Monday, April 28, 2008

Vintage Elevator

My office is in a historic 1906 building, a structure not without a few idiosyncrasies. For example, on several floors there are doors which open to brick walls. Until 1929 this building had abutted an 1861 Gothic-Revival church, serving a parish that had been founded in 1848. These doors had led to various levels of the sanctuary and its anterooms. When the church was razed in 1929 and replaced with a hotel, these entries were bricked up.

The building, with five floors and a basement, is woefully under-equipped with bathroom facilities, not surprising in a structure that has changed little in 102 years. So a trip to the loo always involves a run up or down a narrow back staircase. I also especially like the remaining "Fallout Shelter" signs left over from the civil defense programs of the 1950s. I have no doubt that this building could have shielded its occupants from fallout had there been a nuclear war, because it effectively renders cell phones useless when one moves away from the windows. Attempts to install a wireless network between offices on the different floors proved futile because the thickness of the floors and walls blocked all signals. In addition, toss in leaded-glass and stained-glass windows, as well as hardwood floors on every level. In a neighborhood that's increasingly falling prey to the advance of characterless glass towers and post-modern monstrosities, our little building stands as a gem.

Nevertheless, the elevator, an Otis original to the building, remains my favorite feature. It is entirely manual and thus does not stop automatically at each floor. One must learn very quickly how to operate the hand lever which controls the speed of the car and the point at which it stops. If you aren't paying attention, you'll overshoot your destination and have to adjust the position of the car before the manually operated doors can be opened. (Fail to stop the car within a few inches of each floor and you can not open the doors.) Each level has a button which rings a bell on all floors to summon the elevator. So if you're on the first floor and need to go to the fifth (and the car isn't already at one) you ring the bell and someone on the upper floors, wherever the car was last left, must bring the elevator down to you. For visitors, the elevator, its lattice-work cage allowing a view of the shaft and the skylights at the top of the building, always elicits comments. Indeed, it's like stepping into a museum exhibit.

Recently, our Otis service technician did some checking on this model and informed me that it's one of the oldest elevators in Manhattan. Although there are those who want to spend the money and have a modern elevator installed, most of us are happy to put up with the slight inconvenience of this antique. Mind you, I wouldn't want to stand at the controls all day, wearing the uniform and gloves of an old-fashioned professional elevator operator, but for a few trips each day, it's fun!

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One Wink at a Time said...

Wow. Very cool.

Isabel said...

What a treasure Brian. I lived up to my late teens in an apartment building in Lisbon serviced by two elevator-the cargo which was used for heavy packages and could fit about 8 kids well squeezed in, and the regular elevator which was used by all the tenants and visitors.
My brother and I used to race elevators to our 4th floor apartment, or one would use the slower elevator while the other climbed stairs three steps at a time. Sometimes, when we got stuck between floors,which we ended up doing on purpose just for the hell of it, I remember how we opened the doors and jump out of it into the hallways. Mom and dad never found out what these two monkeys were up to, but the concierge kept looking at us with a suspicious look.
Thank you for this lovely entry. Do you have more pics?

Anonymous said...

brian... thank you for your love of these technological wonders, especially the vintage ones with the gates still intact. My brother and i used to have elevator races in a building that my parents rented that was formerly a department store. My mother would come shopping with me and I always wanted to stay with Cora, the seasoned elevator operator so I could ride up and down with her as long as my mother shopped. By the time we rented it, the gates were gone but the charm and vivid memories were there. Some day I will own a house with one of those magnificent lifts in it, or I will comission it to be built by the Otis Elevator Company!
Thanks again, Jim

Ham549 said...

Where is this elevator located? I am doing a project involving vintage elevators and would love to come see this.