We tripped the light fantastic through Soho (or Sohoma as I call it because of the neighborhood's unfortunate resemblance to an overrated suburban American shopping mall, a new-century playground for the Bridge and Tunnel set) and Chelsea over the weekend before last. We were treated to this year's moveable feast for the eyes, courtesy of The New Yorker.
As we stepped out of Location One on Greene Street, the diagonal rows of weathered glass alongside the base of the stairs caught my eye. The sidewalk vault lights looked to be casting their warm amber tones up and out from underground. I love these humble representatives of 19th century New York. Let me share a bit of their story....
Beginning in the 1850s, sidewalk vault lights became a common feature amidst the burgeoning manufacturing districts of America’s urban streetscapes. These cast-iron panels, fitted with clear glass lenses, were set into the sidewalk in front of building storefronts. They permitted daylight to reach otherwise dark basements (or “vaults”) that extended out beneath the sidewalks, creating more useable or rentable space for building owners.
Vault lights typically extended four to five feet out from the building line toward the curb. Each panel was screwed to a cast-iron saddle and the iron framework that spanned the basement vault. They were cast with molded iron knobs set around each lens to protect the glass and improve the footing of passers-by. Originally simple glass lenses were set in the panels, usually with a cement grout. Advances in daylighting technology, including the development of prismatic glass pendants that refracted the sun’s rays further into basement areas, and the use of reinforced concrete panels made vault lights popular through the 1930s.
If you find yourself scouting for treasure in New York City (admittedly not much of a challenge - there are riches on every. single. last block), you might consider a look-see on Greene Street. These enduring survivors of a bygone day will not disappoint.
:image dianamuse; post title courtesy of this beautiful film