When the Textile Industry Was Forced Out of the Textile Building

In 1992, Arthur Tauber hauled 26 buckets of sand into his showroom at the Textile Building to promote a new collection of beach towels. Another time, his company set up a big, clattering factory-style sewing machine in the lobby, so visitors could watch it embroider multiple towels simultaneously.

Then there was the time Mr. Tauber, whose wife had come up with the name of his company, Avanti, parked a 1963 Avanti sports coupe in front of the building, a gigantic teddy bear in the driver’s seat. “We had a lot of fun,” said Mr. Tauber, 85, the company’s founder.

For much of the 20th century, the Textile Building, at 295 Fifth Avenue between East 30th and 31st Streets, was the address of choice for makers of sheets, towels and rugs. Erected a century ago to be the center of the home textiles industry in the United States, it still has the shiny gold loom logo over the entrance to prove it.

Buyers from stores all over the country would flock there to see the new collections twice a year, doing a showroom crawl by day and being wined, dined and treated to Broadway shows by night. “It was like old home week,” Mr. Tauber said. He and others would outdo themselves to grab buyers’ attention.

The 17-story building had a buyer’s lounge on the first floor and a barbershop on the mezzanine. Everyone knew Ray, the doorman. The building had the buzz of a small town whose residents were all in the same line of work.

But these days, the tenant floors stand empty; the competitive, chatty energy and showroom crawls reduced to memories.

Christopher Mooney of Welspun, which moved two blocks north of the Textile Building into the former penthouse of John Jacob Astor IV.Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

An entire industry, uprooted

In 2019, the Textile Building was sold, and the new owners swooped in with plans to convert the place to industrial-chic offices charging double the rents. The era of schmoozing between floors — of sampling the softest towels and sturdiest rugs in the industry within the same building — was over, and the resident textile makers were stunned.

“You mean this icon of a building, this mainstay, is going to go, just like that?” said Moshe Abehsera, the chief commercial officer for London Luxury, a bed and bath company that had been there for 15 years. “It was like, we don’t care, we’re going to develop this huge, beautiful thing and make a lot of money and all of you just go figure it out.”

This is, of course, not the first time a business destination in New York has been displaced. And 295 Fifth is certainly not the only historic building to be overhauled for the likes of tech companies partial to exposed steel columns and mottled concrete floors. But it is rare for practically an entire industry to be uprooted.

What is unusual is how these businesses have responded. Although the building’s conversion represents the end of an era, its former tenants have rebounded in interesting ways. Many of the building’s 78 companies have relocated, in small groups, to nearby buildings, recreating a little of the togetherness they had at the Textile Building.

Maybe, instead of having a Textile Building, New York will end up with a textile district.

But all those interviewed for this article were full of nostalgia for their former home, now gutted and swarming with construction workers transforming it into what is being billed as a “hard-working talent playground.”

‘The showroom as a showroom is not what it used to be’

Completed in 1920,the Textile Building was the creation of George Backer, a rags-to-riches builder who came to New York from Russia as a cabin boy in 1891. He peddled shoelaces on the streets and later sold chandeliers before entering the construction trade.

The Textile Building is being renovated, but developers are keeping many of the original details, like the brass medalions of looms on the elevator doors.Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

Built in less than five months, the building, with Roman arches at its base, was an impressive presence on the city’s most august commercial avenue, winning a gold medal from the Fifth Avenue Association, a trade group. It was one of several specialty addresses to crop up in Manhattan around this time that housed related businesses, like the Brill Building, where music publishers and others in entertainment had offices and studios, or the International Toy Center, where toy manufacturers showcased their wares.

Although Mr. Backer died soon after completing the Textile Building — following being tried for perjury during a corruption investigation — the property became a hit, filling with tenants and thriving during the era of department stores.

But with the rise of big-box stores, fewer buyers would visit New York, and subsequently, market weeks were quieter at the Textile Building. Giant companies like Walmart and Target were more interested in working with textile manufacturers to create their own private-label lines.

By the 21st century, some businesses with offices at the Textile Building had employees coming in every day, but others used their showrooms only during market weeks, creating a “ghost town” feeling the rest of the year, Mr. Abehsera said.

“The showroom as a showroom is not what it used to be,” said Jeff Kaufman, president and chief operating officer of Avanti.

Still, having one was a necessity. And a showroom at 295 Fifth was ideal, practically guaranteeing that buyers would stop by because they would already be there, seeing other tenants. Even when companies started to conduct more of their business online, home textiles, in the end, was a tactile business.

