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Guide to the Winston Weisman Soho Historic District Collection
circa 1950-1973
depicting structures circa 1850 - 1970
 PR 73

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
(212) 873-3400

New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Ricky Hunter

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on May 20, 2022
Description is in English.

Biographical Note

Architectural historian and professor Dr. Winston R. Weisman, born February 3, 1909 in New York City, compiled extensive pictorial documentation to support several areas of his research: cast-iron architecture, origins of the skyscraper, and commercial architecture in New York City, including the Soho district, Rockefeller Center, and buildings by architect George B. Post. His interest in these particular areas of research date from his 1939 dissertation on Rockefeller Center. He did most of his subsequent research as professor and head of the Department of Art History at the Pennsylvania State University, where he specialized in the history of commercial architecture. He dedicated 22 years to teaching at Penn State from 1958 to 1971.

Weisman was educated at Ohio State University where he received his B.A. in art history (cum laude) and journalism in 1932. He completed his M.A. in art history at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University in 1936. Weisman then received his Ph. D. in art history and studio art from Ohio State University with his dissertation on the genesis of Rockefeller Center.

His research focused on commercial architecture and shaped his academic career, as he often taught classes on the specific subjects he was researching, whether the early history of skyscrapers or cast iron buildings. He did, though, explore other areas of art history, writing two manuals: Medieval Manuscripts Painting A Teaching Manualand  An Annotated Portfolio of Photographs Taken from Medieval Manuscriptsin the Pierpont Morgan Library, both published in 1949. These two books reflect his developing scholarly interests before he focused exclusively on commercial architecture.

Weisman was director of the College Art Association of American Society of Architectural Historians. He published articles in magazines such as The Architectural Review,  Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians,  Journal of the American Institute of Architects, and the  New York Times Sunday Magazine. He contributed the paper, "The History of the Skyscraper 1907 -- 1917," for the Columbia University Symposium on Modern Architecture in May 1966, then spent the last decades of his life working on and researching the unpublished  A History of Commercial Architecture Volume 1: The Elevator Building. This volume was a compendium of all of research and articles on the early skyscraper in various American cities, though predominantly New York. Weisman's essay "A New Vision of Skyscraper History" was one of four specially commissioned for a book,  The Rise of American Architecture, published as part of the 100th Anniversary celebration of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Two significant projects marked the final years of Weisman's professional career. For the first "Project Soho" in 1970 and 1971, his students recorded a series of thoroughly detailed photos and data sheets documenting the cast iron buildings in Soho. This project continued work that Weisman had begun in the early 1950s. Weisman's historical efforts helped form the basis for the New York City Landmark Commission's final designation report making the Soho Cast-Iron Historical District an official landmark on August 14, 1973.

His second major project was overseeing the dismantling of the Laing Stores in the Soho District of New York City, an historical ironclad structure that was the complete building by James Bogardus standing at the time it was scheduled to be dismantled in the late sixties. In April of 1970, Dr. Weisman was named consultant to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

He died on October 9, 1997 at the age of eighty-eight.

Historical Note

Cast iron played a preeminent role in the architectural development of New York City and the United States during the 19th century. Cast iron is an alloy with a high carbon content (at least 1.7% and usually 3.0 to 3.7%) that makes it more resistant to corrosion than either wrought iron or steel. In addition to carbon, cast iron contains varying amounts of silicon, sulfur, manganese, and phosphorus. While molten, cast iron is easily poured into molds, making it possible to create nearly unlimited decorative and structural forms. Unlike wrought iron and steel, cast iron is too hard and brittle to be shaped by hammering, rolling, or pressing. However, it is more rigid and more resistant to buckling than other forms of iron.

In the second half of the 19th century, the United States experienced an era of tremendous economic and territorial growth. The use of iron in commercial and public buildings spread rapidly, and hundreds of iron-fronted buildings were erected in cities across the country from 1849 to the early 1900s, especially in New York City. By the turn of the century, steel was becoming available nationally, and was structurally more versatile and cost competitive. Its increased use was one reason why building with cast iron diminished after intensive use for a half century. A large proportion of iron fronts nationwide have been demolished in downtown redevelopment projects, especially since World War II.

James Bogardus (1800-1874) was a major proponent of the use of cast iron, and several of the buildings he designed are represented within this collection. In 1849 Bogardus erected the first structure with self supporting, multistoried exterior walls of iron. The Edgar Laing Stores was a row of small four-story warehouses that appeared as one building, and was constructed in lower Manhattan in only two months. Its rear, side, and interior walls were of brick; the floor framing consisted of timber joists and girders. One of the cast iron walls was load bearing, supporting the wood floor joists. The innovation was its two street facades of self-supporting cast iron, consisting of multiples of only a few pieces: Doric-style engaged columns, panels, sills, and plates, along with some applied ornaments. Each component of the facades had been cast individually in a sand mold by a foundry, machined smooth, tested for fit, and finally trundled on horse-drawn drays to the building site. There they were hoisted into position, then bolted together and fastened to the conventional structure of timber and brick with iron spikes and staps.