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    Discovering a Singer building in Soho

    I was visiting New York last weekend with a friend’s daughter, and we were just enjoying ourselves in Soho when she mentioned the word Singer. “Where?” I asked.

    She pointed to the building we were about to pass on Prince Street near Mercer Street. I stopped, looked up and saw the words “The Singer Manufacturing Company” in metal lettering on a towering red-brick building with the most beautiful dark green wrought-iron balconies.

    How had I missed it? Probably because I walked looking ahead and around at eye level, and she walked looking upward. Hers is a far better way to experience a neighborhood like Soho, a part of which I found out later had been historically designated the “Cast Iron District.”  Soho is said to contain more cast-iron architecture than anywhere else in the world.

    I was struck by the 12-story Little Singer Building because I just love those black tough-and-heavy Singer sewing machines of old. Singer made thousands of models, and I’ve come across some pretty nice ones at auction: the popular and collectible Featherweight (or 221, introduced at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933), the 15-91, the Singer 66, the Red Eye 66, the child’s sewing machine, and lots of attachments.

    The building apparently is L-shaped and the front is on Broadway. I didn’t see the front because I didn’t realize there was another entrance until I started researching the building in Google at home. The facades on both are said to be identical, except the name is missing on the Broadway side.

    The building is down the street from the former site of the larger and now-demolished Singer Tower, which when construction ended in 1908 was the tallest building in the country. It kept that designation for about a year before it was knocked out by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building. The Singer Tower had a Beaux Arts style, and stretched more than 47 stories into the sky at Broadway and Liberty. The company’s headquarters, it was torn down in 1968.

    The little building, designed by the same architect, Ernest Flagg, is home to artists, offices and retail shops. The Art Nouveau-style building was built in 1904, and was a warehouse for the company (another site said it was used for offices and manufacturing).

    I tried to figure out which sewing machine Singer was making at the time. In 1900, the company was producing 40 different models, including the Singer 66 (photo below), which was introduced that year. Like many of the early Singers, it was a bear of a machine.

    The little building was restored in the 1980s. I marveled at its wrought-iron arches at the top and bottom, and the railings on the balconies. According to a 1988 New York Times article, architecture like it are from New York’s cast-iron past, copied from the palaces in France and Italy.

    It reminded me of the buildings I saw on a trip to Spain in 2005. I was so taken with the ironwork there that I spent most of my film clicking away at the designs on what looked like apartment buildings. They were lovely and so versatile, and seemed to grace practically every building. The photos of wrought-iron architecture below are from the trip. Click on each photo rather than viewing through PicLens.

    Next time I’m in Soho, though, I’ll have to remember to look up a little more.

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