Friday, September 28, 2012

The Goliath 1891 Terminal Warehouse Bldgs -- 11th Avenue at 27th Street


photo by Alice Lum
The Chelsea neighborhood of 11th Avenue and 28th Street in 1890 bustled with activity as trains moved up the avenue to the freight yards of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad.  Only a decade earlier much of the land was still part of the Hudson River.   But by now the shoreline had been extended with landfill and a lumber yard occupied a portion of the block between 27th and 28th Streets on the river side of the avenue.

Brooklyn-born William Wickes Rossiter had three brothers and, like him, all were eminently successful.  Walter K. Rossiter was Assistant Secretary of the Brooklyn Union Gas Company, and Clinton L. Rossiter, was President of the Brooklyn Heights Railroad.  But it was E. V. W. Rossiter who would be most instrumental in William’s new business, The Terminal Warehouse Company.   E. V. W. Rossiter was the Treasurer of the New York Central Railroad—the railroad that ran down the middle of 11th Avenue and the only with a direct rail link into Manhattan.

In 1890 William W. Rossiter purchased the entire block from 11th to 12th Avenues, and 27th to 28th Streets and began construction of the mammoth Central Stores complex of the Terminal Warehouse Company.  George B. Mallory designed a 7-story brick behemoth the somewhat resembled a hulking fortress.  Using what has been called the “American Round Arch” style, he melded what was actually 25 separate buildings into a unified structure.  The gigantic edifice, completed in 1891, enclosed a full 24 acres of warehouse space within what the AIA Guide to New York City would, over a century later, call “somber monumentality.”

A freight train exits the giant arch onto 11th Avenue -- King's Handbook of New York 1895 (copyright expired)
The painted brick walls of the $650,000 warehouse rose to a corbelled brick cornice, with towers capping each corner.  Enormous gaping arches that dominated both the 11th and 12th Avenue facades were not added for design appeal.  They allowed the New York Central trains to enter the warehouse on the 11th Avenue side and the Erie and Lehigh Railroads to access the 12th Avenue entrance.   Filled with freight, the cars of the Erie and Lehigh would then be loaded onto transfer bridges and floated to the New Jersey side.

The warehouse advertised space for items from as small as "mirrors" and "pictures" to carriages.  Moving and packing services were offered, "freezing rooms" that prevented damage from moths or other insects to furs, woolens and carpets, and lighterage--the transfer of cargo from ship to shore.

An 1895 advertisement reflected the long list of services -- King's Handbook of New York (copyright expired)
Among the diverse goods received at the warehouse in February 1897 was an entire carload of pottery from the Mayer Pottery Manufacturing Company in Trenton, New Jersey.   The pottery was consigned to “C. Leonard.”  But Mr. Leonard would never take possession of his goods.  Instead it was taken by Philadelphia detectives.

C. Leonard was, in fact, Dr. Walter H. Keyes who claimed to be the head of the Mississippi Medicine Company.  The pottery was purchased using funds obtained “under false pretenses and converting partnership property to his own use,” according to the Pennsylvania police.  The scheming doctor was arrested and his pottery confiscated.

Enormous iron letters below the striking brick corbels advertise the Terminal Warehouse's cold storage.  Hinges survive in the recessed spaces that once permitted the iron shutters to close flush with the facade -- photo by Alice Lum
Later that year,  on April 30, just six years after his ambitious project was completed, William Wickes Rossiter died.  The 49-year old executive had complained of stomach pain and was taken to the Seney Hospital in Brooklyn for an emergency appendectomy.   When the operation was started the surgeons realized the real cause for the pain.  Rossiter was suffering from advanced intestinal cancer.  He died after spending two days in a coma.

The resourceful plan of constructing the Central Stores as separate buildings within one proved itself when fire broke out on September 20, 1900.  It was the first fire since the buildings’ construction and, according to The New York Times the following day, “Two floors of Sections 1 and 2, forming the Eleventh Avenue front, were ravaged, but the other twenty-two sections escaped damage owing to the solid construction of the building and the intrepidity of the firemen.”

Unfortunately, the “ravaged” sections included some irreplaceable items—some of which were destroyed not by the flames, but by the deluge of water from the hoses. 

For decades the Schmitt Brothers were among the preeminent antiques dealers in Manhattan, operating from No. 523 Madison Avenue.   When wealthy Queens resident John J. Halleran died in 1897, the firm purchased his 50-year collection of ceramics, antique furniture, books, paintings, bronzes and silver.    Schmitt Brothers had the entire collection in storage on the 7th floor and it was all lost.  The firm valued it “on an artistic basis,” at $50,000.

Also lost in the fire was $30,000 worth of furniture by the Thonet Brothers manufacturers—famous for their bentwood rockers and chairs.   Ehrich Brothers, the large department store on 6th Avenue at the end of The Ladie’s Mile, lost $20,000 in “suites of furniture and toys” on the fourth floor.

