In Praise of the “Mobile Room”: How Elevators Made New York City
New York would be a different place without them
It’s almost too obvious, but before the elevator arrived in New York, buildings were practically limited to five or six stories. Skyscrapers did not exist. Sleek luxury condos teeming with leaks and piping wells weren’t a glimmer in a developer’s eye yet.
“The design of the city was made easier by elevators,” Construction Ministry Commissioner Melanie La Rocca tells us over the phone. “You wouldn’t have the vertical nature of this city without elevators to transport people. “
In addition to allowing the city to expand upwards, the elevator has also transformed the way we think about vertical space. For most of our history, the upper floors were reserved for the poor, while the rich sought to live closer to the ground. That didn’t start to change until the early part of the 20th century, as more and more New Yorkers became familiar with elevators.
The term penthouse emerged in the 1920s, with the famous Ritz Tower on 465 Park Avenue, a building that “brought a new attitude towards an aerial city and an aerial house,” according to Andreas Bernard. Survey: A cultural history of the elevator.
New York City as the birthplace of the modern elevator
While lifting devices date back to ancient Rome, New York City is the real home of the elevator. More importantly, the invention of a safety break by Elisha Otis paved the way for the very first passenger elevator, installed in a department store in SoHo on the corner of Broadway and Broome Street in 1857.
The opening two years later of a steam elevator at the Fifth Avenue hotel led to a lengthy New York Times article about the raging “steam versus stairs” debate and whether the elevator could ever help the common man.
“Isn’t the need to climb stairs the main physical discomfort of the strong and the daily misfortune of the weak?” the newspaper asked. “What a great thing for Young America to do, lay down on a couch after dinner, pull a string; and is found five or six floors higher, in a vast library or smoking room ”,
While firmly in favor of elevators, the author contested the name of the new technology, which he found “unpopular” and too commercial. Their proposal: “the mobile room”.