Curiosity: Terminal Timber

Erected in 1891 by the Terminal Warehouse Company, the Central Stores Warehouse quickly assumed an important role within the vast machine of New York commerce. King’s Handbook of New York, released one year later, includes the Terminal Warehouse Company in its exhaustive metropolitan chronicle. Extensive networks of transportation that moved goods in and out of New York City, comprising steamships, railways, and trucks, reached their terminus at Central Stores. Here, a privately owned fleet of delivery vehicles were mobilized and delivered their freight to a relevant retailer.

Contemporary observers in the Handbook found the storage system in Central Stores to be quite sophisticated, making note of the temperature-controlled stores that housed more delicate objects such as furs, rugs, and robes. Although the Handbook also claims Central Stores was fireproof, a calamitous inferno would prove otherwise in 1902. A New York Times article about the incident cited widespread damage to carpets being held in storage, largely owned by Alexander B. Smiths, Sons & Co. An estimate of the company’s financial loss exceeded $500,000. So prodigious was this building in the burgeoning consumer economy of the late 19th century United States, carpet prices across the country soared as a result of the fire.

The Handbook records the building’s brick and iron construction, though failing to mention the timber support beams and joists undergirding the structure. These structural elements became of interest when, around 130 years later, COOKFOX embarked on an adaptive reuse of the historic structure. Adaptive reuse conserves both vernacular particularities in the built environment and embodied carbon. Opting to retain the timber in our contemporary redesign, COOKFOX’s approach to design prioritizes natural materiality in the visual experience of architecture. Doing so comprises an important avenue through which designers realize biophilia in the built environment.

A large body of literature has demonstrated the importance of biophilic design to occupant well-being, which can be further decomposed into more granular studies on the psychological and physiological benefits of wood. Associated with the perception of warmth in an interior space, the collinear striations and knotted contours of a wooden grain signal the presence of life. The feeling of wood on our hands alone has been shown to lower blood pressure.

While the positive psychological and physiological impact of the wood on future occupants constitutes an end in itself, COOKFOX’s decision also entailed the preservation of a rich historical record embedded within the material. Using ring width measurement under an optical microscope, dendrochronological researchers dated some of the earliest harvested timber in Terminal Warehouse to 1512, originating in the longleaf pine forests of western Georgia or northern Alabama. Between then and the construction of Central Stores in 1890 lies centuries of history. However, the story of this timber touches on the earliest patterns of human civilization in the Americas.