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A Cast-Iron SoHo Facade and Its Odyssey to New Jersey and Back

After a heavy rain in 2004, the iron-fronted 1886 loft building at 74 Grand Street suddenly began listing to starboard, terrifying the people inside and earning the five-story structure the nickname the Leaning Tower of SoHo. Over time, the tilt toward Wooster Street grew to an alarming 30 inches or so, and in 2010 the troubled building was demolished by order of the Buildings Department.

But this was no simple wrecking job. Because 74 Grand was located within the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District, the Landmarks Preservation Commission negotiated a legal agreement that required its owner, a cooperative called SoHo Equities, to dismantle the facade piece by iron piece, then store these architectural elements in a dry, secure, indoor location and reinstall them on any new building erected on the site.

In committing the owners to such rigorous salvage and reconstruction, the commission sought to avoid a repetition of perhaps the most darkly comical episode in its history, the loss of the disassembled cast-iron facade of the 1849 Laing Stores, a city landmark, which was brazenly stolen from a TriBeCa lot in 1974.

And though the 330 salvaged iron elements of 74 Grand have changed hands several times over the past decade, enduring an extraordinary odyssey to multiple storage facilities and states, the facade’s improbable journey appears likely to end with a proper homecoming. After a 940-mile detour to Alabama for restoration, the well-traveled facade was being bolted to a new building on its original SoHo site last month, until construction was suspended over coronavirus concerns.

“I think that is in the back of everyone’s mind at Landmarks,” Cory Herrala, the commission’s preservation director, said of the ignominious theft of the Laing Stores facade. He added that he was “very relieved” that 74 Grand’s cast-iron elements were not broken or lost and that “an awful lot of the material that was put up and taken down is going up again.”

In 1971, the 150-ton Laing facade, which wrapped around the northwest corner of Murray and Washington Streets in Lower Manhattan, was disassembled for future reconstruction. The fragments were stored by the landmarks commission behind a padlocked fence in a triangular lot on Reade Street, where they languished until June 25, 1974.

On that day, The New York Times reported, Beverly Moss Spatt, the commission’s head, ran into the press room at City Hall “and shouted, ‘Someone has stolen one of my buildings.’” An investigation revealed that two-thirds of the iron elements had been sold for scrap in the Bronx.

The surviving pieces were hidden in a city-owned building in Hell’s Kitchen, where the whole Keystone Kops misadventure repeated itself three years later, with a distraught Ms. Spatt again visiting the City Hall press corps, crying, “My building has been stolen again!” So many fragments had been purloined that reconstructing the seminal cast-iron structure was no longer possible.

A major appeal of iron-front facades in the second half of the 19th century was their modular construction technology, which allowed their architectural elements to be quickly bolted together on site at a fraction of the cost of the ornate stone facades they were intended to simulate. Today SoHo boasts what the commission deems the largest concentration of full and partial cast-iron facades in the world.

The iron-front brick store at 74 Grand was designed with fine neo-Grec detailing for Ambrose Kingsland, a wealthy sperm-oil merchant, by George DaCunha. As mayor of New York City in the 1850s, Kingsland had initiated the movement that ultimately led to the creation of Central Park.

The three-bay structure has an identical sister building nearby at 31 Greene, which was considered noteworthy enough to have its plans reproduced in American Architect and Building News in 1877.

A half sister building — or more accurately a one-fifth sister — stands at 89 Grand, a five-story red brick building with a cast-iron storefront, also the work of DaCunha. The rosette-adorned pilasters and slender free-standing columns of all three iron fronts, each built between 1885 and 1887, were probably cast by a local foundry from the same set of molds.

In 1892, 74 Grand was home to the Model Dress Steel Company, which sold metal-tipped Ever Ready Dress Stays. (“Warranted water-proof. Beware of Imitations.”) Smolian & Pellman, another firm involved in the hidden infrastructure of women’s clothing, manufactured skirt binding there at the turn of the century, but was soon in a bind itself, with one partner suing the other for embezzlement.