The warehouse had been built with special accommodations for large, hand-painted canvas stage scenery.   Polish-born actress Helene Anna Held who would within a few years become the mistress of Florenz Ziegfeld and a millionaire in her own right, had stored the scenery for her play “Papa’s Wife” here.   On the same floor was scenery for “Barbara Frietchie,” stored by actress Julia Marlowe, an English actress well known for her Shakespearean roles.  The scenery was all lost.

The popular actress Anna Held lost scenery in the 1900 fire -- photo Library of Congress
The smoky fire had burned for over five hours and several firemen were overcome by the smoke; however the building was little damaged.  “The Terminal Warehouses can be put in repair in a few weeks at a cost of not more than $30,000,” reported The Times.  “The masonry is intact in the sections where the fire was.”  The newspaper added “The warehouses will do business as usual to-day, as the fire did not extend beyond the sections which were partly destroyed.”

On November 19, 1904, electrical workers from the Edison Company accidentally severed a cable while working in a manhole at 8th Avenue and 35th Street.  Unfortunately the cable connected 96 fire alarm boxes to the Fire Department, which were rendered inoperative for about four hours.  Even more unfortunate was that the Terminal Warehouse caught fire again on that day.

When Police Officer Peter Hogan saw smoke coming from the iron shutters of Warehouse 18, he rushed to the fire box  at 11th Avenue and 29th Street.  When no firemen appeared after five minutes, he ran to 10th Avenue and 27th Street.  He pulled that alarm box.  When no firemen appeared again, he ran to 12th Avenue and 31st Street, pulling that alarm.

Finally the frustrated policeman called the station house from the police signal box and his sergeant phoned Police Headquarters.     An officer at Headquarters telephoned the Fire Headquarters, which telephoned Engine 34 on 10th Avenue.

By now a second alarm was necessary.   But once again the construction of the building held.  “Only the fire-proof character of the building is believed to have averted a great conflagration,” reported The Times.

The fire destroyed $5,000 worth of merchandise intended as trading-stamp premiums stored by the Sperry & Hutchinson Company.

Renowned architect Stanford White traveled the world in search of interesting architectural and interior design items to embellish the mansions and buildings he designed.  These artifacts were shipped to New York and stored at the Terminal Warehouse until they were matched with the right client and the right building--that is, until Harry Kendall Thaw fatally shot White at Madison Square Garden on June 25, 1906.

On December 10, 1907 the American Art Association held at auction at the Warehouse.  The New York Tribune listed among the articles “antique marble and stone mantels, sarcophagi, fountains and other valuable objects.”    An antique Italian marble fountain carved in the shape of a shell and resting on an elaborately-carved base brought $525.  T. Jefferson Coolidge, who had traveled from Newton Centre, Massachusetts for the sale, took home a haul.  He spent $410 on a Renaissance stone mantel, $320 for an Italian Renaissance marble sarcophagus, $105 for three antique stone vases, $90 for five jars and two vases, and $75 on two frames of wall tiles.

Joseph Pulitzer’s wife was on hand, purchasing stone lions, red pottery finial ornaments and a pair of mounted crocodiles.  The reptiles cost her $5.   Among the other famous New York names who had come to the warehouse and freight district that day were architect Thomas Hastings and I. N. Phelps Stokes.  The auction realized over $92,000.

photo by Alice Lum
In 1906 the competing 6th Avenue department stores of Adams & Co. and its next-door neighbor Hugh O’Neill—both a full block wide—joined forces to create the massive O’Neill-Adams Company.   By 1914 the firm stored its incoming furniture in ten floors of the Terminal Warehouse. 

Another giant retailer, John Wanamaker, had leased at least one entire building since 1898.  In October of 1915 the store signed a two-year lease on two full buildings of the complex, approximately 120,000 square feet.

In 1929 the enlarged sections of the warehouse can be see to the right in this rear view from 12th Avenue.  The train tracks in the foreground led directly to the Hudson River and "transfer bridges."  -- NYPL Collection
By 1983 the 11th Avenue rail line was long gone and the West Side freight area, once vibrant and bustling, was essentially a memory.  The Terminal Warehouse had been altered several times, noticeably losing its corner towers and gaining floors in some sections.  That year a group of investors purchased the massive Terminal Warehouse for $12.3 million and converted over half of the building into a colossal mini-storage operation.  In the huge arched space facing 12th Avenue where trains once picked up and unloaded furniture and pottery, The Tunnel nightclub was opened.

As the 21st century dawned, the scruffy far-west section of Chelsea was reinvented by art galleries.   By 2012 over 200 galleries had found homes in the warehouses and lofts along the district’s cobblestone-paved back streets.  Where the Tunnel nightclub had been, the long corridor now sheltered art galleries.  And in May 2012 DeLorenzo 1950 leased around 4,000 square feet on two floors for its furniture store.
Where freight trains once passed, now art collectors and furniture buyers enter modern glass doors -- photo by Alice Lum
Having survived fires and urban change, the goliath brick warehouse building breathes new life as the once-gritty neighborhood of freight trains and trucks is reborn as a trendy destination for art lovers.

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