When the gargantuan Starrett-Lehigh Building went up in West Chelsea in 1931, it was quickly hailed as a masterwork of industrial modernism, a triumph both of engineering and of International Style architectural aesthetics.
Occupying the entire block from 26th to 27th Streets between 11th and 12th Avenues, the 19-story behemoth was a joint venture between William A. Starrett, a financier-builder who was also at work on the Empire State Building, and the Lehigh Valley Railroad, which operated an open-air freight yard on the site.
While the railroad kept most of the ground floor for its rail terminal, Starrett Brothers & Eken built a 1.8-million-square-foot manufacturing and warehouse center above it.
chef Marcus Samuelsson will open to the public this spring, along with a new exhibit of Jean-Michel Basquiat artworks in a 10,000-square-foot exposition space. A new main entrance has also been added on 11th Avenue, serving as a gateway to the food hall for area residents and people visiting neighborhood attractions like art galleries and the High Line.
Watching all this change with keen interest is Robert Montelbano, 50, the building’s director of logistics, who has managed the loading dock for decades. Mr. Montelbano is responsible for choreographing the enormous building’s rough ballet of deliveries and pickups.
“It’s very tricky,” he said, “because 26th Street is an emergency route” that runs nearly “from river to river, and the police want it always open.”
Mr. Montelbano was first dazzled by Starrett-Lehigh as a 10-year-old in 1981, when he rode with his father, who worked at a moving company in the building, as he drove a truck into the giant elevator and out into the second-floor garage, “a big open space, the size of an entire city block.”
He also visited the building with his uncles, who owned a vending machine company and came to Starrett-Lehigh to buy video-game machines. (That was how he got to play Space Invaders before he ever saw the game in an arcade.)
One of Mr. Montelbano’s cousins ran the loading dock, and Mr. Montelbano was hired to operate a truck elevator part time when he was 16. The following year he was hired full time, and around 1994, he took over as the loading dock supervisor.
In time, he began taking his own children to Starrett-Lehigh, either to watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July when they were launched from a barge in the Hudson — “the fireworks exploded right above our heads, you felt like you could touch them” — or to watch him work on Saturdays.
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