When President George W. Bush, Yoko Ono, and Diane von Furstenberg need a leg up, they turn to Putnam, the rolling ladder company. For over 100 years, the company that Samuel Putnam founded in lower Manhattan has offered trestle ladders, step stools, pulpit ladders, industrial steel ladders and, most important, the famous “Classic No. 1” – the rolling library ladder. “The design hasn’t changed since 1905,” observes Putnam’s friendly, sandy-haired president, Gregg Monsees.
But customers have. Putnam has always made rolling ladders for residential use, but for half a century those orders mostly came from a few high-brow architectural firms like McKim, Mead and White, who designed wood-paneled home libraries. From the 1920s through the 1970s, Putnam’s biggest customers were the phone company, dry-goods stores, and clothiers like Brooks Brothers.
In the late 1970s, industry orders slowed to a trickle. “But we got lucky,” notes Monsees, recalling that the building and renovation boom started about the same time. Unlike AT&T, homeowners wanted to climb to the top in style. Before 1980, Putnam made all their ladders from red oak. Today, they also offer ladders in cherry, ash, hickory, beech, walnut, birch, maple, teak, and mahogany.
Despite Putnam’s range of lumber choices, Monsees lets out the secret: Wood just makes ladders, while Putnam makes ladders roll. Reaching into a large barrel, he pulls out a matte-black, powder-coated, anodized-steel wheel fixture. Holding the handsome hardware up to the light, Monsees’s eyes focus on the custom-made wheel casing and, smiling slightly, he says softly: “The fixtures are the key.”
Customers can choose the wood, the stain, and the hardware, which is available in everything from chrome to oil-rubbed bronze to satin nickel. In 2001, President and Mrs. Bush ordered an unfinished walnut ladder with powder-coated black steel fixtures for the library at their ranch in Crawford, Texas.
But some things stay the same. The factory is still in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, and its foreman has been with the company since 1956. Ten years ago, Gregg Monsees took over the family firm from his father, Warren, who had run it since 1950 and still comes to the office in downtown Manhattan almost every day. Together, the two have climbed the ladder of success, even though they don’t see eye-to-eye on the wood. Warren Monsees admires walnut ladders, while Gregg prefers mahogany.