High Line Architecture: The Spears Building

by Annik on July 23, 2014

Tim Saternow Furniture Exchange Warehouse, 525 West 22nd Street, 1940 (Spears Building), 2010 Watercolor on paper, 60x40”

Tim Saternow, Furniture Exchange Warehouse, 525 West 22nd Street, 1940 (Spears Building), 2010 Watercolor on paper, 60×40”

The fourth entry in the High Line Architecture series is the Spears Building on West 22nd Street. [Scroll down for links to the previous pieces; as always, click an image to enlarge it.]

Once a furniture warehouse operated by Spear & Co., this handsome brick building was constructed in 1880 by Kinney Brothers and used as a cigarette packing factory. Kinney was a unit of the giant American Tobacco Company, and until it was broken up by antitrust laws it controlled more than 90% of the tobacco market in the USA. Kinney had a large operation on 22nd Street, capable of putting out 18,000,000 cigarettes each week. 600 people worked in the factory, which consisted of several other buildings on the block.

In 1892 a five-alarm fire gutted the entire factory, destroying 40 million cigarettes. Thankfully the fire started early in the morning and no one was injured, but the damage was extensive.  This sad event prompted one of my all-time favorite New York Times headlines, which ran on October 7, 1892: “One Fiend Beats Another: Fire Smokes Forty Million Cigarettes in Short Order.” Imagine that: the smoke from 40 million cigarettes burning just above today’s lawn….

By the time Robert Moses was envisioning the High Line in the 1920s, the warehouse had been taken over by Spear & Co., and instead of cigarettes it was filled with furniture.  In 1931 a section of the complex was torn down to accommodate the elevated railroad. Tim Saternow’s marvelous painting (above) captures the street scene of the 1940s, including the old street lamps and iconic water towers that still sit atop the building.

Like the R.C. Williams wholesale grocer a few blocks to the north, Spear installed loading docks along the side of its warehouse so trains could expeditiously load furniture onto box cars for distribution around the country. Spear & Co.’s headquarters were in Pittsburgh and they operated several retail stores in Manhattan, including a large one on 34th Street next to the Empire State Building, one in Brooklyn, and the handsome building that appears in the photo below on Jamaica Avenue in Queens. The company motto, “We give you time,” appeared prominently on its storefronts; on the Queens store, whose sleek, Art Deco design was created by the firm of DeYoung, Moscowitz & Rosenberg, it wraps around the clock on the building’s facade just below the company name. [For more about the Spears furniture business see this excellent article in Brownstoner.]

Spear's Furniture retail store in Queens. Photo: NY Public Library

Spear’s Furniture retail store in Queens. Photo: NY Public Library

The Looking at Saternow’s painting, it’s not hard to imagine how the whole scenario played out:  a train chuffs down the High Line, carrying tables, chairs and other items from Pittsburgh; it veers off on the Spear & Co. spur, and workers shunt the furniture through the east wall of the warehouse. Later, men move the goods to the street-level loading dock where they are placed on a panel truck and sent uptown to the fancy stores where New Yorkers go to furnish their apartments. (In an odd coincidence, the general manager of Spear & Co., Arthur S. Guggenheim, died on a train en route from his home in Pittsburgh to Penn Station; it was the same year that Tim Saternow’s painting depicts: 1940.)

The photo below was taken in 1934  from the newly opened freight viaduct, looking north from 21st Street. It shows the Spear & Co. warehouse on the left, and also the Guardian Angel School (right foreground) which was originally located on 23rd Street. The New York Central Railroad paid the church to move to its current location, since it blocked the path of the viaduct — a reminder of the fact that this neighborhood has always been a work-in-progress.

Spear & Company furniture warehouse, from the High Line, 1934. Courtesy West Side Improvement Project brochure

Spear & Company furniture warehouse, from the High Line at 21st Street, 1934. Courtesy West Side Improvement Project brochure

After the last train ran along the High Line in 1980 the viaduct was abandoned, and over time transformed into an invisible (at least from the street) spontaneous garden. Rick Darke’s photo (below) shows an intriguing little path made by trespassers — precursor to the more popular one that would replace it a decade or so later — plus a few birds sitting like notes on a musical staff, looking down on the peaceful wild garden in the middle of the city. (Click here to get an idea of what Brazilian musician Jarbas Agnelli might do with those birds…)

The Spears Building, looking north from 20th Street. Photo by Rick Darke.

The Spears Building, looking north from 20th Street. Photo by Rick Darke.

