January 10, 2016

Photo Essay: An Eccentric Collection Devoted to Elevators (Closed in 2016)

[Ed: Sadly, the museum closed in 2016 and its collection was relocated to Boston.]

There are many things I left behind when I left New York; but because it is a city that's ever-changing, I've also been missing out on plenty of stuff that arrived after I was gone.

Case in point: The Elevator Historical Society.

It's less of a society and more of a one-man museum dedicated to the history of something we use every day, but probably don't think much about.

Patrick Carr is a life-long elevator professional...

...and enthusiast...

...who has collected bits and bobs from his various jobs in the industry...

...starting with working for his father as a kid...

...and culminating as a top executive of a couple elevator manufacturers and the head honcho of his own elevator supply company.

Technically he's retired now, though he continues to serve as an expert witness in court cases involving elevator- and escalator-related accidents—over 4000 of those cases to date.

Despite people's phobias, elevators are actually much safer than escalators.

A visit to the second floor of the Queens Medallion yellow cab leasing building in Long Island City serves as a good primer not only for how the elevator business got started...

...but also how they are built and engineered—and what goes wrong when there's an incident.

It's usually a matter of poor maintenance on an old piece of equipment, when cables break or robes get overstretched, but passenger error likely contributes, too—especially when someone gets stuck in the closing doors.

Pat has collected a number of rare and fragile artifacts...

...most of which were part of his personal collection, until he decided to put them on display to share them with the curious public.

Unfortunately, his operation is still small and quirky, so he's had to turn down donations of some very large items, including a gondola from an incline railway.

He'd love the museum to house some working examples of vintage elevators...

...but that would take some pretty significant support from the big elevator companies...

...who have thus far declined to participate in the museum.

Why not? Because of lack of respect for the past, Pat says.

When you hit the call button and step into a modern elevator, you probably don't think much about the contraption that allows you to ascend toward the sky and descend toward the core of the Earth.

It's probably only when you're in one of those antique lifts in an old building—you know, the ones that are more like a cage, whose door or gate you must open and close manually—that you even think about the relatively modern marvel of engineering that allows you to travel up and down rather than side-to-side.

But despite their essential utility now, elevators were actually introduced as more of a novelty tourist attraction: the ascending room.

But then architects and industrialists realized the practical application of the gears and hydraulics allowed them to build structures that were higher than, say, four stories tall...

...and lift heavy equipment, vehicles, and even freight train cars when a man-powered pulley system couldn't get the job done.

While modern elevators are relatively antiseptic and favor function over form...

...some of the old designs are quite beautiful, with gorgeous metalwork and elaborate typefaces.

A walk through The Elevator Historical Society museum feels a bit like a treasure hunt, guessing what these artifacts may have been used for...

...and wondering whether they can be used anymore.

Way in the back, though, there are shelves with some spare parts that may come in handy sooner or later...

...because even modern elevators cease to work, sometimes. Or get overloaded.

If you're in NYC, there are lots of working vintage elevators to take for a ride to recapture those days of vertical tourism—rather than using them purely as a means to an end. Finding them is half the fun.

But if you see those antique wooden escalators that are in the "old" part of Macy's at Herald Square, it's probably best if you admire them from afar. They're responsible for so many accidents (involving adults, children, and service animals) that Pat thinks they should be decommissioned, put in a glass case, and admired from afar—never to be ridden again.

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