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A New York Story: Putnam Rolling Ladder Co.

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Gregg Monsees looks younger than he is. At 62, with his hair
still holding most of its original color, Gregg looks almost
boyish. His penny-loafers, khakis and oxford shirts do little to
shake the visual impression that Gregg might just be a visiting
proctor from an old New England Prep school. However, if you head
over to 32 Howard Street in SoHo and go inside, toward the back
where his desk is covered with the jumbled flotsam of his
business life, Gregg will be there, quite willing to tell you
about the company he now runs: Putnam Rolling Ladder. 

Gregg knows all the details: founded in 1905 by Samuel Putnam,
the company was passed to Gregg's great Aunt, Caroline Rehm, and
then on to his father, Walter Monsees. Gregg will point out that
in the 1980s, after law school and a career in Virginia, he went
to work "for" not "with" his father. He wants you to know the
difference. 

Gregg might mention that the building, Number 32, as well as the
building next door have been company headquarters since the early
1930s. He'll point out what you can plainly see: that the
building next door has been rented and renovated but that Number
32 remains very much the headquarters, the heart and soul, of the
niche business he runs. 

A rolling ladder is what you see in large libraries. It is the
kind of ladder that enables you to reach that book or journal on
the top shelf, the kind that runs along long book-lined walls of
university halls or the quiet reading rooms of private clubs.
They are the type of ladder that Putnam Rolling Ladder now
assembles in Brooklyn but still houses here at this ancient
building in SoHo.

Weaving through ladders of all shapes and sizes and buckets of
bolts, nuts, and hinges, you begin to get the sense that little
has changed since Putnam Rolling Ladder moved here in the 1930s.
The ladders are still being hauled up and down by a big chain
contraption, the second floor machinery warm and greasy, the back
room with its lockers for changing and the piles of yellowed,
typed orders filled with expired details are, to some, relics of
a more orderly time before websites and on-line availability for
nearly everything in print. 

Equal parts salesman and curator, Gregg can provide facts and
anecdotes for just about every square inch of his property. And,
like the building, the Monsees' have been here a long time and
Gregg assures that "over his dead body" will they go out of the
ladder business. 

The businessman side of Gregg is a realist and he admits that
it's recently been a tough time for small outfits, especially a
niche business Rolling Ladders. However, the curator side of
Gregg, the one that knows the 100 plus year history of this
building, is an optimist. Making ladders is something the Monsees
do and will continue to do. It's simply something his father
passed down to him and the son is not about to let go.