How elevators made the modern city possible


From the Boston Globe:

Elevators first arrived in America during the 1860s, in the lobbies of luxurious hotels, where they served as a plush conveyance that saved the well-heeled traveler the annoyance of climbing stairs. Initially these steam-powered “moveable rooms” were extravagantly furnished with chandeliers, benches, and carpeting, says Lee Gray, a columnist for Elevator World and an associate professor of architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Passengers were expected to sit down and get comfortable before the operator fired up the new contrivance. “It was all about luxury,” said Gray.

It wasn’t until the 1870s, when elevators showed up in office buildings, that the technology really started to leave a mark on urban culture. Business owners stymied by the lack of available space could look up and see room for growth where there was previously nothing but air—a development that was particularly welcome in New York, where a real estate crunch in Manhattan’s business district had, for a time, forced city leaders to consider moving the entire financial sector uptown. That plan came to be seen as unnecessary thanks to the initiative of one Henry Hyde, the founder of a large insurance firm, who realized that by installing a pair of elevators in his headquarters, he could make it the tallest building in the city: seven stories and 130 feet. In so doing, Hyde ushered in a new era. As a writer for Scribner’s Magazine put it almost 30 years later, the passenger elevator turned out to be “a revolutionary agent” that did for modern building what the steam engine had done for transportation.

Advances in elevator technology combined with new steel frame construction methods to push the height limits of buildings higher and higher. In the 1890s, as Bernard recounts in his book, the tallest building in the world was the 20-story Masonic Temple in Chicago; by 1913, when hydraulic elevators had been replaced with much speedier and more efficient electrical ones, it was the 55-story Woolworth Building in New York. Quickly, the modern city assumed its present shape. As Patrick Carrajat, the founder of the Elevator Museum in New York, put it, “If we didn’t have elevators…we would have a megalopolis, one continuous city, stretching from Philadelphia to Boston, because everything would be five or six stories tall.”

The arrival of the elevator upended more than urban planning: It changed the hierarchy of buildings on the inside as well. Higher floors had once been distant, scrubby spaces occupied by maids and the kind of low-rent tenants who could be expected to climb six flights of stairs. The more important people climbed at most one or two flights, which gave brownstone-style homes, for instance, their high-ceilinged parlor floors. While the arrival of elevators didn’t change this right away—the top floor of Henry Hyde’s building was occupied by the in-house janitor—the upper reaches of buildings eventually became desirable. The elevator ushered in the end of the garret and the beginning of the penthouse, as lawyers and businessmen came to appreciate the advantages of having beautiful, bird’s-eye views and respite from the loud noises of the street. Hotel owners, meanwhile, started turning their top floor rooms into their nicest ones. They could even rent out their roofs for garden parties where guests could survey the glittering new city, all without doing a bit of work to get there.

Read the full article here.

How elevators made the modern city possible

You can never have too many fireworks in Manhattan

From New York Times:

It was a few days before the Fourth of July, and the man known to his friends as Scruff was ticking off his final to-do list. A grocery run for steak and shrimp. A haircut. And more fireworks.

History has shown, Scruff observed, that you can never have too many fireworks.

All over the country, people will gather for pyrotechnic displays this weekend, none larger than the Macy’s Fourth of July show taking place this year over the East River, by the Brooklyn Bridge. But even as millions of people watch that show on television, another Independence Day tradition will be honored on the other tip of Manhattan.

For at least a quarter-century, residents of Inwood, in northern Manhattan, have gathered around Dyckman Street for an unsanctioned fireworks competition, pitting various neighborhood blocks against one another, and all of them against the police.

You can never have too many fireworks in Manhattan

Leaving Manhattan: the last days of Jean-Michel Basquiat

From Vanity Fair, a brilliant article about the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat:

Certainly he was leaving Manhattan. Almost certainly he was, at the age of twenty-seven, giving up the mercantile and treacherous art world. Perhaps he would be a writer. Perhaps he would take what he called an “honest job,” like running a tequila business in Hawaii. The following Thursday, he was leaving for the Ivory Coast, where he was expected in a Senoufo village five hundred miles inland from the capital, Abidjan. Here he would take a tribal cure for the heroin— and other New York wounds.

Tonight, though, Basquiat was quiet. “He didn’t really want to talk about anything,” Bray says, “and soon he started nodding. And I said, I’m sorry—I just can’t stay around. I wrote kind of a weird note . . . I DON’T WANT TO SIT AROUND HERE AND WATCH YOU DIE . . . And then, YES, YOU DO OWE ME SOMETHING. Because we have an ongoing dialogue . . . why he should stop [drugs], why he should keep on painting . . . he never thinks people understand the paintings.”

That agonizing present tense, when the fact of death hasn’t quite sunk in.

Bray passed the note to Basquiat, but he was too loaded to focus, so Bray read it aloud, and left, fuming. “Somebody who gets that high is dying over and over and over again,” he says now.

Read the rest here

Leaving Manhattan: the last days of Jean-Michel Basquiat

The changing maps of Manhattan

I really enjoyed this great historical maps of Manhattan post by Robert Hempsall, which he says “serves no purpose other than to indulge my interest in old maps (which I seem to have inherited from my mum) and my love of New York.” The one above is from 1660.

This one is from just over a hundred years later, in 1770:

And this one is from 1842:

Bonus footage – the opening to Woody Allen’s masterpiece Manhattan:

The changing maps of Manhattan

Woody Allen’s beautifully understated movie posters

It’s taken close to seven years to find that same space to wedge myself into when looking through the advertising surrounding his more memorable films. For the longest time, my reaction wasn’t all that dissimilar to falling asleep in a chair. To someone with their nose stuck in art from post-war Europe, seeing black and white posters with few frills felt like uncovering one missed opportunity after another. I wanted posters that played host to vivid imagery that wore their humanity on their sleeve, not colorless rest-stops for text. Those desires are all well and good, but they miss the spirit of that bespeckled boy from Brooklyn that best comes through by doing more with less.

Read the brilliant full article by Brandon Schaefer at

Woody Allen’s beautifully understated movie posters