Re-examining the Soho Effect

07/21/2010 4:00 AM |

According to Charles Magistro, who bought 64-68 Wooster in the late 1970s and founded the Ohio Theater with his partner William Hahn, there were bridges on every floor of the building, connecting the Greene Street property to the Wooster Street annex, allowing the staff to quickly run to the back for more goods. Magistro told me that "the large windows on the street were there so that the ladies could see the textiles in the natural light." Interestingly, when the Ohio Theatre first opened, the address was listed as 54 Greene Street and the complex stretched through in a similar way to Dommerich's store, from the Greene Street entrance back to Wooster Street. There were apparently a total of three theaters and a large open space that made up the Ohio.

Both retired architects, Magistro and Hahn developed a keen interest in the building's structure. Magistro told me he suspects that 64-68 Wooster was a precursor to the skyscraper because of its steel structure, a feature not typical of other buildings in the Cast Iron Historic District, and also given its nine stories (if you count the above-grade basement)—a structure that was very tall for its time.

Across the street from 64-68 Wooster, according to the report designating the Cast Iron Historic District, "The west side of the block is almost entirely taken up by the [architect J. B.] Snook-designed buildings for the Lorillard tobacco business." Lorillard is still operating today as a manufacturer of a number of cigarette brands, most notably Newport. The Lorillard estate owned all of the west side of Wooster from 61-85. These buildings housed everything from a factory "for drying and moistening tobacco," to stores for selling it, along with offices to run the massive operation.

Louis Dommerich retired to Florida not long after the building was completed in 1900 and died there in 1912. I'm unsure of the owners after Dommerich, but the building seems to have remained in the "rag trade" well into the 20th century. According to Robert Lyons, members of the Open Space Theatre Experiment (the group that occupied the space before the Ohio was founded) used to walk the floors with magnets to remove the straight pins lodged between the boards—a prickly reminder of the building's past for barefooted performers.

As manufacturing in New York declined after World War II, the buildings in Soho began to turn from bustling and proud examples of American commerce to small low-end manufacturers and sweatshops. Landlords started having trouble maintaining tenants and by the 1950s artists slowly started to move into the gradually emptying buildings, some of whom took jobs in the sweatshops to help pay their rent. Although the buildings weren't approved for residential use, the tenants came for the then-novel lofts that offered ample light and room to work and live. Landlords were happy to bend the rules just to have paying tenants. But into the 1960s Soho hit one of its lowest points. This is when the area famously became known as Hell's Hundred Acres because of the number of fires that raged in the decrepit buildings.