Storing the Stuff of Dreams ( 2 )

Storing the Stuff of Dreams ( 2 ) - Things began to change with the development of luxury apartment buildings in the 1910s. “Grander people were moving into some of the grander buildings,” said Mosette Broderick, an architectural historian at New York University. “It was becoming acceptable to live in an apartment house.” Grand as the new apartment palaces were, they did not have the space for all the stuff that could fill a house.

Tastes were changing, too. “If you were to look at an interior of the 1890s, it was replete with stuff,” said Robert A. M. Stern, a historian and an architect of some of today’s most luxurious apartment buildings. “Tables and chairs in profusion. Enormous collections of porcelain and bric-a-brac. Walls of stacked paintings.”

“By the 1920s, the impulse was to simplify in all things,” he added. But all that stuff had to go somewhere. What was not discarded or moved out to summer homes was destined for storage.

In 1920, Day & Meyer merged with Murray & Young, and the newly combined company operated two warehouses on East 61st Street off Second Avenue. “Close to where the very wealthy were living but not so close that the land was expensive,” Professor Dolkart noted.
The one-ton units can be moved by one person.

Seven years later, with prospects still strong, the firm commissioned the building it still operates today.

The building was designed by Moores & Dunford, a Chicago architecture and engineering firm that specialized in industrial buildings with innovative technical features — conveyors, elevators, spiral chutes — customized for handling freight.

“This idea of finding systems to make life’s tasks easier was very popular in the 1920s and ’30s,” Professor Dolkart said. “There was a lot of experimentation with new ways to use technology.”

Day & Meyer’s new warehouse had a climate-controlled vault for paintings and silver, and an entire floor set aside for storing grand pianos. It could hold 50 of them, all standing on their legs. An early brochure boasted of an entire floor devoted to unused automobiles, but the idea was jettisoned. The basement had a vault for carpets that was lined with cedar (to repel moths), and a separate space for steamer trunks that is now used for file storage.

BUT what set the place apart was its Portovault storage system, promoted in advertisements as “a new way of removing your treasures, reducing the confusion of storage to a minimum.”

The Portovault units look a lot like modern shipping containers, which they predate by more than two decades. Each Portovault is essentially a steel safe, 11 feet long and tall enough to stand in, that can hold the contents of a typical one-bedroom apartment. It weighs almost a ton when empty but has four small steel wheels that allow it to be pushed along runners by a lone workman.

The innovation was that it could be delivered to the door of a client on the firm’s armored Diamond T truck, loaded, locked and then returned to the warehouse.

There, the architects had installed a rail system, so that each unit could be routed from the loading dock into a large freight elevator, and then onto its designated floor and into its assigned space. The building, which can hold more than 500 of the units, is in a sense a giant storage rack.

One 1928 advertisement featuring a pair of society ladies in cloche hats sitting in a cafe made plain the many advantages of the system.

“Take my advice and use Portovault Service as I did recently,” one says to the other, as workmen load up a Day & Meyer truck across the street. “You can actually supervise the loading yourself and even lock it, if you want. That’s such a comfort too, because you know how husbands are about packing!”

That an entire room could be simply picked up and moved into a Portovault, with minimal dismantling, was considered especially convenient. Once the fragile objects had been placed inside the unit, there would be no need for further loading and unloading.
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