Happy 160th birthday to the world’s first passenger elevator

On the 23rd of March, 1857, the first successful passenger elevator carried customers up to the fifth floor of the Haughwout Building in New York City.

It was not actually the first elevator, but it was the first commercial installation by Elisha Otis, who invented the safety device that made it all possible. And it works very well; according to a 2008 article in the New Yorker, in New York City alone there are 30 million elevator trips every day. Yet elevators kill only an average of 26 people per year (mostly those who work on them) whereas cars kill that many in five hours. Elevators are safe, efficient, and mostly ignored.

Nick Paumgarten wrote in the New Yorker:

Two things make tall buildings possible: the steel frame and the safety elevator. The elevator, underrated and overlooked, is to the city what paper is to reading and gunpowder is to war. Without the elevator, there would be no verticality, no density, and, without these, none of the urban advantages of energy efficiency, economic productivity, and cultural ferment.

Old Equitable Life BuildingOld Equitable Life Building via Curbed/Public Domain

The first New York office building with elevators was the Equitable Life Insurance building, which was not exactly fireproof as promised; it burned down in 1912. Some have called it the first skyscraper, but the building that replaced it was more significant.

Equitable Life BuildingNew Equitable Life Building /Public Domain

The new Equitable Life Building, still standing, rose straight up 38 stories and shocked everyone. According to Lisa Santoro in Curbed, it cast a huge shadow and “Most of the surrounding property owners claimed a loss of rental income because so much light and air had been deflected by the massive new building.”

skyline new york© Andreas Feinenger

Many believe that the iconic stepped towers of Manhattan office buildings was a result of the way elevators worked, where there were fewer and fewer going to the higher floors, but in fact this is not the case; developers want big upper floors where they can get higher rents. It’s the zoning bylaw, directly in response to the Equitable Building. Lisa explains:

Hearings and meetings were convened with the goal of creating an enforceable regulation that would prevent a building such as the one Equitable created from occurring again. Two prominent architects of the time spearheaded the effort for building regulation; Ernest Flagg, the architect of the Singer Building, proposed lot area restrictions, and D. Knickerbocker Boyd, the president of the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, proposed building set-backs to permit light and air. Ultimately, these proposals were incorporated into the landmark 1916 Building Zone Resolution, which enforced the construction of "stepped façade" towers in the city's business districts.

Elevator in the Haughwout buildingElevator in the Haughwout building/Public Domain

But whether they are stepped, square or twisted, every building today owes a debt to Elisha Otis and that first public elevator, opened 160 years ago today.

Otis AdJohn Berkey for Otis Elevator/Promo image

They have been going up, down and sideways ever since; too bad this John Berkey vision from 1975 never happened.

Tags: Green Building | New York City | Wayback Machine

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