Gregg Monsees looks younger than he is. At 62, with his hair still holding most of its original color, Gregg looks almost boyish. His penny-loafers, khakis and oxford shirts do little to shake the visual impression that Gregg might just be a visiting proctor from an old New England Prep school. However, if you head over to 32 Howard Street in SoHo and go inside, toward the back where his desk is covered with the jumbled flotsam of his business life, Gregg will be there, quite willing to tell you about the company he now runs: Putnam Rolling Ladder.
Gregg knows all the details: founded in 1905 by Samuel Putnam, the company was passed to Gregg’s great Aunt, Caroline Rehm, and then on to his father, Walter Monsees. Gregg will point out that in the 1980s, after law school and a career in Virginia, he went to work “for” not “with” his father. He wants you to know the difference.
Gregg might mention that the building, Number 32, as well as the building next door have been company headquarters since the early 1930s. He’ll point out what you can plainly see: that the building next door has been rented and renovated but that Number 32 remains very much the headquarters, the heart, and soul, of the niche business he runs.
A rolling ladder is what you see in large libraries. It is the kind of ladder that enables you to reach that book or journal on the top shelf, the kind that runs along long book-lined walls of university halls or the quiet reading rooms of private clubs. They are the type of ladder that Putnam Rolling Ladder now assembles in Brooklyn but still houses here at this ancient building in SoHo.
Weaving through ladders of all shapes and sizes and buckets of bolts, nuts, and hinges, you begin to get the sense that little has changed since Putnam Rolling Ladder moved here in the 1930s. The ladders are still being hauled up and down by a big chain contraption, the second floor machinery warm and greasy, the back room with its lockers for changing and the piles of yellowed, typed orders filled with expired details are, to some, relics of a more orderly time before websites and online availability for nearly everything in print.
Equal parts salesman and curator, Gregg can provide facts and anecdotes for just about every square inch of his property. And, like the building, the Monsees’ have been here a long time and Gregg assures that “over his dead body” will they go out of the ladder business.
The businessman side of Gregg is a realist and he admits that it’s recently been a tough time for small outfits, especially a niche business Rolling Ladders. However, the curator side of Gregg, the one that knows the 100 plus year history of this building, is an optimist. Making ladders is something the Monsees do and will continue to do. It’s simply something his father passed down to him and the son is not about to let go.