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.
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.
The No. 1 Rolling Ladder accounts for the company’s name. Typically made of best-grade oak, it can be made of any hardwood – maple, ash, mahogany, birch, cherry, walnut, teak – and connects to a track installed around the top of a bookshelf. At the base, hardware of antique brass, oil-brushed bronze and brushed chrome, pewter, nickel or copper encases its wheels.
Gregg Monsees could recognize this ladder by scent. Most people, however, identify a Putnam by the little red and gold label affixed inside its rail, and these great and leggy beasts inspire considerable affection. Taped to a back wall curls a collection of quarter-century-old thank-you notes.
From Fred Fitchley of Hilton Head, S.C.: “I just had to write to tell you of the joy, happiness and satisfaction that your rolling ladder has given us. It was just what our great room, with ceiling-high bookshelves, needed – and has made my wife Dotty a new gal. She looks at it – she admires it – and she climbs up and down just for the hell of it – and then she calls the neighbor over to see it and enjoy it too.”
From Lilli Elsas of Houston: “I have wanted one for so long but always thought you had to either be eccentric or very wealthy or both!”
There are also the Nos. 9, 19, and 29, low office ladders that can double as stools; and the No. 115, or Pulpit Ladder, which has a platform at the top on which one stands and another platform on which to rest things while stocking shelves. The No. 70, also called the Library Ladder, or Elephant Ladder, has rungs instead of steps, which can make it difficult to climb. A jointed oak construction, it can fold into itself to stand compactly in a corner like a single beam of wood. “People used to use these to get up on top of elephants,” says Gregg, “hence the name.” Some say Thomas Jefferson invented the Elephant Ladder to service a clock.
A ladder usually costs $1,000 to $2,000, and it takes 8 to 10 weeks to make. But to accommodate patrons rarer requests for African mahogany, anegre or zebrawood, the Monseeses have a different time scale. Anegre, for instance, is a “no time limit” wood.
“And so they ask what ‘no time limit’ means,” says Gregg, “And I say it means exactly that. It can take up to a year. I’m sorry. There’s nothing urgent about a custom-made rolling ladder.”
Putnam receives orders by phone or fax and most recently via the Internet. In 1996, Gregg Monsees saw a program about it on PBS. “It said that a thousand people a day were getting on the Internet,” he said, “so I thought we should put the catalog on there.”
Nevertheless, the company does almost everything by fax. If a client sends an e-mail message with a request for information, the message is printed out and then answered by fax. Customers who don’t have a fax machine will receive a letter by mail. It is the sole job of one woman to fax and mail back e-mail order confirmations.
Watching people ramble down Howard Street without noticing No. 32 makes it hard to imagine how anyone could find the place if they wanted to. The shutters are often partly closed and the hanging sign outside is now completely black, its letters faded off. It used to be attached to Putnam’s horse-drawn buggy, but having gotten rid of the actual buggy, Gregg says, the Monseeses used its sign for their store. Cutting costs, after all, is what keeps a business strong.
Yet orders arrive, from Nevada, Oklahoma, California, Virginia, from Israel, Japan, Australia, Canada and Central Park West. An Alaskan salmon fisherman offered to barter with them: ladder for fish. Diane von Furstenberg bought a Putnam, so did Annie Leibovitz and Yoko Ono.
One morning in 2001, Gregg Monsees received a call from a Mr. Byron Bottoms in Waco, Texas, who told him that President and Laura Bush wanted to buy a ladder for the library at their Crawford ranch and would he please ship out some samples posthaste.
“Well, we don’t ship samples,” said Gregg Monsees. “And we made a very rare exception. But we did require a deposit.” The Bushes settled on an unfinished black walnut with powder-coated black steel fixtures, and Mrs. Bush sent a thank-you note addressed to “Messrs. Monsees.” When Morley Safer of CBS came in to inquire about a ladder for his Upper East Side home, Gregg Monsees recalled, he made a wry comment, upon hearing that the president had recently bought a ladder, as to the number of books Mr. Bush could possibly own.
“It was something like, ‘What, for his one book?’ ” Gregg Monsees said. “And then he asked me what I thought was a particularly astute question. He asked, ‘How many feet of track did he buy?’ Because the track can be an indicator of how many books a person owns.
“Well, it seemed the president had more track than Morley Safer. I guess he forgot Laura Bush used to be a librarian.”
In its main building, at No. 32, the company has a total of five floors and a basement, each faced with unfinished hardwood and topped by yawningly high tin ceilings. A deep staircase goes straight up to the second floor, swept, it seems, only by a century and a half of passing feet. Nests of dust the size of mice lurk at the corners.
