Storing the Stuff of Dreams ( 3 )

Storing the Stuff of Dreams ( 3 ) - Inspection was also engineered to be a pleasant experience. Clients could wait in that handsome lobby while their Portovault unit was taken down to a heated room in the basement. There, they could rummage through their things in comfort. “No hunting around in a cold warehouse,” an ad promised.

New York’s wealthiest may have lived “simply” with comparison to Victorian days, but even into the Great Depression their material world was one of considerable opulence.

“It was interesting that people stored seasonally,” said Ms. Young, 59, who has become a sort of accidental anthropologist of New York society. “When people went away for the summer, they rolled up their rugs and took their silver and put it in storage.”
Rugs in a cedar-lined room.

For large parties, the company would park a truck with a Portovault in front of a client’s building and clear out the carpets and furniture for the night.

The company also had a seasonal business delivering to and from the grand summer mansions of Newport, R.I. Ms. Young remembers her father taking a team of men to that resort for weeks at a time in the early 1960s. Trucks loaded with Portovault units would travel back and forth between the summer “cottages” and the warehouse in New York.

OVER the years, however, more and more of those trips to Newport were intended to permanently empty houses that had been sold or broken up. A culture was disappearing. The great Newport summer mansion had become an extravagance that even the wealthiest families could no longer afford, or at least didn’t care to maintain.

Families that once had four or five sets of china and silver put them in storage or got rid of them. “People don’t want to take care of it anymore, or they don’t want to have people take care of it for them,” Ms. Young said. “I can’t think of anyone who uses silver these days. Maybe on Thanksgiving.”

The company emptied out its last grand house in 1996, a Georgian manor in the New Jersey woods with paintings by Cezanne, Picasso and Monet, and a menagerie of Meissen porcelain animals. “The house had been sold and they were going to divide the property up among the children,” Ms. Young said. “That was the end. I had heard about these things. I haven’t seen one since.”

If one segment of the company’s business was contracting, another had been growing, and for years. In 1962, The New York Herald Tribune reported that in “New York’s big warehouses, family furniture is losing space to works of art.” The previous year, Day & Meyer had stored a Rembrandt, “Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer,” auctioned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $2.3 million, then thought to be a record price for a painting.

Today, art galleries, auction houses and interior decorators are the better part of the firm’s clients. The paintings vault has been expanded — at the expense of space for silver — to accommodate 400 canvases, and the private viewing room on the third floor, where clients can show works to prospective buyers, has been equipped with gallery lighting.

“It’s a wonderful building, and one feels the history of all the people who have stored things there over the years,” said Elizabeth von Habsburg, the managing director of the Winston Art Group, an art appraisal and advisory firm. “We’ve stored everything from silver and carpets to family photographs and multimillion-dollar paintings.”

While there are now more modern warehouses tailored to art storage, many of them are in the boroughs outside Manhattan; Day & Meyer’s uptown location remains attractive.

“I don’t need a lot of modern conveniences; I just need it to be safe,” said Sean Cavanaugh, who manages the estates of the painters Milton Avery and Sally Michel, his grandparents. “It’s convenient to galleries we deal with. I don’t want to go to Long Island City every time we have to pull something out of a flat file.”

The old building also happens to be extremely resilient.

Mr. Cavanaugh was on the third floor working in his archive in August when the city was shaken by an earthquake. “I felt nothing,” he said. “Someone called me and said, ‘Did you feel that?’ And I said, ‘Feel what?’ ”

With Tropical Storm Irene bearing down a week later, record boxes and carpets kept in the basement storage vault were moved several feet above the floor as a precaution against flooding, but not a drop of rain crept in.

As it is, Day & Meyer is a far more proletarian place than it ever was. “It’s more democratic,” Ms. Young said. “We have Hollywood types. We have more of a mixed bag than the Park Avenue group.”

The monthly fee for a Portovault is $300, about what the same space would cost in one of the mini-storage warehouses that are familiar landmarks around the city.

“Today people acquire more stuff than they can fit in their one-bedroom apartments and they don’t want to part with anything,” Mr. Stern, the architect and historian, said. “We seem to acquire more stuff than we need, and have a place to array.”

The very existence of places like Day & Meyer only encourages this condition.

“The minute you get a storage bin you become a hoarder,” said the comedian David Brenner, who has been a client since the 1980s. “The madness is seeing what you’re collecting. You see the composition you did in third grade and think, isn’t that nice. And then you think, what am I doing with this?”

Still, Day & Meyer is a long way from the territory of “Storage Wars,” the reality series in which bargain-hunting raiders bid on the unseen contents of storage units abandoned by their owners. An abandoned Portovault is an extreme rarity. “Nothing of any significant value has ever been left behind,” Ms. Young said.

Of course, the definition of value is relative. “Someone has moose heads. Someone has his favorite canoe. They’ve got everything in there,” Mr. Brenner said. “It’s sort of a potpourri of madness.”
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