105 Mercer Street (in 2012, right) has had an illustrious history.
Built in 1819 for a seamstress, the three-story brick house became a brothel in the mid–1800s—about the time the city’s elite relocated uptown, and the area around Houston Street turned into a red-light district.
By 1900, the prostitutes were gone, and light manufacturing arrived. Mercer and the surrounding Belgian Block streets were choked with trucks, workmen, and debris.
That’s the way it remained in 1965, when a 23-year-old jewelry designer (at left) searching for a cheap place to live and work decided 105 was going to be her home.
“I first walked around the Village, looking for an apartment there, but it was too crowded,” she recalls, almost 50 years later.
“I headed over toward Bond and Great Jones Streets, which had great spaces. Problem was, it was too close to the Bowery, a dangerous place.
So I wandered south of Houston Street. The term Soho hadn’t been invented yet, and I had no idea what this area was called. It felt empty and removed, a relief from the formality of uptown, where I’d been living.
“Number 105 caught my eye. It was in bad shape. There were no windows or windowpanes on the second and third floors. An ugly fire escape hung off the facade. Rats and cats roamed the sidewalk. But I wanted it.
“The area was deserted except for workers shouting to each other in Spanish. I asked around and found out who the landlord was, a real estate guy who owned loft buildings nearby.
“At his office I explained that I was interested in renting 105. He was already renting some of his lofts to artists, but he didn’t know what to do with 105, so he’d just left it empty.
“Naturally he thought I was insane: a young woman on her own asking to move into this shell of a building. The first floor was used by a metal stamping company, so I offered him $150 a month for a five-year lease for the top two floors. We struck a deal.
“There was no kitchen, no bathroom. Each floor was open, littered with chunks of plaster and decades of debris. The owner put in gas, electric, water, and a toilet and sink. Then I moved in.
“You can’t imagine how different Mercer Street was in 1965. No businesses existed, save for Fanelli’s, which was a local bar for drunks, and a bodega on Prince Street.
“During the day, it was loud, and all the trucks backed onto the sidewalks made it tricky to walk around.
“By nightfall, it was eerily quiet. The only sounds came from the occasional homeless guy living in a cardboard box. I always made sure I got home by 7 or 8 p.m. to avoid problems.
“Artists had begun moving into the area. Yet there was no scene or cafes or galleries. Everyone laid low. There was a sense that we were getting a great deal now, but all these buildings would be demolished, and we’d have to move on.
“I lived at 105 for about four years. It was liberating and freeing to have my own space, to do what I wanted. Early on I paid a guy to take a chunk out of the roof, and then I went to a Canal Street supply store and had a piece of clear plastic cut for a skylight.
“I invited a stray cat to live with me, but he didn’t get rid of the rats. I learned to live with them. After all, they were there first.
“Just married and expecting a baby in 1969, I put an ad in The New York Times looking for someone to buy out my lease.
“I couldn’t believe how many people called! Mercer Street was still deserted and empty. Of course, that would change soon.
“The people who called about my ad had seen the future. They knew the newly coined Soho neighborhood was about to arrive—and they wanted to be part of it.”
[105 Mercer Street in 1934 and entryway photo from 1976: NYPL Digital Collection. Lower left: in 2009]