A schedule of tours for Margot Gayle’s Friends of Cast Iron Architecture in 1976.
In any discussion about SoHo preservation, the name Jane Jacobs usually comes up almost immediately. But there is another, lesser-known yet hugely influential figure in the saga of saving SoHo and preserving its architectural heritage: Margot Gayle.
Described as shrewd and spunky, Margot Gayle began her preservation career in the 1950’s when she undertook her ultimately successful crusade to save the Jefferson Market Courthouse (now a library) on Sixth Avenue, as well as countless public clocks and lampposts.
In 1998, she told the The New York Times, “Why not let people in the future enjoy some of the things we thought were extremely fine?”
Why not indeed.
Gayle’s most lasting accomplishment in the preservation world was to be a key player in the establishment of the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District that includes the entire Broadway corridor from Canal Street to Houston Street. By protecting this area, Gayle not only saved the unique buildings of SoHo, she also prevented SoHo from being targeted by large scale “urban renewal” projects. Just imagine what Broadway would look like if we had no Haughwout Building or The Little Singer or Richard Morris Hunt’s Roosevelt Building at 480.
In 1970, Gayle established the group Friends of Cast Iron Architecture, which was influential in defeating Robert Moses’ Lower Manhattan Expressway that was to run the length of Broome Street. In 1972, SoHo was declared a historic district, also in large part thanks to Gayle. She also led countless walking tours around the neighborhood, arming tourists with magnets so they could test building facades for iron (which is magnetic).
In his remembrance of Gayle upon her death at age 100, David Dunlap quotes Brendan Sexton, former president of the Municipal Arts Society as saying, “Margot Gayle is the only reason we have a SoHo, … Margot turned her eye on the cast-iron district and it appeared like magic.”
For more about cast iron architecture in New York City, and especially in SoHo:
Cast-Iron Architecture in New York
A Photographic Survey
by Margot Gayle
Photographs by Edmund V. Gillon
208 pages, Dover (November 1974)