Elevating the Skyline

By Ruben Cuellar

Among the individual innovations in technology that influenced the lower Manhattan skyline, the elevator was probably the most important. What was once a skyline limited to about five floors grew exponentially thanks to this revolutionary piece of machinery. The introduction of the new elevators into New York City beginning in 1870 caused a dramatic shift in the lower Manhattan skyline; for the first time ever, Skyscrapers began to dominate the skyline, and buildings of all types grew rapidly upwards. This period, which began with the implementation and spread of electricity and other “modern” technologies, was the origin of the era of skyscrapers and upward expansion that we still live in today.

The first elevator came into use in 1854 when Elisha Otis introduced his safety elevator in New York.[1] It opened up a whole world of possibilities for building upwards. Before the 19th century, however, rudimentary precursors to elevators, also known as hoists, were used to lift heavy loads, but not people.

These hoists were originally all powered by animals, humans, and water-driven mechanisms, but more complicated mechanisms followed later in the nineteenth century. The freight elevator, which was nowhere near as advanced or complicated as the electric elevator, came into use later in the century. Freight elevators were initially open platforms that were operated by a worker who cranked a windlass or operated a steam engine to move the platform. This worker was often directed by another worker who would shout instructions through a series of open hatchways[2]. Animal power was still used at times but began to disappear as the contraptions became more and more complicated. As useful as these early elevators were, they couldn’t really be used for more than construction purposes, and they typically did not carry people because of a high risk of injury. Freight elevators, therefore, were not used in residential buildings.

Elisha Otis’s safety elevator was developed in 1853 in Yonkers, New York. The safety elevator featured a spring mechanism that would break the fall of the elevator if one of the supporting cables were to break. It was essentially a freight elevator that was much safer, and allowed for passengers. Otis demonstrated his safety elevator in 1854 in New York City, at the Crystal Palace Exhibition, where he rode the elevator up with several boxes, then had an assistant cut the hoisting rope.

After Otis survived the demonstration, the safety elevator began to gain popularity, and the first safety elevator was installed in a Manhattan factory by the Otis Elevator Company shortly afterwards.[3] With the invention of the safety elevator came the introduction of elevators into buildings, both residential and commercial. People could now ride in elevators in most buildings; they spread quickly throughout the world: “After elevators were installed in hotels, rooms in the upper stories lost their stigma and commanded high rates; soon apartments in upper stories also became much sought-after”[4]. Passenger elevators like the safety elevator and newer elevator technologies allowed for buildings to be built higher than five floors. The first of these was the Equitable Life building, which reached seven floors, and was completed in 1870.[5]

Not only did the passenger elevator influence the development of the skyline,[6] but it also changed the way people looked at the skyline; now they could go higher up to see it from an exciting new vantage point within their homes. The tall residential buildings created a desire for people living in the city to live in the higher floors of apartment buildings because they wanted better views. The demand for higher buildings from residents and the public as a whole, as well as the now readily-available elevator technology, buildings began to increase dramatically in height.

As elevator technology became even more advanced in design and shifted focus from the passenger elevator to the electric elevator, this became even more evident. The electric elevator was developed in Germany in 1880 by Werner von Siemens and improved by Frank Sprague to include features like floor controls, automation, acceleration control of cars, and safeties.[7] The speed and safety of the electric elevators made them ideal for buildings, and when Sprague sold his company to the Otis Elevator Company in 1895, they were installed all over New York City.

One of the first buildings in the period of time between 1870 and 1920 to use a hydraulic elevator was the Woolworth building, completed in 1913. As one of the tallest, most important, and most prominent buildings in the lower Manhattan skyline at the time, the Woolworth building was a model for the types of skyscrapers that came to be after the institution of the modern elevator in buildings.

One commenter noted: “The invention of the hydraulic elevator at the beginning of the decade made possible a marked increase in the number of stories in office buildings. These ‘elevator buildings’ eventually created a new skyline of six to nine stories in business districts formerly only half as high”[8]. The implementation of the passenger elevator allowed for buildings to double in height, whereas the electric elevator, which came a few years later, allowed for buildings to grow as much as three times the height of the buildings that existed less than 30 years before: “In the 1890s, the widespread use of . . .the electric elevator led to another significant augmentation of skylines in New York and Chicago. The changes doubled or in some cases tripled, the height of the skyline compared to that created by earlier elevator buildings”[9]. It seems, then, that the elevator was the single most important factor that allowed the buildings of lower Manhattan to grow with such velocity and to such heights, and simultaneously morphed the lower Manhattan skyline into something radically different.

The elevator, such a simple piece of machinery in principle,[10] caused an enormous impact when it was introduced to New York City. The elevator allowed buildings in lower Manhattan to grow in height at such a rapid pace and with such a drastic difference that lower Manhattan seemed like a completely different city before and after the end of the 19th century.

The Skyline became so much taller and awe-inspiring after elevators were installed into its buildings. Whether an older version or a more current version, the elevator was vital in the formation of the skyline .

[1] Bellis, Mary. "History of the Elevator." About Money. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.

[2] Jackson, Kenneth T., ed. The Encyclopedia of New York City, (New York: Yale UP, 1995)

[3] The Otis Elevator Company still exists today.

[4] Ibid., 370

[5] Taylor, William R. In Pursuit of Gotham: Culture and Commerce in New York. (New York: Oxford UP, 1992).

[6] That is, with the invention and proliferation of skyscrapers.

[7] Bellis, 1.

[8] Fenske, Gail G. “The ‘Skyscraper Problem’ and the City Beautiful: The Woolworth Building.” Vol.1. 1988.

[9] Ibid., 8

[10] a system of weights and pulleys that moves things up or down.