Monday, November 20, 2006

When Penfield Closed, Tradition was Put to Bed

January 1, 2006

Chuck Gordon seemed a bit weary the other day as we talked and walked around a city landmark.

A landmark business and a landmark of a building: 1710-20 N. Salina St. It was a hard week for the Gordon family. Wednesday, they closed Penfield Manufacturing Co., maker of mattresses in Syracuse for 113 years.

There was a party at the plant for the 35 workers, lots of tearful goodbyes and tons of loose ends to be tied.

Was the alarm system put in a different mode? Boxes of records packed? Rolls of unused padding gotten off to the suppliers for credit?

Chuck, the fourth president of Penfield in more than a century, was in sweat shirt and sneakers. His wife, Julie, kept coming into his second-floor office with questions and papers to sign. He looked ready for the few weeks of downtime he planned to begin at the end of the day Thursday.

"We tried to preserve what we had as long as we could," Chuck says.What he and his sister, Margery Burstein, had is a modestly successful company, with 36 workers at the end, and a piece of a franchise to build mattresses for the Ther-A-Pedic company.

The Gordons had the license that covers Upstate New York and Vermont, supplying mattresses and box springs to hotels, colleges and furniture stores. Penfield also made its own "Buyer's Choice" sets.

We've had mattress sets made by Penfield in this town since the Penfield family started its shop on South Franklin Street (in modern Armory Square) in the 1890s.

Chuck's grandfather, Reuben Gordon, bought the business from Florence Penfield, the founder's widow, in 1913. Chuck's dad, Al Gordon, took over the company from his father when Reuben died in 1957. Chuck did the same at Al's death in 1967, shelving a plan to go to graduate school and play his guitar for money. Chuck confides he didn't want to be the next Gordon to die on the job. He's 61, and the stress of his hands-on management style was closing in on him, he explains. Plus, he figures it would take an investment of a million dollars to re-equip the factory, upgrade the building and stay competitive.

The decision to close Penfield wasn't easy or quick, according to Chuck. He and his sister decided about 18 months ago to begin a strategy that involved selling the business, and the building, to a fellow mattress-maker that would take over Penfield's standards and sales territory.A real estate broker and business consultant were hired, but the original plan didn't work out.

"Finally," Chuck explains, "we decided that the end of '05 would be the end, no matter what.

"Employees and customers would be told at the end of November. Workers - all but one decided to stay to the last day - were given severance packages, counseling and chances to look for new jobs. A few already have lined up work in the field.Penfield is selling some stock and equipment to Alliance Sleep Products of Buffalo. Alliance also is picking up Penfield's Ther-A-Pedic license. Chuck plans to auction what's left in the building sometime next year.

The 220,000-foot-square factory at Salina and Wolf streets, extending east to Park Street, is another matter. The Gordons hadn't found a buyer by closing day, but will continue to list it with Pyramid Brokerage, through agent Mike Kalet.

Chuck knows this isn't just any old factory. The landmark's got a lot of baggage, including the familiar "house on the roof" - a place of many Syracuse legends.In 1880, H.A. Moyer put up the main building - the factory bought from Porter-Cable Co. by the Gordons 48 years ago - to build a line of 200 carriages. Later, he raised an annex across Park Street to make Moyer cars.

At one time, we're told, the plants employed 600 workers. Porter, the toolmaker, bought the original factory from the Moyers.Lithographs of the time show that the carriage factory had two "houses on the roof," one flying a flag from the top, the other a buggy weather vane. The annex had a smaller penthouse.

Legends aside, none of the "houses" ever were homes, or anything close. Today, the survivor - so visible from Interstate 81 and other North Side vistas - holds only rafters and machinery for an old freight elevator. We're told it held a water tank early on.

In 1937, Harvey Moyer's daughter, Maud (wife of architect Ward Wellington Ward), explained in a newspaper interview that the house - 21/2 stories and 25 square feet - was nothing more than an architectural gimmick used to attract attention to the business.It's done that nicely, across 125 years.

Chuck Gordon knows the Penfields, and his family, have provided millions of copies of a product of steel, cloth and wood that's essential to life. Penfield at its peak assembled 350 mattress sets in an eight-hour day, roughly 50,000 a year, "and we're a small factory compared to the big makers, which can do about 2,000 a day.

"Even though the tools, and materials, have been modernized since the original Penfield days, a mattress is still made by hand. A sign in the now-quiet shop reads: "You're sewing the mattress that sleeps the world."

In his 38 years on the job at 1710 N. Salina, Chuck says the product got "bigger and heavier with more exotic materials. Today, what makes it a good business is the marketing of the product."Some makers sell at factory shops. Penfield had a home furnishings store in the building until 1996. Syracuse's surviving mattress maker is the Southard family and its three Sleep Master stores.

Over the next few weeks, the Gordons will clean out their landmark and look after it. They're hoping to find a buyer who will feel the way they do about it."We'd like to see the character kept, if it's feasible," Chuck says. "It's an important piece of property. We're committed as a family to stay with it for a while."


  1. I hope you don't mind that I added a link to your entry about the Penfield Building into my blog. If it is a problem, please let me know and I will remove it.

  2. Anonymous2:55 AM

    Hi, I'm a small town guy. I was born and raised in East Syracuse. For many years I've wondered why your company was shut down and why there was a 'house on the roof' of your building.

    Honestly, I think you should try and make it back to what it was. You deserve to show off that awesome building.

    Many of my friends and I have talked about that building for YEARS and we've always wondered what the house was about. I'm a tad disapointed it's not a house. Haha. But, that would be pretty sweet if it was.

    Thanks for keeping that building so awesome looking.

    Oh, and the reason my curriosity sprung so bad, I work in Carousel Mall and see the building all the time and I just needed to know what was goodie about it! Haha.