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HISTORY FROM OHA: Syracuse’s First Penthouse

By Chris Melfi

Date:

The story of the house on top of the old Penfield Manufacturing building

An early illustration of the H. A. Moyer Carriage and Automobile Company building. (PHOTO CREDIT: OHA COLLECTION)

Syracuse has a history of creative advertising quirks: the Heaphy Tin Man stood in front of the Heaphy furnace and roofing shop at 133 North Geddes St. for more than 70 years, the 11-foot tall Gambrinus statue towered above North McBride and Butternut Streets from the Haberle Brewery for nearly 80 years, and M. Lemp Jewelers proudly displays its former delivery vehicle, a 1906 Iroquois Auto, from the window of its store front on the corner of Fayette and Warren Streets. 

The Heaphy Tin Man, currently housed at the Onondaga Historical Association Museum, is (incorrectly) rumored to have inspired Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” while M. Lemp Jewelers, which was founded in 1890, claims its Iroquois Auto is the only remaining model in the world. 

Standing high above the rest, however, is the house on top of the old Penfield Manufacturing Company building on Wolf and Salina Streets in Syracuse. The building, standing at 1710-20 North Salina St., has been home to three different companies, and the house on top has been there to see them all.

A photo from 1981 of the buidling, from the corners of North Salina and Wolf Streets. (PHOTO CREDIT: OHA COLLECTION)

H. A. Moyer Carriage and Automobile Company constructed the building in 1882 after buying the entire Crippen Block, moving operations from its original location in Cicero. This new space allowed the Moyer Brothers to produce a line of 200 carriages, and eventually expand into the automobile business, necessitating the construction of a second building across the street. At its peak, H. A. Moyer employed 600 people. It was one of those employees that began the first rumor surrounding the house on top of the building, insisting a custodian lived there. The chimney and apparent ventilation systems seemed to give this idea some credence, but the daughter of Harvey Moyer, and wife of renowned architect Ward Wellington Ward, Maude Moyer, insisted the house was constructed purely as a way of drawing attention to the carriage plant. This would not stop other rumors from circulating through the years. Some said the house belonged to an old lady who refused to move when the factory was built, others claim the house was hoisted to the roof as part of a fraternity prank. Maude also told newspapers in 1937 that there also once was a carriage on top of the house, which is evidenced by an old-line drawing of the facility.

After construction of the factory in 1882 the house was added as a finishing touch, according to newspaper reports. Those same newspapers referred to the structure as a “penthouse” and a “gabled bungalow”, rivaling the newly popular penthouses of New York City. One article, published in 1937 after the Porter-Cable Machine Company had already moved in, facetiously remarked that the house “made Syracuse a prime leader in the penthouse movement.”

A historic photo of the house on top of the Penfield Manufacturing building. (PHOTO CREDIT: OHA COLLECTION)

In 1917, Porter-Cable Machine Co. moved into the west half of the complex, allowing it to expand its workforce to 180 people as the factory afforded the company three times as much as space as its previous Water Street location. In its early days, Porter-Cable’s main products were an electric pencil sharpener and an attachment for milling machines. It was during the Porter-Cable era that the building superintendent revealed that the first story of the house contains the upper end of the factory’s elevator shaft, with the second-floor housing machinery and a sprinkler system.

By 1957, Porter-Cable began to outgrow the North Salina Street space, just as Penfield Manufacturing was looking to leave its 516 Erie Boulevard East location. Porter-Cable moved operations to the former Brown-Lipe-Chapin plant on Marcellus Street as Penfield was able to consolidate its executive offices and three subsidiary plants within the North Salina Street site. The location within Syracuse’s 1st Ward was considered valuable real estate, as there was rapid industrial development happening in that section of the city, and its proximity to the newly constructed Thruway allowed for easy shipping and receiving. In fact, that area was home to one of the oldest commercial properties in the state, making it a suitable home for Penfield, one of the oldest bedding manufacturers in the country.

Penfield was bought by the Gordon family in 1913, staying in the family until its closure in 2005. The company supplied mattresses and box springs to hotels, colleges and furniture stores across upstate New York and Vermont. At the plant’s peak, it was producing 350 mattress sets a day, totaling near 50,000 a year. Shortly after closing for good in 2005, Post-Standard legend Dick Case toured the factory with the final owner, Chuck Gordon. Amazingly, Chuck was only the company’s fourth president in over 100 years and told Case he had no intention of being the next Gordon to die while at the helm, so he made the difficult decision to close after 113 years. Case noted a sign in the shuttered factory that read: “You’re sewing the mattress that sleeps the world.”

The building remained empty until 2012, when it was purchased by Yiorgos Kyriakopoulos, owner of G & K Trucking in New Jersey. Kyriakopoulos, who claims to have fallen in love with the building because of the house, had plans to restore and redevelop the building as a mixed-use, residential and commercial space, and even hoped to use the house on top as his office. Sadly, Kyriakopoulos passed in 2017, and the building is being sold by his daughters. Today, the house is nothing but a reminder of Syracuse’s commercial heyday, and its future is dependent on the next owner admiring its quirky history as much as Syracusans have for over a century.      

Chris Melfi is support services administrator at the Onondaga Historical Association (OHA) (www.cnyhistory.org), located at 321 Montgomery St. in Syracuse.

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