Bernard Marson, one of the catalysts of the Soho Renaissance, dies at 91

Bernard Marson, who was an architect and developer who rose to prominence in transforming an industrial district in Lower Manhattan into SoHo, an affordable neighborhood for artists to work and live before it developed into an enclave of chic boutiques, celebrity bars and expensive apartments, died July 9 at his Los Angeles home. Los Angeles. He was 91 years old.

His death was confirmed by his son Alexander.

“Mr. Marson has been almost single-handedly responsible for the growth of New York City’s SoHo into an artist community and historic district,” said Raquel Ramati, who heads the Urban Design Group at Mayor John F. American Institute of Architects.

Mr. Marson was already a notable architect in the late 1970s when he happened upon the South Houston Industrial Estate, an area of ​​50 five- and six-story buildings, many with elegant cast-iron facades from the 19th century. The district had just escaped a ball smash when Robert Moses’ plans for the Lower Manhattan Expressway were scrapped.

The neighborhood was in transition, setting for the kind of project Mr. Marson did with Israeli architect Moshe Safdi in Jerusalem: the renovation of the Western Wall plaza and the Old City Jewish Quarter from 1974 to 1976.

In Manhattan, many of the tenants between Houston and Canal Street, mostly small businesses—twine and paper workers, rag turners, manufacturers of window shades and corrugated boxes, sweatshops—were moving to places with lower taxes and labor costs, leaving behind a dwindling industrial industry. . A base that city officials desperately sought to preserve.

These companies were replaced by a thriving artists’ colony in the area south of Houston Street, already informally named SoHo. The artist was transforming undivided, high-ceilinged loft areas into studios and living spaces—a violation of city rules in a neighborhood designated for industrial use.

In the late 1970s, when the city was in an economic recession, Mr. Marson was at the forefront of adapting several former industrial buildings to create an entirely new neighborhood.

With other investors, he bought architect Ernest Flagg’s 12-story Little Singer building as well as four other buildings, including a former glue factory.

Some of the space had already been used illegally by artists, but Mr. Marson discovered a loophole in what most city officials thought was a strict ban – a vague zoning decision that allowed “studios with ancillary living” in manufacturing areas. To the dismay of officials, the City Standards and Appeals Board ordered the Buildings Department to allow Mr. Marson to proceed.

What followed was a protracted legal and administrative dispute. On the one hand, city officials and some landlords were seeking to enforce zoning law to protect existing tenants and thwart gentrification; On the other hand, with Mr. Marson at the fore, developers and artist groups have been discussing zoning contrasts to reflect the new realities of the real estate market.

In some cases, landlords and developers have taken advantage of tenants who have improved properties at their own expense by increasing rents (and threatening tenants), even though they remain illegally occupied. But the spread of transfers from manufacturing to residential use in SoHo and nearby neighborhoods eventually led to new regulations, the creation of the Loft Board and the commissioning of many lofts that were already occupied.

“This essentially legitimized what was really going on,” said Peter Samton, an architect and former colleague of Mr. Marson. “The unique aspects of his contributions were the confusion between architecture and development, which at the time, some 50 years ago, was uncommon.”

In 1982, state lawmakers passed legislation that Carl Weisbrod, director of Loft Enforcement in New York City, said would protect 90% of loft tenants, including those in major loft neighborhoods like SoHo, Tribeca, and NoHo in lower Manhattan.

Anthony Chiriba, who was president of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2010, described Mr. Marson at the time as “a critical player in SoHo’s transformation from the grueling workshop of its past to its jewel-like present.”

Recent sales in the neighborhood included a two-bedroom apartment at 561 Broadway for $4 million and a one-bedroom apartment at 242 Lafayette Street for $2 million.

Bernard Aaron Marson was born on March 21, 1931 in Manhattan to Alexander Marson, an immigrant from Russia who became a paint salesman, and Etta (Jermaine) Marson, who worked in a store in Harlem. He grew up in the West Bronx.

After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, he earned a degree in civil engineering from the New York University School of Engineering in 1951. He served as a nuclear weapons officer during the Korean War.

After receiving a degree in architecture from Cooper Union in 1961, he worked with Marcel Breuer as the architect’s site representative during the construction of the Whitney Museum of American Art on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a brutalist structure that now houses the Frick Collection temporarily while Frick was renovating the nearby museum .

In his private practice, Mr. Marson was specifically commissioned to renovate the 1920s Montauk Manor, the Tudor Revival Hotel on the eastern tip of Long Island designed by Schultz Weaver and built by Carl J. Fisher, who developed Miami Beach, when it was The hotel was converted into condominiums in the seventies.

He married Elaine Sue Engelson in 1978. In addition to their son, she is survived by their daughter Eve. And two grandchildren. The couple moved to California in 2017.

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