Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

How the New York Loft Reclaimed Industrial Grit as Urban Luxury

Artists took over loft spaces in what came to be known as SoHo. (Orbon Alija/E+ via Getty Images)

In the decade after World War II, a two-block-long street called Coenties Slip in Manhattan’s financial district was the center of the art world.

Chryssa, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Lenore Tawney and Robert Indiana lived in narrow brick walk-up buildings on Coenties, its name a relic from when some waterfront streets had actually been boat slips. Barnett Newman lived nearby on Front Street, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were around the corner on Pearl. Weavers, painters and sculptors whose work is now hung cheek by jowl at the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art once dwelled in almost equal proximity, occupying unfinished spaces that sometimes still held the inspirational detritus of departed industries.

Other agglomerations of artists lived uptown, relatively speaking, on the Bowery or near Washington Square Park. But the relentless rise of the postwar economy didn’t leave such enclaves alone for long. New skyscrapers downtown, and the expansion of New York University around the park, created a litany of displacement: evicted 1952, to be torn down; lease terminated; jeopardized by highway.

As the skyline modernized, artists who had not yet found success had to find more space — space with light, space that didn’t need to be kept pristine, space grand enough to hold the oversize canvases and welded constructions that were increasingly au courant. One sculptor, whose tools of choice were scrap steel and an oxyacetylene torch, told The New York Times in 1962, “Who was it that said, ‘First we shape the building and then the building shapes us?’ My loft has turned out the best sculpture I’ve ever done. It’s demanded more of me.”