On Location: Chelsea, New York

Floto+Warner

The Starrett-Lehigh building is home to some of the city’s chicest tenants—and it’s only getting hotter.

Outside Starrett-Lehigh’s International Style exterior, a dozen hulking black SUVs and town cars idle on 26th Street at all hours. The Hudson River glimmers half a block away. Black-clad assistants wait in line at the trendy food trucks clustered around the entrance. It’s all terribly fashionable but should come as no surprise, really: More than half of the building’s 170 tenants hail from the fashion industry. The other residents are, for the most part, in equally creative industries: publishing, design, architecture. The official slogan of the building is “Manufacturing Creativity”—a nod to both its industrial roots and current status as a remote mecca of chic.

What a difference a decade makes. Ten years ago, the prewar behemoth was considered Manhattan’s equivalent of real estate Siberia—admired by architects but shunned by commercial tenants because of its location on the far-west periphery of the Chelsea neighborhood. The closest subway stop was (and still is) a good 15 minutes away by foot—no small consideration when glacial winter winds are blowing off the river. And once you arrived, the area was desolate. “In the old days, everyone left before it got dark,” recalls one 20-year Starrett-Lehigh veteran. In short, “no one would touch the building,” says real estate agent David Hollander.

Yet over the last ten years, the Starrett-Lehigh has gone from being pariah to queen bee in the commercial real estate world. Its allure will continue to skyrocket with the long-awaited, mid-2014 opening of a nearby subway stop—an extension of the 7 line to 34th Street and 11th Avenue.

“It’s the last undeveloped frontier of Manhattan,” says Corcoran Group CEO Pamela Liebman. “When you’re talking about future cultural centers, it’s the area on everybody’s mind. Now, with the expansion of the 7 line, it’s becoming real.” And as a gaggle of newcomers vies to put down roots in a suddenly accessible neighborhood, the Starrett-Lehigh will inevitably attract additional suitors. But some entrepreneurs saw its possibilities long before everyone else, including one forerunning mogul in particular.

“It was the Wild West, and the rent was really cheap,” recalls Martha Stewart, who commandeered 225,042 square feet of the ninth and tenth floors and relocated her Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia headquarters there in 2000. “I should have bought the whole building,” she adds, striding through one of her five in-house photo studios. “It was for sale for a measly $125 million. I think its current owners [RXR Realty] just paid about a billion.” (Close enough: $920 million.)

These numbers would have astonished the Starrett-Lehigh’s architects and builders: Conceived in the 1920s by Cory & Cory, Purdy & Henderson and Yasuo Matsui, the building was finished in 1931, avoiding the fate of many projects that stalled in the wake of the 1929 stock-market crash. A joint venture between the Starrett Investment Corporation and Lehigh Valley Railroad, the structure was perched right on top of the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company’s working freight yard. Railway cars ran directly from a West Side float pier straight into the building for unloading and storage, an innovative concept at the time. The building’s scale is bewildering: It has 2.3 million square feet of floor area—more than the Chrysler Building. Eight miles of oversized ribbon windows lend the 19-story building its distinctive aesthetic. (“Did you do your research? It’s a curtain-wall building,” Stewart instructs.) Natural light floods the interior—a major draw, especially for the handful of major photography studios that call it home.

One big name beckoned others, and players like Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Hugo Boss set up shop, collectively occupying several hundred thousand square feet. “It always takes a leader to make a follower,” says event planner David Monn, who had an office there during the late ’90s. “Like SoHo, the Starrett-Lehigh Building became tony.” Trendy, smaller fashion houses such as Marchesa and Commes des Garçons keep their offices there. McGarryBowen, an advertising firm with a roster of clients that would make Don Draper drool (Disney, Canon, Omega), rejected a typical Madison Avenue perch and moved to spaces on the third, tenth and eleventh floors in 2002. Luxury book publisher Assouline and architect superstar Bjarke Ingels reside inside as well.

The comparison between the Starrett-Lehigh’s second act and SoHo’s revival is an apt one. New York City seems to specialize in these sort of rapid-fire gentrifications (just visit the Meatpacking District, the Lower East Side or Williamsburg), in which trend-led market forces transform raffish outposts into ground zeros for creative powerhouses.

