Illicit past adds allure in Soho

Former madam's home in red-light district one of only former brothels left
By Anna King | December 30, 2008 05:10PM

In Soho, near high-end boutiques like Chanel, La Perla and Movado is 105 Mercer Street, a three-story house with a wholesome-looking green-and-white façade that belies a distinctly bawdy past.

The small home, located between Prince and Spring streets and built around 1899, was reputed to have once been a house of prostitution owned by a madam named Cinderella Marshall, according to the property listing.

The building, on the market for six months, changed hands in June for $3.55 million above its asking price of $3.5 million.

Granted, the sale occurred before the residential market froze up at the end of the summer. But the sale attracted enormous interest, according to Nancy Guo of Massey Knakal, who sold the building.

The listing noted it was once one of many “houses of pleasure” that lined Mercer Street in the 19th century, when “Soho was New York’s largest red-light district.”

However, while 105 Mercer once had company as a former “house of pleasure” in the neighborhood, that’s no longer the case. While the Apex Art gallery at 291 Church Street is located within a building that used to be a brothel, other former brothels in the area — such as 54 Leonard Street, which was also owned by Cinderella Marshall — are no longer standing.

Guo said the building attracted more interest than anything else in the realtor’s books since it was “a strange item in the neighborhood. There are not a lot of townhouses in Soho, and the size is small — so, based on a residential price per square foot, it’s a bit high in terms of the market.”

According to PropertyShark.com, the building has 1,875 square feet on a lot that is 19 by 25 feet.

Located within the Soho cast-iron historic district, 105 Mercer has original fireplaces in the living room and walk-in kitchen. The front doorway, surrounded by columns and with a fanned arch above, framing a glass panel, is also original.

The rest of the building, though, was completely renovated between 2003 and 2006. There are four rooms, each on a separate floor, and three baths.

The previous owner had used the building as a single-family living space, with the kitchen and living room on the top floor, a master bedroom on the second floor and a guest room on the lower level.

The basement, which is half above grade, was used as another bedroom.

It’s not clear how the current owner intends to use the building. Efforts to reach the owner via broker Brian Lover of Corcoran were unsuccessful.

The 19th-century ladies of the night, however, might not recognize the place today. The deck and garden on the roof didn’t exist before the renovations, nor did the cedar-lined walk-in closet in the master bedroom.

Although originally named for the cloth traders who built their businesses in the area, Mercer Street could easily have been named Bordello Street in the late 1800s. While the world’s oldest profession began its life in New York City around the docks, it quickly spread into the growing tenements and slums of the area just west of Broadway.

Timothy Gilfoyle, a professor of history at Loyola University in Chicago, wrote about New York’s burgeoning sex trade in “City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790 to 1920.” He wrote that around 200 brothels existed in the 1820s, but the number rose to around 500 by the end of the Civil War. Landlords seemed to welcome them because they could easily make rent.

Marilyn Stults, a historian, conducts a walking tour that offers a glimpse into the seedier past of 19th- and early 20th-century New York. Stults said, “One of the reasons why the Soho neighborhood became a red-light district in the 19th century is that this formerly residential neighborhood went industrial around the late 1840s.”

After that point, “most of the houses were replaced by loft buildings, which were either factories or warehouses, many with stores on the ground floor, and any remaining houses became upscale brothels.”

According to Stults, “You can be sure that any buildings that are still standing in Soho that were obviously built as houses (rather than lofts) were at some point brothels.”

It’s a fact that, in a strange twist of history, seems to add to their allure today.