How New York City’s First Elevator Revolutionized Real Estate

published Oct 8, 2014
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(Image credit: Kenenth C. Zirkel)

Not far from the Apartment Therapy offices in New York City is the five-story E.V. Haughwout building. It wouldn’t be difficult to walk to the top floor, but in 1857, you wouldn’t have had to because this is the site of the very first commercial elevator in New York City, manufactured by (who else?) Elisha Otis. Here’s how it changed everything.

Mr. Otis established his company in 1852 when he invented the safety elevator — revolutionary not because it used steam to lift cargo up and down (that was already happening in many factories of the day), but because of its safety brake. To demonstrate his invention (and boost his struggling company), Otis showed up at the 1854 World’s Fair in New York City with an example of his elevator. Above a gathered crowd, he demonstrated just how safe his product was by dramatically cutting the rope suspending the platform of his elevator. It dropped only a few inches before the safety brake slowed it to a halt, preventing it from crashing to the ground.

His stunt worked. At $300 a pop, he sold seven elevators that year, 15 in 1855 and launched a business that is still very successful today.

In 1857, Mr. Otis sold one of his elevators to the E.V. Haughwout and Company fashionable emporium — a department store selling cut glass, silverware, china and chandeliers. Although the store was only five stories tall, similar to other buildings at the time, the owners hoped the novelty of an elevator would bring in customers.

Spoiler alert: It did. In fact, Mr. Otis began selling more elevators, too. Many more. By the 1870’s there were 2000 Otis elevators in service. Thanks to the new ease of scaling them, buildings were able to rise higher than ever. And as the skyline of New York changed, so did the economics.

Imagine it’s 1850 and you live on the fourth (the top!) floor of an apartment building. Sure, you may have a better view, but you’re also climbing four inconvenient flights of stairs every time you go in or out so you’re probably paying less rent than your lucky neighbor who lives on the ground level. Fast forward 30 years and you’ve moved to another building with a newfangled elevator (and thank God because you’re 30 years older and your knees are probably killing you). But wait, your new landlord wants double the price for the top floor because it’s farther away from all the noise and filth of the street without the inconvenience of a walk-up.

As buildings grew taller and taller, owners could not only build more apartments or offices on the same size plot of land, they could charge more for them as well. All they had to do was hire an elevator operator. This newly-created job was necessary because, unlike elevators of today, the early models were manual — controlled by a lever which started and stopped the mechanism. Operators needed to time their movements perfectly to deliver their “cab” to the correct floor.

(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

You might say that the Otis safety elevator was the tipping point of New York City in the second half of the 19th century — it was a catalyst for physical, economic and social change. Architecture critic Barr Ferree said it like this:

“Vertical architecture would be impossible, first of all, without the elevator, the great equalizer of civilization, which … by excessively rapid “express service,” makes the twentieth floor scarcely more difficult to access than the third. … Without [the elevator] its chief merit [of the tall building] would be gone; without it its upper stories would be as inaccessible as a mountaintop.”

By the way, the term penthouse didn’t come about until the 1920’s. The economic boom of that decade popularized towering, top-shelf luxury apartments and later popularized jumping off those very same tall buildings during the bust of 1929. All made possible, of course, by Mr. Otis’ safety brake elevator.