Everything You Need to Know About Elevators in NYC Housing

NYC is known for upward expansion and high-rise buildings, but the city’s iconic skyscrapers are only made possible because of the invention of the elevator. Elevators are so ubiquitous (there are over 70,000 in New York City) but many residents are unfamiliar with the rich history behind them or what to do if they find their elevator in need of repair. 

How elevators changed NYC

The first elevators didn’t carry passengers – steam-powered freight lifts were used in storehouses as early as the 1830s to transport cargo and goods. Passenger elevators were first used in 1852 when Elisha Otis introduced an elevator safety brake to prevent elevators from falling in the event of device failure. He presented his work at the 1854 Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, held in what is known today as Bryant Park. The first elevator installed in a New York City building was three years later in a department store. The elevator was slow, but functional, and allowed the department store to house its warehouse and showrooms all in one place. 

Elevators quickly influenced the city’s development. By the 1860s, New York’s Financial District was becoming increasingly crowded – so much so that city planners debated moving the financial hub uptown. The solution to the city’s rapid expansion began when the Equitable Life Assurance Society (a prominent insurance company) constructed its headquarters in an eight-story building with two elevators. Soon, the top-floor corner office was occupied by the CEO, and the height of one’s office became a status symbol.

Commercial buildings weren’t the only ones paving new ground – residential buildings soon followed suit. Before the invention of the elevator, the highest floor of a residential building was the least desired floor. Top floors were designed for servants and waitstaff, and luxury residents didn’t want to traverse the multitude of stairs to the top floor. The Dakota (a residential building at 72nd and Central Park West) was the first residential building to cater top-floor apartments to wealthy residents. While many were initially skeptical, the next four decades would bring more elevators to luxury buildings and move thousands of wealthy residents to the top floor.

Rules and regulations

Though elevators have deeply influenced NYC’s growth trajectory, they need frequent maintenance and testing to ensure safety. The Department of Buildings (DOB) works to ensure the proper use of all elevators in New York City. Buildings that have five or more stories are required to have an elevator (though some buildings constructed before 1968 are exempt), and at least one of the elevators must be large enough to accommodate a stretcher in case of emergency. The elevator must be accessible from a public space (rather than a cramped hallway) and doors must be at least 36 inches wide and remain open for at least three seconds. The push buttons of elevators are also required to be centered 42 inches from the ground so they can be reached by any user.

Building code regulates that elevators must be inspected periodically – they need category one tests (inspecting all safety devices, cables, alarms, and general use mechanisms) twice a year, and category five tests (lifting the elevator’s maximum load at maximum speed) once every five years. Residents can file a complaint if an elevator is not working, was installed without a permit, is not inspected, or if it has dirty or unsanitary conditions. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development will investigate complaints and issue tickets to owners who are not in compliance with the law. Residents can look up their apartment building at DOB NOW: Safety to search for elevator violations at a property and see any amount due by the owner. 

Safety tips

Though elevators are generally very safe, the New York City DOB recommends some simple elevator safety tips when riding in them. You should: 

  • Look down when entering and exiting an elevator to ensure it is level with the ground, and don’t exit the elevator if it stops more than nine inches from the landing.
  • Though many people try to stop elevators from closing with an arm or leg, it is most safe to use the “door open” button to hold closing doors.
  • Rather than crowding in a packed elevator, it’s best to wait for the next ride. Though it may seem like a time saver to cram in, packed elevators are more likely to get stuck, adding further delay to everyone’s day. 
  • If you happen to be stuck in an elevator, there is an emergency alarm on the panel of buttons. Once pushed, help is on the way. Elevator riders are urged not to try to pry open the doors but rather to wait patiently for an expert to arrive. 

Fun facts!

Though elevators may seem like a lackluster invention, their universal usage has created some interesting statistics! Here are a few things you may not have known about elevators:

  • Every three days, elevators worldwide carry the equivalent of Earth’s population. 
  • The maximum height an elevator can reach is 500m (1700 ft) before the weight of the cables would cause the elevator to fall. 
  • Elevators are the statistically safest way to travel – they’re 20 times safer than escalators!
  • Elevator music was first introduced in the 1920s when travelers were wary of riding on elevators, so building owners started playing relaxing music to calm riders. 
  • The close button on elevators is a placebo effect – the doors close automatically, but the button was added to give riders a sense of control. 
  • Though not all elevator panels are made the same, many panels will use a star or asterisk to indicate the ground floor. 

Call the lift!

Elevators may seem like an ordinary part of daily life, but they are one of the primary reasons New York City has been able to expand upward instead of out. Though they need careful inspection and frequent service, they are one of the safest ways to travel and allow New Yorkers to enjoy high-rise living. Next time you admire the skyline, remember that elevators are a major reason that skyscrapers can tower over the city. 

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