Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Richard Berger's Cast Iron No. 112 Prince Street

photo by Alice Lum
In the last quarter of the 19th century the once-fashionable Federal-style brick homes in the neighborhood now known as Soho were rapidly being replaced by multistory loft buildings. Small factories, shops and stores filled the new structures; many of which were fronted with popular cast iron facades.

On August 25, 1885 The American Architect and Building News noted that Mssrs L. Sachs & Bro. would be building a five-story brick warehouse with “iron front” at No. 26 West Houston Street. The building, which would cost the firm $30,000, was to be designed by Richard Berger.

L. Sachs & Brothers was a highly successful importer and dealer in furs and skins. In the 1880s the quality of fur in a man’s hats or a woman’s coat and trimmings was a mark of social status. The warehouse had become necessary for Sachs' enormous inventory. The Fur Trade Review remarked in 1887 that Messrs. L. Sachs & Brothers “always carry a full stock of seal skins, raw, dressed and dyed beaver, otter, and an exceptionally complete assortment of fine nutria; there has been a large demand for the better grades of the latter article.”

The fur dealers were apparently pleased with the work of their architect because on April 20, 1889 the Engineering and Building Record announced plans by L. S. Sachs for a new building at 112-114 Prince Street. The architect would again be Richard Berger.

The six-story loft building was completed by August of that year, when the Fur Trade Review mentioned that “Messrs. L. Sachs & Brothers are fully settled in their new establishment 112 and 114 Prince Street.”

Berger had designed a clean “neo-Grec” façade not overly-encumbered by ornamentation.  Slim, free-standing columns separated each set of windows at all six floors. The architect treated each story identically, but slightly lessening the height of each succeeding floor; creating the illusion of a taller building. While undeniably utilitarian, the structure was light and airy with factory space washed in daylight. Crowning it all was a cast iron parapet with a sunburst motif.

Berger finished off the design with a sunburst in the parapet -- photo by Alice Lum
Although L. Sachs & Brothers would continue to lease space here; on March 1, 1890 just eight months after the its completion, the fur dealers sold the building for $127,500. Two months later the firm again commissioned Richard Berger—this time to design a retail store at 27-29 West 4th Street at a cost of $170,000.

Along with Sachs, other apparel manufacturers moved into the building. Weisl Brothers, cloak makers, was already having problems with the Cloak Manufacturers’ Association in August 1890. Weisl Brothers did not hire union workers, so the Association attempted to compel the firm to advance wages of from 50 to 75 percent to the employees. Mr. Weisl found the advances “exorbitant” and was faced with a strike.

Tensions between union apparel workers and owners continued for years. On July 31, 1896 eighty cloakmakers went on strike after being fined 50 cents each for using cotton thread instead of silk in certain garments. (It was common practice for garment workers to supply their own needles and thread as a condition of their employment.) The employees denied switching thread and when a Cloakmakers’ Union representative arrived to examine the garments, he was refused entry.

In April 1913 James Thompson & Company leased the entire building “for a long term of years.” The firm manufactured twine, mosquito, netting, tarlatans and buckram (stiff woven fabrics, usually used as interlining). Thompson employed 230 workers and would remain in the building for decades.

Around the same time the Garner Print Mill was here printing fabrics; Julius Buchman, also in the twine and netting business, was here for twenty years; and another twine and cordage company, Yazoo Mills leased space in the 1920s.

By the 1970s Soho experienced a renaissance as artists flocked to the relatively cheap open loft spaces with sumptuous amounts of natural light. Galleries sprung up at street level and trendy shops appeared. The top floors of No. 112 Prince were leased out to living and studio spaces for artists, including Maya Lin who created the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington DC.

Above the one-story corner building at Prince and Greene Street the crude unfinished brick side wall of No. 112 rose in stark contrast to its white-painted cast iron Victorian façade. Artist Richard Hass, along with a friend, put forward the idea of a trompe l’oeil mural mimicking the Richard Berger façade.
Before the mural, the side wall was uninspired, at best.  The scar of a Federal-style house, long demolished, remains above the one-story building at No. 110 Prince Street next door.  -- photo RichardHass.com
With a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, Hass created the mural which was completed in April 1975. Two real windows were incorporated into the design; and the artist playfully depicted a protruding window air conditioning unit and, in one “open” window, two curious cats.

The mural not long after completion.  Haas included air conditioners and open windows in his work -- photo RichardHaas.com
The marvelous work of art was threatened in 2009 when Camper Shoes announced it would be building its commercial headquarters on the empty lot. Since No. 112 Prince sat within the Soho Cast-Iron Historic District, and the mural was considered a “significant feature of that building,” the Landmarks Preservation Commission was entitled to an opinion.

Actual windows melt into the trompe l'oeil facade -- photo by Alice Lum
Public opinion was also heavily in favor of preserving the mural and the SoHo Alliance; although the problem of the $100,000 necessary to repair the masonry wall and 30-year old mural was another problem in itself.

For over three decades Haas' window cats have watched over Greene Street -- photo by Alice Lum
In the end a compromise was struck. Instead of a five-story structure a one-level building was erected. Unfortunately, Haas’ mural is still easily accessible to graffiti “artists” who have slathered the lower level with spray paint.

The cost to carefully remove the spray painted damage of vandals is considerable -- photo by Alice Lum
The trim white building put up by fur dealers in 1890 is, unexpectedly enough in New York’s Cast Iron District, the only cast iron building on that block. But its facade, including the street level, is well preserved and the remarkable painting on its blank wall makes it a must-see when in the neighborhood.

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