In 1960, Ron Gorchov, an abstract painter, moved into the second floor, as a wave of artists colonized SoHo’s commercially zoned buildings. His loft’s 14-foot ceilings handily accommodated his large, saddle-shaped canvases, and the $100 monthly rent, which he paid to a landlord who made shipping boxes next door, was a bargain.

“It wasn’t a problem to be illegal until the fire department started to get interested,” said Mr. Gorchov, now 90. “Then we got a permit to be artist in residence.”

There was a lot of artistic exchange in the building, Mr. Gorchov said, because the floors upstairs also housed artists, including the painter Brice Marden. (In 2006, the two former neighbors both had major solo exhibitions, Mr. Marden at the Museum of Modern Art, and Mr. Gorchov at MoMA PS1.)

After the building was demolished in 2010, the 32-ton salvaged iron facade began what amounted to a Grand Tour of New Jersey. The first stop was a warehouse in Newark, where the iron pieces were inspected by John Weiss, the landmarks commission’s deputy counsel, and Mr. Herrala, its preservation director.

There followed a parade of four owners and multiple architects as proposed reconstruction projects were brought before the commission. Along the way, “the cast iron was moved at least once without L.P.C. being informed,” a commission spokeswoman said.

In 2016, the property was bought by 74 Grand Street Equities, and by spring the next year the itinerant iron facade pieces had landed in Jersey City, where a commission employee inspected them. Photographs show that much of the iron was laid out, rusting, in the open air.

By June 2018, the facade pieces had been trucked to yet another location: Egg Harbor, N.J., some 25 miles northwest of Atlantic City.

“It was truly in the middle of nowhere,” said Elizabeth Canon, a project manager for the architect Joseph Pell Lombardi, who had been hired by yet another new owner of 74 Grand, Churchill Real Estate, to design a new building that incorporated the old facade. “I don’t want to say it was a junkyard, but it was kind of a storage area that had a bunch of drop-in swimming pools there and a school bus.”

Once again, the rusting facade pieces were lying outside, exposed to the elements.

After being shipped to Allen Architectural Metals in Talladega, Ala., the iron facade elements — ranging from a one-pound rosette to a 3,500-pound pilaster — were restored.

Pieces deemed too broken to repair were recast, either by creating a new mold from an undamaged element of the same type or by scanning that element’s every contour with a three-dimensional laser scanner.

“You plug it into a laptop and essentially paint the surface you want with a laser, and in real time you can see the image pop up on the laptop,” said Jeremy Alexander, Allen’s field operations director. That data was then imported into three-dimensional modeling software, which a pattern engineer used to clean up inconsistencies in the image.

The resulting digital image was in turn imported into Mastercam software, which directed a computer-controlled cutting machine where precisely to cut a block of wood in order to create a pattern of the desired element. A foundry then used the wooden patterns to make sand molds, from which the new iron pieces were cast.

Although Allen estimates that 90 percent of the original iron will be returned to 74 Grand, Ms. Canon identified one unsolved mystery.

Photographs show that the facade’s sheet-metal cornice was among the salvaged elements in Jersey City in June 2017, but when Ms. Canon and an owner’s representative inspected the fragments in Egg Harbor a year later, she said, “We couldn’t find the cornice anywhere.”

To match the profile and ornamentation of the lost cornice, which features rosettes alternating with concave brackets, Allen photographed the sister cornice at 31 Greene. Reconstruction of the entire facade was further aided by plans that Ms. Canon ­— whose boss calls her a gumshoe — unearthed at the New-York Historical Society.

Thus far, all the iron front’s handsomely restored pilasters and columns have been installed on the new six-story building at 74 Grand, which has a setback penthouse atop five stories that align with the old window openings. On the fourth and fifth floors, window arch assemblies have also been installed.

But the return of the prodigal facade, after a decade of wandering, remains incomplete. Roughly two-thirds of the iron elements, many of them small and decorative, are still in storage in Alabama.

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