Functional And Theatrical

That picture may be a bit hard to read. I was looking up a freight elevator shaft in a factory, through the chain-link mesh roof of the elevator cab, to the skylight at the top of the shaft, some six stories above me. There’s a plank sitting on top of the mesh for some reason, which further confuses the picture. The cab isn’t really a cab: it has a floor (about 10 feet by 20 feet), mesh sides left and right, and a mesh roof; the front and back both face doors and have no enclosure at all.

Almost all old elevator shafts in New York were built with skylights at the top, which may seem counter-intuitive. With the except of the rare open-cab elevators like this one, any light from the skylight is falling on an uninhabited and uninhabitable part of the building. The skylights, like so much else, trace back to the development of fire-resistant construction starting in the 1870s. Heat rises and shafts – elevators, stairs, dumbwaiters, mechanical chases – are particularly problematic because they can allow the hot air from a fire to spread the fire upwards. Smoke, of course, also rises and is dangerous to people above and makes it difficult for anyone, including firefighters, to see. Elevator shafts have to be vented or ventable to get the hot air and smoke out of the building, and skylights provide a very fast and easy way to vent the shaft.

So much for practicality. If the elevator cab has a mesh roof, it doesn’t need much in the way of lighting, so it’s nice and spooky dark. The mesh roof and the elevator’s rise and fall create odd moving shadows. The lack of front and rear walls to the cab means that you are literally watching the brick shaft walls move by, and could touch the shafts walls any time you want to. In other words, the very cheap and practical freight elevator is the ideal noir film set.

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