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Eclectic Community of Businesses Populates Monkey Wrench Building

The Monkey Wrench Building

The Monkey Wrench Building was famously the longtime home of toolmaker Bemis & Call, then fine-funiture retailer Bottaro & Skolnick.

No one knows for sure how the monkey wrench got its name. Some say its original name was actually ‘Moncky wrench,’ after Charles Moncky, whom some believe invented the tool. Another legend says a worker was fooling around with a wrench when a supervisor told him to “stop monkeying with that wrench!”

What all accounts agree on, however, is where that wrench was invented — at what is now 143 Main St. in Springfield.

“I’m the proud second owner of this building,” said David Rothenberg, who bought the sprawling property — now called the Monkey Wrench Building — in the late 1990s. “It has an interesting history.”

That it does. In its early days, Rothenberg explained, a mile-long corridor along the Mill River was dotted with factories, including 143 Main, which were powered by water, which flowed beneath the building and activated a turbine. “You see that in Holyoke, but in Springfield, the Mill River was the source of the power. And this building was reportedly the first industrial site in Springfield.”

From the late 19th century, it was the home of Bemis & Call, a toolmaking plant that traced its origins to 1844. “It was one of Massachusetts’ 50 oldest companies until it went out of business in the ’90s. They owned this part of Main Street,” said Rothenberg, who discovered the building while working for his father-in-law, Si Skolnick, at Bottaro & Skolnick, a fine-furniture store.

“They were housed in this building for years and years. Eventually, Bemis & Call died out, and we took over the whole building,” said Rothenberg, who purchased the property from its original owner about 15 years ago.

But time was running out for Bottaro & Skolnick, as the public’s taste for $6,500 sofas dried up when cheaper, Chinese-made furniture started to dominate the market. So the business, which had been around since 1939, made it a few years past the turn of the 21st century before Si Skolnick called it a day.

“The market crashed, and the [pricing] disparity became too great,” Rothenberg said, adding that, decades ago, “your home reflected your grace and good taste. Nowadays, people say, ‘meet you at Applebee’s,’ or Chili’s or wherever. Back then, people visited each other’s houses.”

As a result, he said, “values have changed. You can say to young people, ‘see this piece of furniture? You can have it forever; your kids will have it forever.’ And it’s true; our furniture was heirloom quality. But people don’t want heirloom quality anymore; they want disposable furniture for their disposable lifestyle. We had to make a tough decision, and we killed Bottaro & Skolnick.”

The furniture store lives on, sort of, in an interior-design business that Rothenberg runs out of the first floor of the Monkey Wrench Building. But what to do with the rest of the architecturally striking, three-story edifice at the southern tip of Main Street?

“We decided to subdivide it,” Rothenberg said, adding that South Hadley-based marketing professional Darby O’Brien came up with the idea of naming the building after its signature invention. “I kind of kicked that around for three or four years. I wanted to develop the building, and I wanted it to be multi-tenant — but not just mixed-tenant; I wanted a clientele that reflects the urban setting. And some cool stuff has happened since then.”

Indeed, Rothenberg now manages an assortment of 37 tenants, and is busy fixing up and marketing the little space that remains vacant. He recently led BusinessWest on a tour of the building, which gives off the distinctly eclectic vibe of many disparate small-business owners coming together to form a sort of community.

“My goal was to fill the building, not with fancy-schmancy people, but the regular people of Springfield. It’s not a high-end clientele by any means; it’s an urban clientele,” he said. “But it’s been a frickin’ blast. I was in the furniture business all those years, but now I get to interact with all these different personalities. It’s so cool.”

More Than a Landlord

Those personalities run the gamut — artists, a music producer, a dance studio, training centers for boxing and wrestling, a screen-printing outfit, an upholstery company, a high-end antique store, a lawyer … the list goes on.

David Rothenberg’s display

David Rothenberg’s display of old wrenches tells part of the story of the 143 Main St. building.

“We’re just about full now. It’s a really eclectic mix of people, and they’re very nice,” he said, noting that he signed his first tenant only six years ago, making the Monkey Wrench Building a notable real-estate success story in Springfield. But he has also formed a personal bond with most of these businesses, many of them sole proprietors.

“I’m a mensch … a good guy. I don’t want to hurt anybody; I want to give people an opportunity for success,” he said. “A lot of these people don’t have any business experience. So I offer my services to them, mentor them. I’ve been a businessman my whole life, and I’ve seen it all.

“Incubator isn’t the right term for what we want to do,” Rothenberg added, while stressing that he truly wants his tenant businesses to grow, so if he can offer advice on, say, crafting a business plan, he will.

“I don’t just want their money; I want to see what they’re going to do,” he went on. “I hate the term ‘landlord’ — the status thing. I’m David, I happen to own this building, and I don’t have any other building; I’m not necessarily in it for the profit motive. If someone doesn’t have their rent, I’ll work with them. I’ve never evicted anybody. I want to see people succeed, and I want to facilitate that. I want to help.”

Fred Steinman, president of the Western Mass. franchise of Valpak Media Solutions — you might recognize the name from the blue envelope of coupons that regularly arrives in the mail — has found solid value from setting up shop at 143 Main about five years ago.

“We started out in the Scibelli Enterprise Center, in the incubator,” said Steinman, who had carved out a more than 30-year career in broadcasting, then radio sales and management, before buying one of 200 national Valpak franchises about eight years ago. But the Enterprise Center was never meant to be a permanent home. “It’s meant to help businesses start out, and then kind of grow out of it into the world, get a bigger place. That’s what we did.”

With a business that covers Hampden and Hampshire counties, Steinman said, the building’s location just off I-91 is convenient — a factor also cited by Lois Warren, who works for, an Internet-based screen-printing company.

Steinman also takes pride in the fact that his office is reportedly the very room where the monkey wrench was invented. “Every time I bring somebody up here, they can’t get over the architecture and woodwork. We have mahogany wood, a fireplace in the office … it’s a very impressive building.

“Most people who come here are unfamiliar with the inside of the building, and they’re awed by it,” he went on. “When I was given a tour of the available space, this office was perfect — I loved it. And David has been very supportive — a great landlord. If there are any issues, he responds to them right away.”

Big Picture

Whether or not Springfield eventually gets a casino a half-mile from Rothenberg’s front door — an issue about which he has mixed feelings, because he’s not a casino fan, yet he thinks the development would generate some needed energy — he’s a firm believer in the city’s economic-development potential, and proud to play a small role.

“I was born here — 150 yards from here, in a four-story walk-up. I came back here as a kid to play,” he said, pointing out a window at the wooded rear of the building. “The city has been good to me, and I’m not going to abandon it.”

However, he added, “the perceptions of people can be horrible, and it can be self-perpetuating. Yes, of course the city has problems, but I’m happy to be here. I consider myself an anchor down here, and I want to keep the building beautiful.”

His son is a believer, too, investing in a storage facility across the street from the Monkey Wrench Building. He, too, has run into the same question his father has heard for many years — “why downtown Springfield?”

“Time will tell whether it comes back,” Rothenberg told BusinessWest. “But everything is a matter of perception. I perceived this building was an opportunity for me, and I stuck with it. I never thought I’d be a property guy — I was a furniture guy. But opportunities arose, and now I’m having a blast. I love the people. I even like dealing with their troubles. It’s all good.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]