Warren Monsees, left, with his son, Gregg, right, and grandson, Peter, amid
the library ladders produced on Howard Street
HOWARD STREET runs a short distance east to west from Centre Street to Mercer, one block north of Canal. At one end is a fish market where men in shabby overalls haul boxes of seafood off trucks by the dollyload; at the other, tourists and model types slink around bazaars and fine boutiques.
Leasing Out Space
In the middle of the strip, the Putnam Rolling Ladder Company and the antiquated clutter of its offices have existed at No. 32 for nearly 80 years. Samuel Putnam started the business in 1905, moving the company there from Water Street in the early 1930s. Since the move to the new building, absurdly little has changed, until recently.
When Mr. Putnam died, Caroline Rehm, his girl Friday, took over, and a few years later, in 1950, she persuaded her nephew Warren Monsees to buy in. He still runs it, now with his son, Gregg, who has been there since 1980. With a similarly anachronistic staff, they represent one of the last producers of custom-made rolling library ladders, routinely staying out of the cross hairs of renovation and resale.
But about a year ago, the Monseeses gave a 10-year lease to the basement and lower three floors of the adjoining five-story building at No. 30, which they also own, to the German fashion designer Jil Sander. The glamorous gala opening of one of the company's highly stylized luxury boutiques took place there on June 12.
All winter and spring, Gregg Monsees had watched uneasily as workers hammered and drilled. The building's exterior is designated a landmark, and the top two of floors of No. 30 have been used to store ladders since the Hoover administration.
But the heart of Putnam's operation is the structure next door, a massive, rambling five-story walk-up, brick-faced and grimy behind a skein of fire escapes, slim columns flanking mostly closed shutters. Buying the building was the best investment the company ever made. The Monseeses receive offers on it daily, staggering sums in the multimillions that mean little to them because they have no interest in selling. The building roots them, as a stalwart anchor in a turbulent sea.
Gregg Monsees is slim and in his late 50s, his hair still honey brown. He wears khakis, burgundy penny loafers and a navy polo shirt. He parts his hair on the side, and when he is flustered, it falls over a pair of dark-rimmed glasses that are missing the left lens. He speaks softly and sometimes wrings his hands, though the gesture is relatively independent of his level of discomfort.
Gregg's father is 85. In winter he goes to work wearing a dark, well-tailored suit (in the summer, seersucker), his white hair impeccably combed. He wore a hat until just a few years ago, when, riding the subway, he looked about him and noticed that people did not wear hats anymore.
On entering the Putnam Ladder Company, one senses some faint climate change, not in temperature so much as time. It's dim in here, modestly lighted, and smelling of maple, oak and cherry. The ceilings are more than 15 feet high; raw, well-trodden boards cover the floor; and towering groves of ladders lean against the walls, reaching many feet into the air.
Ladders are constructed partly in this building and partly in one of four plants in Brooklyn. Here, though, they end up, and here many of them wait.
The offices in back, honeycombed with semipartitioned cubicles of wood and glass, are a paragon of Collyer brothers pack-rattery. Piles of papers amass on shelves, stack up waist high in corners, and pile upon desks, sometime growing to more than a foot until desktops disappear. When this happens, the occupant of the desk simply moves to another desk. In his 27 years here, Gregg Monsees has been through four desks, the remains of which lie dormant like the ruins of abandoned towns. He says it takes him six or seven years to render a desk unworkable.
"It's one of the causes of my divorce," he says dryly. "It's not something to be really proud about. But we now do have a computer."
Periodically, newspaper and magazine writers have stumbled on the place and, seduced by its oddities, written little articles about it. In a photograph accompanying a centennial piece in the magazine Traditional Home, the Monseeses posed next to each other, the son partway up a No. 1 Rolling Ladder, clinging boyishly to the rail and wearing a gold-buttoned sports coat with a red bow tie, and the father, below, wearing his dark winter suit and looking at the brass ladder fixture in his hand as if it had been placed there by God.
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