On the second floor, a man named Herve hunches over a 20-inch Dayton drill press, an object that resembles an oversize microscope, only with a frighteningly large drill bit in place of a lens. Herve wears a black sweatshirt, black pants and a ratty black baseball cap. Often, he alone occupies this floor.
The silent third floor hides a deep forest of ladders, ladders leaning against one another, stacked 10 feet deep along each wall and stretching high in the air. There are dozens upon dozens of ladders, so many that there should be a collective noun for such things: a timber of ladders, a bosque.
By the fourth floor, stillness begins to settle, a cold, uncanny hush. A hand dragged across the stairwell’s plaster here comes up dirt-black. The floor is a sea of cardboard barrels filled with fixtures, some a half-century old: nuts, bolts, braces, casters. When struck by the little light that makes it through the filthy windows, the contents of the newest barrels shine gold, and mountains of brass-plated ladder bolts twinkle like the treasure of some mechanically bent pirate king.
The fifth floor remains most desolate. For a person left alone here, the stone-cold quiet becomes vaguely terrifying. An employee once confided that by the time he reaches the fifth floor, he sometimes feels he must stop at the top of the stairs and call out. He has never heard anyone answer; it’s really just the comfort of his own voice.
This floor is an orphanage of broken ladders, the bleaker version of those below. Gregg still rescues ladders from closing businesses, and sometimes even buys them back for $25 or $50. Once, while having dinner in a downtown restaurant, he spied one through the window of a closing bookshop, and wrote a letter to the owner asking to reclaim it. His friends and family are mystified by this ability to pick out his ladders from a distance, as if responding to some low-frequency cry.
“I can tell from outside the store,” he says, “I can tell just from the side. The steps are a little bit larger, and I know our competition.” His face becomes grave. “;Do you recognize your children?”
Although Putnam has taken tenants before, none have had the financial capacity to overhaul and renovate to such an extent as Jil Sander.
Now complete, the company’s new space is a marvel of juxtaposition. Where once there was dirt, there is plaster; where once was clutter, light. The sleek, subtle, minimalist design (the showroom is a stark white box) smoothed over every blemish, and from this point on, clean lines and form-fitting modernity will coexist beside the well-worn industry of another age.
Warren Monsees, born in 1922, is perplexed by the augmenting property values. He worked in the neighborhood when the address alone was enough to cause assistants to quit before even showing up. He believes that the SoHo Bloomingdale’s, which opened on Broadway a half decade ago, is what started it all.
Nos. 30 and 32 Howard Street are about 25 feet and 20 feet wide, respectively, more than 100 feet deep, and collectively represent millions of dollars in Manhattan real estate. Warren Monsees estimates the square footage to be “whatever 25 times 120 is, times five for the number of floors, and then add on some more for the basement, and then times all that by two, since that’s just the size of No. 30, and then take off just a little bit, since No. 32 is just a little bit narrower.”
Jil Sander replaced an 1868 staircase with one of perfect marble veined in gray, and partly obscured by a wall of slim and silently rotating mirrors. Stock is moved in an elevator. To move their own wares, the Monseeses use a giant hook on a rope that hangs down five stories from the rafters to the floor, dangling like a gallows through a great open shaft.
On a Friday morning earlier this year, a cloud of plaster plumed gently from an open corner window on the second floor of No. 30 as workers hefted broken ladders, two at a time, into a Dumpster. On the fourth floor, several Putnam employees busily cleared out space for Jil Sander. They moved objects that had not been moved since the Empire State Building took in its first tenants: dusty barrels of metal, cardboard boxes, files of dog-eared carbons, an ancient standing scale built to bear 1,000 pounds.
“Dad, we should save these,” Gregg said, holding up a fistful of 1950s handwritten customer cards.
Across the room, Herve hauled out a barrel of something and tossed it to the side.
“Dad!” Gregg cried, his voice reedy. Then he took off, pacing about the floor and tragically appraising everything in his path like an anguished child moving house.
“See these boxes?” Gregg said, standing over a moist pile of collapsed cardboard. “I want to keep these. And do you see these? Accounts receivables. By hand. From 1956.” He held handfuls of things in front of his father’s face.
“You want to take them home?” Warren Monsees asked gently.
“No,” Gregg replied. Then he headed toward a barrel. “I”m keeping these brackets, Dad,” he said, holding out a dusty L-shaped form. “What’s wrong with this?”
Warren Monsees remained silent
“You’re not interested, are you?” he said
“No,” the father replied gently.
“But you’re throwing history out!” cried Gregg.
“We’re not in the history business,” said Warren Monsees.