Woolworth: Travel

Obviously I picked that picture above, from the beginning of Master Builders, because it’s pretty. Beyond that, in emphasizing the Woolworth’s building height, it points up a big issue for skyscrapers, then and now: how do you get people to the upper floors fast enough that they’ll be willing to rent up there?

The copy of Master Builders that is in the Internet Archive has stamped on its cover “Compliments of Otis Elevator Company.” That appears to be specific to this (and presumably some other) copies of the book, not the general production of the book. Once this book was printed, it’s easy to see the various contractors (and, for that matter, the professionals) represented inside deciding to buy some copies, have their name stamped on the cover, and then give them away. In any case, Otis has its moment in the book, with a truly spectacular diagram:

They’re only showing seven of the 29 elevators, but it’s enough to make the point. Six are high-rise elevators, running from the lobby up into the tower. In a modern design, they’d all run the full height of the tower; in 1913, it apparently made sense to have two elevators serve just the six floors immediately below the hip roof. The seventh is a very short run, going from the top of those two highest full-height elevators up into the roof, necessary because the main elevators are not perfectly centered and therefore would run into the sloped side of the roof if they extended upwards. A lot of old skyscrapers – even into the 1920s – have a few floors at the top accessible only by stairs or by a very short elevator run up from the main elevator.

The diagram on the right shows what was important in advertising elevators to the public: multiple cables (safety!), guide rails for both the cab and the counterweight (safety!), a shock-absorber at the bottom of the shaft (safety!), a huge electric motor at the top (modernity!) and a partially-open cab (comfort!). The last would soon disappear, as safety concerns led to all passenger elevators in the city being enclosed. The text on the elevators, roughly five pages long, repeatedly emphasizes two topics: safety and modernity. The design was said to be the best and newest available, and also as safe as it could possibly be. Structural engineers and steel companies had to make those kind of claims only a short time earlier, but by the time Woolworth was built the public was accepting of the safety of high-rise structure. Elevators took a bit longer to become background technology, and one can make an argument that they’ve never been fully accepted in the same way.

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