“You want to touch the towels,” said Jeffrey J. Kambak, the chief executive of United States operations for India-based Trident Group, one of 295’s largest tenants.

Covid hits, Midtown empties, textile companies regroup

The redevelopment plans for the Textile Building set off a flurry of tense tenant meetings. “We wanted to find the new 295,” said Mr. Kaufman, who was then president of the Home Fashion Products Association, a trade group that represented many of the tenants, and which tapped Savills, a real estate brokerage, to help them in their quest.

Two Savills brokers, Evan Margolin and Andrew Zang, proposed a strategy they called “Textile Campus 2.0.” Their concept: If a single suitable building was not available, maybe a handful of nearby buildings could do the trick. Many tenants signed on to the idea.

“We made a decision to stay somewhere in the neighborhood,” Mr. Kaufman said. “We didn’t want to fragment the industry and make it difficult for buyers to get to us.”

One of the Textile Building’s largest tenants was the India-based Trident Group, which moved just one block north of the original address.Credit…Trident Group

Then Covid hit, and the textile showrooms, like countless other businesses in New York, were shuttered. The textile markets of 2020 were canceled. And a funny thing happened.

The work-from-home era turned out to be a bonanza for textile companies. Remote workers started sprucing up their homes, especially after stimulus checks arrived. Adding to the good fortune, Midtown’s smaller landlords, hungry for commercial tenants after their buildings began to empty out during the lockdown, courted the ousted tenants of 295 with discounted rents.

Over time, many of the tenants moved into buildings within a 12-block radius. Several gravitated to 230 Fifth Avenue, on the corner of 27th Street, another showroom building. Others inched their way uptown.

Welspun, a textiles conglomerate based in India, settled into 10 West 33rd, a known fashion accessories building; its new space, with an enormous, elaborate fireplace, was once John Jacob Astor IV’s penthouse office and dining room. Other companies leased space in the building, too.

Amir Loloi, the owner of Loloi Rugs, based in Texas, took another approach, buying an entire 12-story building, 260 Fifth Avenue, in the hope of creating a mini Textile Building of his own. Oriental Weavers, a maker of area rugs that had been at 295 Fifth Avenue for more than 20 years, took the top two floors.

Much of the Textile Building diaspora, it turns out, simply landed a few blocks north.

Some companies, however, left the city altogether. Lichtenberg, a curtain maker, ended up in Great Neck, on Long Island. Scott Goldstein, its president, lives nearby, and his partner has a home in Westchester, so they decided to avoid the trek into the city.

For the recent market week this spring, Mr. Goldstein’s company took a temporary space in the city, as did other former 295 Fifth Avenue tenants that have yet to commit to new permanent homes. Company executives said they didn’t hear any complaints from retailers about having to traipse from building to building. “Everyone is so excited to be back in person, they were almost giddy,” said Mr. Kambak, of the Trident Group.

But the fact that some businesses did have fewer visits from buyers may suggest that time spent going from building to building could take its toll.

“It’s a lingering concern,” said David Litner, a principal of Natco Home Group, which relocated to 411 Fifth Avenue. “Can buyers be as productive if they are traversing back and forth?”

And there is some worry that New York will lose its textile markets to Las Vegas, a city known for trade events, said Jeremy Wootten, the president and chief financial officer of Homtex, another former 295 tenant.

The renovated Textile Building should be ready for occupancy by this summer, developers say.Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

Avanti, which is based in New Jersey, has yet to lease a new showroom in the city, but is reportedly looking at a space on 33rd Street. For the spring market, its sellers met with buyers in a borrowed showroom, while London Luxury peddled its wares from a Times Square hotel.

A modern building, with loom logos intact

As for 295 Fifth, as much as $400 million is being spent to create a “very amenitized” building, said Elliott Ingerman, a principal at Tribeca Investment Group, the new owner, leading a recent hard-hat tour.

A two-story penthouse office is being added, an old truck loading area will become a courtyard and the lobby is being expanded to include a cafe.

Mr. Ingerman said he expected tenants to begin signing leases soon and the building to be ready for occupancy by the summer.

Henceforth, the Textile Building will be named 295 Fifth Avenue.

But the building’s history won’t be completely obliterated. The barbershop and the beach towels may be gone, but the big gold loom logo on the facade will remain, as will smaller medallions depicting looms on the elevator doors.

A large plaque memorializing George Backer — whose descendants declined to be interviewed for this article — had hung in the building and included a quote from the English writer John Ruskin: “When We Build Let Us Think That We Build Forever.”

It is unclear whether the plaque will stay.

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