Due to its astonishing size, the Starrett-Lehigh is practically its own neighborhood. Yet its gentrification must be carefully managed, for the building’s edginess is a prized component of its glamour. RXR Realty is savvy on this point. Upcoming renovations include a new lobby and small changes to common areas, such as replacing the fluorescent strip lights hanging in the concrete block hallways with long rows of stylish, dangling black-shaded lamps, like neat buttons on a dress. Of course, it has brought about grumbling from some tenants who prefer the industrial feel of its warren-like corridors.

The building retains a handful of resident artists, who help lend it some crucial bohemian street cred. A visit to the 14th-floor studio of abstract painter Pat Steir, for example, certainly evokes the lost paradise of 1980s SoHo artist lofts. Now working on a new series of oversized paintings—all ten feet by ten feet—Steir, whose art can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA, among others, is preparing to show a work that measures a staggering 12 feet by 38 feet. Steir looked elsewhere but found that “priests, nuns, everyone lies about the height of their ceilings,” she says, grateful for hers, which are 13 feet. Eleven floors down, Lebanese-born artist Nabil Nahas paints in suite 330. “I was in Dumbo for ten years, which I detested,” he says of the Brooklyn neighborhood. “The energy here is terrific; my work has developed for the better.”

Another old-guard tenant who helps maintain an unconventional tenor: Lost and Found, a celebrated prop warehouse, or rather a “curated library of objects,” according to owner Robyn Glaser, a tenant since 1999. The building was “raw and underground, with more of an art scene than a business scene” when she arrived, but Glaser says she still loves it now that it’s more “slick.” Her 5,000-square-foot space is filled with curiosities, from claw-foot bathtubs to deer-footed stools to old Vuitton trunks.

With the extension of the 7 subway line, the loss of the Starrett-Lehigh’s fringe status may cause some pangs for longtime tenants, many of whom find much to prize in its almost-in-the-river location. First, there’s the practical consideration of expense: Rents will likely skyrocket further (see “What’s It All Cost?” below), sending many—even the bigwigs—into the outer boroughs, or eventually up the street to Hudson Yards. Says Ward Simmons, vice president of marketing at Hugo Boss, “Those of us on early-lease agreements are feeling good right now.”

There are more ephemeral considerations as well. The building’s comparative inaccessibility has long translated into exclusivity—and privacy. “We’ve shot every A-list movie star, from Meryl Streep to Tom Hanks,” says David Seabrooke, CEO of Canoe Studios on the 14th floor. Sometimes, he adds, photographers Mario Testino and Patrick Demarchelier might be shooting celebrities on opposite ends of his 17,000-square-foot studio; the building’s satellite location does wonders when it comes to minimizing sidewalk gawkers and relentless paparazzi.

The architecture itself also lends a helping hand when it comes to camouflage; after all, for years Starrett-Lehigh’s principal function was to accommodate freight. Cars and even trucks can still be driven into elevators inside and hoisted into work spaces many stories above (an early marketing slogan proclaimed, “Every floor a first floor”).

Some of the food trucks gathered outside, bearing lobster rolls and artisanal ice cream, are even famously driven up each day. An added yet imperative bonus: Those trucks can tear directly out of the building onto the West Side Highway, a feature keenly appreciated by the FBI after 9/11, when the agency acquired space for city operations; snipers were reportedly positioned on the roof. “They took over the whole basement,” says Stewart. “We fed the FBI for weeks after the attack. We took them cakes every day.”

What’s It All Cost?

Which Manhattan commercial building charges the highest rent? Most answer the Seagram building—and that’s not far off. But the top spot goes to the Solow Building (9 W. 57th St.), according to Sacha Zabra, executive vice president at CBRE, the commerical real estate service. Recognized by its giant “9” outside, the 50-story skyscraper commands $200 a square foot and includes such illustrious tenants as Chanel. Below, Zabra reveals the cost of renting in some of the city’s architectural icons.

Seagram Building, 375 Park Ave.: $100 to $175 a sq. ft.
MetLife Building, 200 Park Ave.:
$80 a sq. ft.
Freedom Tower, One World Trade Center:
$75 a sq. ft.
Chrysler Building, 405 Lexington Ave.:
$65 a sq. ft.
Lever House, 390 Park Ave.:
$65 a sq. ft.
Flatiron Building, 175 Fifth Ave.:
$65 a sq. ft.
Starrett-Lehigh, 601 W. 26th St.:
$55 a sq. ft.
Empire State Building, 350 Fifth Ave.:
$50 a sq. ft.