The Starrett-Lehigh Building, at 90, prepares for its future

When the gargantuan Starrett-Lehigh Building was constructed in West Chelsea in 1931, it was quickly hailed as a masterpiece of industrial modernism, a triumph of both engineering and International Style architectural aesthetics. .

Occupying the entire block of 26th to 27th Streets between 11th and 12th Avenues, the 19-story giant was a joint venture between William A. Starrett, a financier-builder who also worked on the Empire State Building, and the Lehigh Valley Railroad, which operated an open rail yard at the site.

While the railroad kept most of the ground floor for its rail terminal, Starrett Brothers & Eken built a 1.8 million square foot manufacturing and warehouse center above it.

Minimizing the costly inefficiency of curbside truck deliveries, Starrett-Lehigh was designed to allow each floor to, in effect, serve as a ground floor. The trucks entered at 27th Street and headed up a ramp under the rail yard to a bay of three giant elevators, which hoisted them to the desired floors, where they reversed for loading or unloading.

In the mid-1960s the train tracks were ripped up and in the early 2000s two of the three truck lifts were replaced with passenger lifts as Starrett-Lehigh was transformed into an office building accommodating creative tenants like Hugo Boss Fashions and Martha. Stewart Living Omnimedia.

Now RXR Realty, which bought the building for $920 million in 2011, is stepping up a gear by replacing the last truck elevator with other passenger elevators as it completes its Starrett-Lehigh redevelopment in a high-end 21st century office building designed to foster a sense of community and make people want to be at work.

At the heart of this transformation is the creation of a “vertical campus”, to be completed next year, which includes facilities spread over 10 floors. In the middle of the building, former truck docks are reconfigured into spaces for recreation, relaxation and fitness, where commercial tenants can choose between a golf simulator, billiards and shuffleboard court.

On the ground floor, a food hall and a separate seafood restaurant by chef Marcus Samuelsson will open to the public this spring, as well as a new exhibition of works of art by Jean-Michel Basquiat in a space of 10,000 square foot exhibit. A new main entrance was also added on 11th Avenue, serving as the gateway to the food hall for area residents and people visiting area attractions like art galleries and the High Line.

Robert Montelbano, 50, the building’s logistics manager, who has managed the loading dock for decades, is watching the change with keen interest. Mr. Montelbano is responsible for choreographing the rough ballet of the deliveries and pick-ups of the huge building.

“It’s very tricky,” he said, “because 26th Street is an emergency road ‘that goes almost’ from river to river, and the police want it always open.

Mr Montelbano was first dazzled by Starrett-Lehigh aged 10 in 1981, when he rode with his father, who worked at a moving company in the building, as he drove a truck up the giant elevator and into the garage on the second floor, “a large open space, the size of a city block whole”.

He also visited the building with his uncles, who owned a vending machine business and came to Starrett-Lehigh to purchase video game machines. (That’s how he was able to play Space Invaders before he even saw the game in an arcade.)

One of Mr. Montelbano’s cousins ​​ran the loading dock, and Mr. Montelbano was hired to operate a truck lift part-time when he was 16. The following year, he was hired full-time, and around 1994, he took over as loading dock supervisor.

In time, he began taking his own children to Starrett-Lehigh, either to watch the 4th of July fireworks when they were launched from a barge in the Hudson – “the fireworks went off right above our heads, you felt like you could touch them” – or watch him work on Saturdays.

“I took them on the truck lift and they loved it,” he said. “It was a big thrill, as it was with me.”

As building owners and tenants came and went, Mr. Montelbano gradually became the de facto resident historian of Starrett-Lehigh.

When workers were digging the ground floor in preparation for the new food hall, they unearthed train tracks from the early days of the building, and Mr Montelbano wasted no time in salvaging a section of train track for its growing collection of Starrett-Lehigh artifacts.

“I could see they were throwing pieces, and I wanted it as a sort of time capsule,” he said in an interview, as a pigeon streaked through the loading area past the tailgates of delivery trucks. . “It’s part of the building’s history and it was important to have it on the loading dock.”

From the start, Mr. Montelbano enjoyed being a part of all the manufacturing that took place in the building, and he particularly admired the Baby Watson Cheesecake Factory. Hundred-pound sacks of sugar and huge containers of eggs arrived and were shipped upstairs, where they were mixed and sent through long ovens on a slow-moving conveyor belt.

“It was coming in as raw ingredients,” he said, “and in the end, you’d see the cheesecake, shrink-wrapped on pallets, coming out in refrigerated trucks.”

With the help of his daughter Ashley, a nurse and relentless internet sleuth, Mr. Montelbano began to learn about the manufacturers who had occupied the building before his time.

In its early years, Starrett-Lehigh was home to a number of wine and spirits companies, such as B. Cribari & Sons, makers of Sonnie Boy California Chianti, from which Mr. Montelbano received as gifts many corkscrews, labels of wine and matchboxes. his four children.

“A tanker train would pass the ‘wine-filled’ loading dock of a California vineyard,” he said. The liquid would be pumped upstairs in giant vats and eventually go back into bottles.

A 1931 advertisement was an epiphany for Mr. Montelbano, as it showed a train stopped at a platform where he works every day. Although the old track area was filled in long ago, the steel-covered edge of the old platform is still visible, curving incongruously through the concrete floor.

During World War II, one of the major tenants was the combustion equipment division of the Todd Shipyards Corporation, which produced giant burners to power US Navy warships.

“Crush the Nazi wolf packs,” boasted a wartime advertisement. “In ships of all types, Todd burners work for victory.”

Mr. Montelbano collected those advertisements, along with vintage Todd employee badges and a 1944 mining report.

“The advertisements give you pride that this building contributed to the good fight against the Nazis,” he said. “It really amazes me.”

Although hectic, the work is never boring. In 2011, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a tenant, asked Mr. Montelbano to book an elevator for items the agency had seized from the owner of an antiques gallery.

“Out of the truck comes this thing, and they unpacked it, and my God, it’s an Egyptian sarcophagus like you see in a museum,” he recalls.

As small businesses have moved out of Starrett-Lehigh during the pandemic, RXR has assembled blocks of space as large as 100,000 square feet for prime tenants that the real estate company hopes will prove more financially stable.

But even as RXR looks to the future and renovations to the building continue, Mr. Montelbano still has his eye on the past.

“It doesn’t look that good, but it looks beautiful to me,” he said, guiding a visitor to the building’s 12th Avenue ramp and pointing to a worn sign. and largely unreadable above an exit. The sign appeared to bear the words “STOP DANGER”.

Looking at the faded letters, Mr. Montelbano seemed transported back through the decades to a time when train carriages crossed the street from car floats at Pier 66 while a crash of trucks fought for position on 12th Ave.

“It’s a sign that I don’t want them to see, because I don’t want it thrown away during the renovations,” he said. “If it ever fails, I’m going to beg them to put it in my charging dock.”

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About Margaret L. Portillo

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