Storing the Stuff of Dreams ( 1 )

Storing the Stuff of Dreams ( 1 ) - Storing the Stuff of Dreams - IT sounds like something out of a dime novel, or maybe a Nicolas Cage film. Behind the mute facade of a largely windowless neo-Gothic tower lies an ingenious system of steel vaults traveling on rails. Within those armored containers, which have been in continuous use since the Jazz Age, are stored some of New York City’s most precious objects and, presumably, a good number of its darkest secrets.

This building actually exists, and you will find it on an otherwise unremarkable stretch of Second Avenue, just north of the end of the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge. It is the Day & Meyer, Murray & Young warehouse, and since it opened in 1928 it has been the storage building of choice for many of New York’s wealthiest families, most prestigious art dealers and grandest museums.

The company’s early client list reads like a condensation of the New York Social Register, with names like Astor and Auchincloss, du Pont and Guggenheim, Havemeyer and Vanderbilt prominent. The press baron William Randolph Hearst stored entire rooms bought in Europe there during the construction of his castle at San Simeon, Calif.
Tracy Young, left, and her sister Robin, who is chief executive of Day & Meyer, Murray & Young. Right, a locked Portovault unit inside Day & Meyer, Murray & Young.

It was at Day & Meyer that the art dealers Joseph Duveen and Georges Wildenstein stored the Old Master and Impressionist paintings that became the foundations of many of America’s most important private and public collections.

Later, the warehouse safeguarded the personal effects of giants of midcentury industry, among them the movie producer Samuel Goldwyn, the CBS executive William S. Paley and the I.B.M. executive Thomas J. Watson Jr.

There were cultural figures, also. Marlene Dietrich and Walter Cronkite stored valuables at Day & Meyer, as did the writers Norman Mailer and Erich Maria Remarque. Mailer was so pleased with the company’s long years of service holding his archive that in 1995, he sent along a signed copy of his book “Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery” in gratitude. “Thanks for safeguarding all my loot,” he wrote on the half title page.

Over the years, the building has served not just as a warehouse of physical goods, but also as a three-dimensional map of the city’s social life, tracking its shifting focus from grand families to corporate achievers to today’s culture of celebrity. These days, the most famous client at Day & Meyer is not an Astor or a Vanderbilt, but Whoopi Goldberg. “These are the only people I trust with my things,” she said in an e-mail message.

What has not changed is that people of means still need a place to store their belongings, and they are still doing so at that somewhat mysterious building on Second Avenue.

“IT’S interesting that so few people in the neighborhood know what it is,” said Robin Young, who is in the third generation of her family to serve as the company’s chief executive. “They stick their heads in the window and say what is this building? From the outside it looks very Gotham City.”

What they see inside is a formal lobby with a floor of tiled marble and a handsome table of carved wood dressed with an antique model ship. A grandfather clock stands sentinel to the side. It is a space more befitting the entry to a Wall Street banking house than a typical mini-storage warehouse.

“It has a sense of heritage to it,” Andrew S. Dolkart, an architectural historian at Columbia University, said. “It was going for the Park Avenue audience, so it wanted to be something people would feel comfortable storing their old art in.”

The company dates from the late 19th century, when it was founded as a white-glove specialist in the packing and shipping of furniture and fine art.

Then, as now, New Yorkers did not hold the moving business in particularly high esteem. Day & Meyer, however, made it a business to know how to deal with the valuables of the well-heeled, and to set those clients at ease.

Highly polished furniture was covered with wax paper, and then padded with burlap. China, glass and other fragile objects were packed in excelsior and placed in barrels and boxes. “Proper protection of each type of article must be understood,” advised a gold-embossed company brochure that was sent to a select list of the city’s best addresses.

Moving, not storage, was initially the firm’s primary revenue stream. When the city’s wealthiest needed to store things, they could do so in the basements or attics of their town houses, or in stables they owned or rented. Warehouses were primarily reserved for industry, though there were exceptions. The society architect Stanford White was all but bankrupted when a warehouse blaze destroyed his most valued possessions in 1905. ( )

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