The warehouses were built because of the railroad lines that dominated the middle Hudson River waterfront after the 1850's, as lumber yards, mills and factories opened between 14th and 59th Streets to obtain easy access to cross-Hudson railroad-car ferries and freight lines leading north. In 1891, William Wickes Rossiter built the most ambitious riverfront structure yet, the Terminal Stores, a $650,000 complex of seven-story warehouses.
Designed by George B. Mallory, an engineer and naval architect, the Terminal Stores -- also called the Central Stores -- look like a medieval fortress, with brick parapets and few windows on the main front facing 11th Avenue. Twin rail lines originally ran through the buildings, from docks on the Hudson to a surface-level freight line running up 11th Avenue. The 1893 King's Handbook of New York City said that the million-square-foot warehouses were the only ones in New York with direct river, road and rail access. Mallory divided the buildings into 24 compartments with special fire doors between each section. The buildings were not designed for long-term storage, but as a transfer point for merchants receiving or shipping goods or products in or out of the city.
Research by the industrial archaeologist Thomas Flagg indicates that although the buildings were erected by Rossiter, they were controlled by the New York Central Railroad. Edward V. Rossiter, William Wickes Rossiter's brother, was treasurer of the New York Central.
In 1900 a watchman discovered a fire in Store No. 1, at the corner of 27th and 11th; firefighters needed so much time to batter in the protective iron shutters that the fire did $150,000 in damage. The Thonet Brothers furniture company lost $30,000 in bentwood furniture, and the actress Julia Marlowe lost the scenery from her hit play, ''Barbara Freitchie,'' in which she had starred earlier that year. Seven firefighters trapped on the seventh floor had to slide down the elevator cables to escape.
In 1910 and 1912 the architect Otto Beck replaced some of the midblock structures with nine-story buildings, and after 1932 the Terminal Stores were permanently in the shadow of the new Starrett-Lehigh Building one block south. Writing in The New Yorker in 1931, the critic Lewis Mumford praised the Starrett-Lehigh Building but also singled out the Terminal Stores as ''admirable.''
By that time lessees in the Terminal Stores buildings included Gimbel's, Wanamaker's, Sheffield Farms Dairy and Vichy Celestin, which marketed bottled water.
Soon after, the street-level 11th Avenue rail line was rerouted to an elevated viaduct, and the Terminal Stores lost their direct rail connection. For the next half century the far West Side was on a slow decline, as freight and warehouse operations migrated to more modern facilities.
IN 1983 Mr. Burke and a group of investors bought the Terminal Stores for $12.3 million. Mr. Burke, who after graduating from Yale served as a communications officer on a destroyer off Vietnam, said he had spent 13 years in a family law firm eager to get closer to the water, or at least near it. ''I wanted to develop waterfront property,'' he said. ''New Yorkers don't realize they're on an island.''
When he bought Terminal Stores, he said, ''the annual rents were 56 cents a square foot, and the rats were the size of footballs.'' The Javits Center was three years from opening, and there was no Chelsea Piers, no Chelsea art-gallery district.
In 1984 Mr. Burke installed ministorage units, and they now make up 60 percent of the buildings. The earlier expansions increased the size to 1.2 million square feet, and Mr. Burke advertises the buildings as the largest ministorage facility in the country.
Article written by CHRISTOPHER GRAY,
New York Times, August 27, 2000