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Let There Be Light Along SoHo Broadway

If you walk along Broadway from Canal to Houston Street, you will see many charming old-fashioned lampposts along the way. They are replicas of Bishops Crook cast iron lampposts that were common in New York City in the early 20th century. Named for the staff carried by high-ranking clerics, a garland motif winds around a fluted shaft and scrollwork sits at the apex where it hooks downward to the light fixture, usually a mission ball lumiere, named such because they are shaped like the bell used in mission towers.

An example of an original Bishop’s Crook lamppost (image: Landmarks Preservation Commission)

The original Bishop’s Crook lampposts were manufactured by J.L. Mott Iron Works and were maintained by the Thomas Edison Company. Rumors abound that they were designed by Richard Rogers Bowker, then an executive at Edison, who would later go on to be editor of Publishers Weekly and Harper’s Magazine.

Electric lights first appeared on New York City streets around 1892. Prior to this time, all streets were illuminated by gas lamps. According to Landmarks Preservation Commission’s 1997 Historic Street Lampposts Designation List:

By the 1930s, New York streets were lighted by an extraordinary variety of lampposts, brackets, and pedestals. During the 1950s and 1960s most of these posts were replaced by “modem” steel and aluminum types.

The current standard, octagonal, galvanized steel post with cobra-head luminaire dates from the era of wholesale urban “renewal,” interstate highway construction, and suburban sprawl. The replacement of thousands of ornate cast-iron posts with this type was nearly complete by the early 1970s.

An example of a Cobra head light from DOT Street Design Manual

Beginning in 1980, perhaps nostalgic for a time when function did not preclude ornament, the Department of Transportation, who oversees New York City’s thousands of lampposts, began putting up reproductions of Bishop’s Crook originals, bringing back the charm of these old fashioned street lights. The reproductions, charming though they are, are all the same. Back in the day, the Bishop’s Crook design was only one of 33 eclectic types of lampposts identified in 1934.

An original Bishop’s Crook lamppost (foreground) that is missing part of its scrollwork at the top. A replica of this original design can be seen in the background.

What we have today along Broadway is not so much eclectic as a hodgepodge. Bishop’s Crook-style old fashioned lampposts mixed with mid-century utilitarian cobra heads. SoHo Broadway is home to one very rare original Bishop’s Crook. It stands in front of 152 Mercer Street and is different from the reproductions on the block. Slightly narrower, it lacks a garland and is also missing part of its scrollwork. Otherwise, it blends in nicely with its neighbors.

Yukie Ohta is the founder of SoHo Memory Project.

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