carol Goodden in 1971…”. The Frieze Fair featuring numerous NY galleries and artists is being held on Randall’s Island which one can get to by ferry or bus from 35th St., I believe.

  2. Sean Sweeney Says:

    SoHo’s alleged sobriquet, “Hell’s Hundred Acres”, always intrigued me: was it spoken back in the 50s and 60s in common parlance or was it just used among the local firemen?

    For example, I have never seen it written anywhere in any publication of the era; it seemingly only became first popular in print in the 70s and 80s.

    Well, while I was recently reviewing some archival material, I discovered that the term apparently was spontaneously used by an FDNY fire chief during a City hearing on the legalization of artists’ lofts back in the late 1960s.

    During his testimony, he casually mentioned something like, “Oh that area is so dangerous – it’s like hell’s hundred acres.”

    His remark caught on, having a cetain appeal to it, and so people have been using it in an historical context ever since.

  3. Sean Sweeney Says:

    Delving further, I just did a Google search and the term “Hell’s Hundred Acres” first appeared in a November 1960 NY Times article regarding the FDNY’s concern over lack of inspections and sprinklers, as well as other various fire hazards, in the old downtown loft area.

    The article stated, “Describing the area as Hell’s Hundred Acres”, {FDNY Commissioner Francis Cavanagh} gave its boundaries as Reade Street and 8th Street, between Broadway and the Hudson River.” http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive/pdf?res=FB0D16FB3F551A7A93C0AB178AD95F448685F9

    Cavanagh used the term again in a 1961 NY Times article during the 50th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, on Greene and Washington Place, where 147 died.

    The term appeared a couple of months later in the lead sentence of a NY Times story on a proposed urban renewal project for the area between Broome and Houston, Broadway and West Broadway.

    A 1966 NY Times article on a fire at 496 Broadway changed the boundaries a bit: “the area is bounded by Chambers and Houston Streets, and West Broadway, Park Row and The Bowery.”

    Several other 1960s NY Times’ stories use the term.

    In 1958 there was a terrible fire at 137-139 Wooster Street (just north of Prince), in which six firemen on the roof lost their lives when the entire building collapsed, burying them alive. The “unofficial home page of the FDNY”, a contemporary blog,
    http://nyfd.com/history/wooster/wooster_street.html recounts:

    “Hells Hundred Acres: There is an area in lower Manhattan where so many firefighters have been killed battling fires it was named Hell’s Hundred Acres. This area contains century old buildings built around the time of the civil war. Rag storage, baled goods, paper rolls and heavy machinery overloaded the sagging floors of these hundred year old storage buildings. Creaking wooden stairs lead down to old stone walled sub cellars. During fires, floors firefighters Water filled cellars drown firefighters; backdraft explosions blow firefighters out windows. Hells Hundred Acres is an area bounded by Chamber Street on the south, the Bowery on the east, West Broadway on the west and West 8th.street on the north. Today, this area has become a fashionable art district; the rag storage buildings have been replaced with wealthy artist residents. Many of the buildings are now renovated and sprinklered. But the buildings are the same deadly, century old, and structures. The wood timber floors rotting, brick mortar turning to sand, rusted old, iron fire escapes collapsing and cast iron columns ready to shatter and cave in during a fire.”

    (Are our buildings really is such bad condition?)

    So, by way of correction, the fire chief testifying in 1968, mentioned in the comment above, was using a term coined eight years earlier by Commissioner Cavanagh.

  4. Yukie Ohta Says:

    Sean, as I was going over past comments, I realized that I never thanked you for your in-depth research on the term “Hell’s Hundred Acres.” Very enlightening! Thanks so much for sharing this.

  5. SoHo Memory Quiz Answers Part III | The SoHo Memory Project Says:

    […] From Linda Chiu’s post Hell’s Hunderd Acres.  Read the entire post here. […]

  6. Dorothy Koppelman Says:

    This is a belated comment. Didn’t Ivan Karp call his first gallery, Hell’s Hundred Acres?

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