The photo below shows the abandoned loading dock along with the multitude of graffiti that once covered the building. The NYC graffiti police removed most of the graffiti from the High Line during remediation, but on the Spears Building they left the famous REVS COST tag along with faded remnants of a few others. Running down the southeast corner of the building, you can also see the faded letters that spell out the name of Tower’s Warehouses, Inc. (which also appears in much larger letters on wall above the High Line), the apparent successor to Spear & Co. Tower operated bonded warehouses in locations throughout the city, including along the west side of Manhattan, and according to one source operated a warehouse in the 511 W. 22nd Street building (once part of Spear’s factory) between 1955 – 1971. These ghost signs are common around West Chelsea — a bit west, at 532 W. 22nd, are the faded letters of a long-gone lumber company — but as development rampages through the neighborhood they are disappearing fast.

Spear & Co. loading dock on the abandoned High Line. Photo by Tim Saternow

Spear & Co. loading dock on the abandoned High Line. Photo by Tim Saternow

The Spear & Co. factory was converted into a condominium in 1996, and while many units renovated away the details of the building’s industrial past, some of the lofts retain the original wooden plank ceilings, iron castings, and support beams that recall the old factory. Long ago, some worker hammered a series of nails into a pattern displaying the initials “F.A.,” which are now part of a loft on the 5th floor. Some ghosts still remain inside, too.

In 2012, when Section Two of the High Line opened, the Spears Building became the backdrop for the “seating steps,” a popular hang-out place for people-watching, snacking, smooching, and the occasional wedding ceremony. The High Line Art program uses the wall of the building just opposite the seats to project films or display art works, like Ed Ruscha’s mural, which is there now. So this place has also become an outdoor auditorium/art gallery.

Spears Building and High Line lawn

Spears Building and High Line lawn

Almost exactly 120 years after the devastating fire of October 1892, the Spears Building was hit by another fiend: Hurricane Sandy. The “superstorm” ravaged New York City On October 29 during a full moon, when tides are at their highest. Worse, the storm surged coincided with the approaching high tide along the Atlantic Coast. The Hudson River, a tidal estuary, rose a record 8 to 9 feet in Lower New York Bay, and on 22nd Street the river exceeded the 4′ level, flooding the basement and lobby of the Spears Building. The photo below was taken by Haider Gillani during the storm; click here to see a photo from the same place taken in July 2014 and here to see the Sandy high water mark emblazoned (still) on 22nd Street.

22nd Street, just outside the front door of the Spears Bldg., during Hurricane Sandy. Photographer unknown.

22nd Street, outside the front door of the Spears Bldg., during Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Haider Gillani.

Tim Saternow’s painting, which he graciously allowed me to use here, has been hanging in the Spears lobby since 2009 — the same year the High Line opened — and for most of the building’s residents (myself included) is a much-loved fixture.  It was almost a casualty of the hurricane,  but luckily the water didn’t rise quite high enough to reach it. Tim was able to rescue the painting the day after the storm, and once the lobby had been repaired it was returned to its rightful place, to the joy of everyone.

The other distinctive element of the Spears Building is the pair of “silent sentries” that have stood on its roof for more than a century. New York City is filled with water tanks, what Charles Kuralt — one of their many admirers — described as “the hoops and staves of the Middle Ages.” As our neighborhood reinvents itself with modern architecture and 21st century urban greenways made from post-industrial ruins, the water towers on the old cigarette-packing-factory-turned-furniture-warehouse-turned-condominium are like anchors of the past. They help us better appreciate the long — and ongoing narrative — of this wonderful place.

Spears Building water tank, February 2, 2014

Spears Building water tank, February 2, 2014

Spears Building water tank, February 4, 2014

Spears Building water tank, February 4, 2014

Spears Building water tank, March 27, 2014

Spears Building water tank, March 27, 2014

Spears Building water tank, November 18, 2011

Spears Building water tank, November 11, 2011

Spears Building water tank, December 2, 2013

Spears Building water tank, December 2, 2013

Note: special thanks to Livin’ The High Line readers Bruce Ryan and Susan Spear for their feedback and insights.

HIGH LINE ARCHITECTURE SERIES

Morgan General Mail Facility – Tenth Avenue between 28th – 30th Streets

Westyard Distribution Center – Tenth Avenue between 31st – 33rd Streets

R.C. Williams Warehouse / Avenues School – Tenth Avenue between 25th – 26th Streets

Spears Building – 525 West 22nd Street

 

 

 

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