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NoHo Historic District Becomes a Reality

The chunk of lower Broadway and its surrounding streets, depicted in the map above, extending north from Houston Street to East 9th Street, and east from Broadway and Mercer Street to Lafayette Street and the west side of Cooper Square, was officially designated as the NoHo Historic District on June 29th, 1999 after a multi-year campaign by local activists to protect and preserve the 19th-century buildings in the neighborhood. The area incorporates everything from the Public Theater to the Angelika Film Center, from the Federal-style homes to the Louis Sullivan-designed Bayard-Condict Building. The NoHo Historic District, using the common shorthand for the area North of Houston Street, encompasses approximately 125 buildings that represent the period of New York City’s commercial history from the early 1850s to the 1910s, when this area prospered as one of its major retail and wholesale dry goods centers. The designation protected much but not all of the neighborhood, with the later NoHo Historic District Extension and NoHo East Historic District completing much of the job.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission cited at the time that the area was chosen because of the largely intact rows of 19th-century loft buildings, built as retail stores topped by manufacturing spaces or warehouses. The heart of the city’s textile industry once thrived behind the 6- to 12-story facades of marble, cast iron, limestone, and terra cotta. The architecture and manufacturing history of the area mirrors that of SoHo, just across Houston Street, which had already been designated a historic district 26 years prior, in 1973.

Some Highlights of the NoHo Historic District

NoHo Historic District Buildings, photo courtesy of New York Landmarks Conservancy

The Oldest Building in the District

The oldest building in NoHo Historic District exemplifies the Federal-style. The residence at 58 Bleecker Street, near Lafayette Street, was built by Jacobus “James” Roosevelt III—Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s great-grandfather— for himself and his family in 1823. It was once part of a row; a two-story carriage house was constructed a few years later that still survives next door on Crosby Street. During the two decades or so that the Roosevelt family lived in the house, the neighborhood become one of the most elite addresses in the city during the 1830s and 1840s.

But in 1857, the usage of the building at 56-58 Bleecker Street took a significant turn. It was rented by Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree. At 56-58 Bleecker Street, Dr. Blackwell established the first hospital for women, staffed by women, and run by women called The New York Infirmary for Women and Children. The hospital was open seven days a week and provided medical care for needy women and children free of charge. In 2018 Village Preservation dedicated our twelfth historic plaque, marking the former home of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. You can see photos of the dedication event here:
http://bit.ly/blackwellphotos and the video here: http://bit.ly/blackwelldedication.

Elizabeth Blackwell was also a subject of our 2021 outdoor interactive exhibition, VILLAGE VOICES. A shadowbox honoring Dr. Blackwell was placed at 58 Bleecker Street.

Interior of the Elizabeth Blackwell VILLAGE VOICES shadowbox

The Age of the Large Mercantile Buildings

One of the more ornate buildings in the district includes a former Brooks Brothers store at 668-674 Broadway, the retailer’s third location, finished in 1874. Many such structures once existed in the NoHo Historic District, and several remain.

Louis Sullivan’s Contribution

In 1897, as the century was coming to a close, Chicago architect Louis Sullivan was engaged to design a building by the United Loan and Investment Company which had purchased the Bank of Savings at 65-69 Bleecker Street with the intention of razing the brick structure and erecting an office building. The New York Tribune reported that the new building was to be called the Bayard Building as a nod to one of New York’s oldest and most prestigious families. Sullivan, a mentor of fledgling Frank Lloyd Wright, worked primarily in Chicago and designed buildings that made New York architecture look antiquated. His overarching philosophy was that buildings should reflect the structure, and not pretend to be something they are not – leading to his famous credo “form ever follows function.” He balked at the then-current trend of borrowing architectural styles from bygone eras. In a time when acclaimed buildings were styled in Beaux Arts, Classical Revival, Gothic or Romanesque, Sullivan was an architect who looked instead to the present – or the future.

Sullivan’s Bayard-Condict Building, photo courtesy of NYPL

The Bayard-Condict building at 65-69 Bleecker Street is the only New York building by Louis Sullivan. It remains one of the most beloved buildings in New York, and certainly in our neighborhoods.

Artists and The Public Theater

The 1970s and 1980s saw the arrival of artists in the area who began occupying the neighborhood’s loft buildings. The name “NoHo” first came into use in order to distinguish it from SoHo, the adjacent neighborhood to its south. Previously, NoHo, SoHo, and the eastern part of Tribeca were known collectively as the “warehouse district.”

Begun in 1849 and completed in 1881, the early Victorian building that is now known as The Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street was commissioned by John Jacob Astor to be “the first great classical library broadly accessible to the public.”

The structure was designed by three different architects in three different phases: Alexander Saeltzer designed the south wing (built 1849-1853), Griffith Thomas designed the central section (built 1856-1859), and Thomas Stent designed the north wing (built 1879-1881).

For such a remarkable building, it is difficult to believe that it came this close to the wrecking ball nearly 50 years ago. Before it was designated one of the city’s first landmarks by the newly formed Landmarks Preservation Commission (April 19, 1965), the Astor Library had become “one of the city’s more notable white elephants, fated to go the way of Penn Station and the Brokaw mansion,” in the words of well-known critic Ada Louise Huxtable in a fascinating 1966 New York Times article. Entitled “A Landmark Saved: Historic Building Scheduled for Razing Is Rescued With Aid of City’s New Law,” the article describes at length the battle to save the building from certain demolition. Indeed, the building stands today as a testament to the early years of the landmarks law. Huxtable even begins her article with the declaration that:

“New York City has scored its first major preservation success under its 18-month old landmarks law with the dramatic announcement of Joseph Papp’s plans to purchase the old Astor Library on Lafayette Street as the Shakespeare Festival’s new home. Scheduled for the wrecker’s ball six months ago, the miraculous last-ditch rescue of the Victorian red brick and brownstone structure is a bit of appropriate 19th-century melodrama calculated to make any 20th-century cynic’s heart melt. On a less emotional level, it may also indicate the power of the New York landmarks law to turn the tide in the fortunes of the city’s historic heritage.”

Securing landmark designation set the stage for the building’s comeback, but it was only the first step. Theatrical producer and director Joseph Papp contacted the LPC in hopes of finding a “landmark building” for his theater. (A preservationist at heart, Papp would go on to help found the “Save the Theatres” group in the 1980s in an effort to prevent the loss of historic theaters in Manhattan’s Theater District.)  Though he had a few locations in mind, the Commission suggested he look into the Astor Library. And so the next key player in the building’s preservation was in place.

Joe Papp outside of 425 Lafayette, The Public Theater

Papp’s vision to breathe new life into an aging building had a profound impact. Opening as the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater in 1966, the space was transformed by architect Giorgio Cavaglieri (1912-2007), one of our “preservation pioneers” (Cavaglieri was also the architect who led the conversion of the Jefferson Market Courthouse into the Jefferson Park Library at this same time).

NoHo has endless charm and bountiful history. Thanks to all the preservationists who paved the way, we can still enjoy the wonders of this historic district. To learn more about this and other historic districts in our neighborhoods, click here. To learn more about NoHo and preservation issues there, click here.

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