Volume 19 • Issue 20 | Sept. 29 - Oct. 5, 2006

Downtown Express photo by Kate Englund

Steven King stands under a panel opening in the manual elevator of the Swift, Seaman & Co. building on Chambers and Warren Sts. Neighbors fit their Christmas trees in the elevator by moving the panel.

The pull of Tribeca’s elevators

By Sara Stefanini

Every time the bell rings, Zoe Miller eagerly calls out to her mother, “The elevator’s ringing! The elevator’s ringing!”

Together, Rachel Levanthal and her 8-year-old daughter open their front door, which leads straight into the elevator. They check the modern enunciator, a dial on the top left-hand corner that indicates which floor the ring came from.

Zoe then grabs onto the cable running in through the ceiling and out the floor, and gives it a tug. As the elevator slowly chugs down the shaft, Levanthal and Zoe watch the floor numbers scrawled in black paint on the walls. Arriving at their destination, Zoe yanks the rope again, stops the elevator, and lets in her passengers.

“My daughter loves it,” said Levanthal, a writer who has lived in the fourth-floor Tribeca loft for nine years. “It’s just a part of our life. She loves to drive it, so I always let her come with me.”

In a couple more years, Levanthal said Zoe would probably be old enough to make solo runs. But by then, the manual-pull elevator, believed to be well-over 100 years old, will no longer be around. The building, with entrances at 122 Chambers St. and 52 Warren St., is one of a number of converted Tribeca edifices giving in to the lure of modern technology and replacing their historic elevators. If construction goes as planned, two new, fully-automatic elevators will stand in place of the original ones by the end of October, said Steven King, a resident who until recently was president of the tenant’s co-operative for 10 years.

“Those elevators are a dying breed,” said Vinny Moscato, C.E.O. of Liberty Elevators, which services them monthly. The number of manual elevators he works on has dropped considerably in the 20 years he’s been doing it, he added. “As old warehouses became lofts, people didn’t want to rely on neighbors.”

He didn’t know how many manual elevators were left in Tribeca. Philip Garcia, president of United Elevator Consultants, said there were “very few” anywhere in the city and was also unsure of the Tribeca count.

The elevators cannot operate without someone inside to work them. A cable passes vertically through the car and runs down to a mechanical drum motor in the basement. When someone tugs on it, the motion moves a handle on the motor, which makes the drum roll and the chord wrap around it to hoist the car. The motor ran on DC electricity until a year ago, when Con Edison switched it to the safer AC.

The walls of the old cars are made of cast-iron and steel mesh, with spaces large enough to fit fingers and small hands. A panel in the roof can also be taken out easily, something tenants often do at Christmas time to fit the trees in. “It’s a little quaint,” said King, 64, a retired business owner who moved into his fifth-floor loft in 1993.

Neighbors follow certain ground rules. If the elevator is on King’s floor and the bell rings, he has to pick up the caller. That person then drops King off and takes over as the new driver. “The elevator’s a hot potato,” King said. “If you have to monitor the elevator, you can’t go take a nap or something. You’re on call.” After 10 p.m., they stop calling.

The system makes it harder for neighbors to follow typical elevator etiquette and stare straight ahead, King said. “This old elevator requires that we interact. You know more about your neighbors, which is unusual in New York.”

For instance, he remembers picking Levanthal up when she came home from the hospital after Zoe was born.

However, drivers are not always reliable, so sometimes calls go unanswered, Levanthal and Karen Shakkour, a financial analyst on the third floor, agreed. And the responsibility often discourages them from using it, they said.

“You live with it differently than how you would live with a modern elevator,” Levanthal said. “We take the stairs a lot.”

Replacing both elevators will cost about $600,000, King said.

King and Moscato said the elevator could be as old as the building, which went up in 1858. Until 1879, it was a saddlery store called Swift, Seaman & Co., after which the structure is named, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. In 2000, the commission designated the building a landmark. While the old elevators are on their way out, the building’s façade and store area are now being restored to their 1922 design, complete with copper window frames and higher ceilings decorated with white, engraved tiles.

Other Tribeca buildings have taken similar steps to modernizing. Steven Wils, who has lived on Duane St. since 1973, said he and his fellow tenants agreed last year to replace their manual elevator, which they just use as a freight car.

“On my part, there is some reluctance,” said Wils, owner of the Harry Wils & Co., which was the neighborhood’s last “butter and egg” company before it moved to New Jersey eight years ago. “But my wife [former Community Board 1 chairperson Madelyn Wils] and other tenants would love to have a modern elevator.”

Wickham Bolye, a writer on North Moore St. and contributor to Downtown Express, said her building installed a new elevator five years ago. There, the chord to operate the manual one hung outside the car, so she had to reach into the shaft and pull the rope, then jump in as it passed. Before calling it, she would always close her two children in another room or block the hole off with chairs so they couldn’t fall in.

“Obviously, it was very dangerous,” said Boyle, 56, who moved there in 1977. “I loved seeing the physics of it. It really was elegant.”

She said when talk in the building turns to the manual elevator days, one of her newer neighbors calls the period “Cowboy Tribeca.”

Despite their age, the manual elevators are extremely reliable and rarely break down, Moscato said. Since they require the person to do much more work, most problems come from human error.

Residents in the Swift, Seaman & Co. Building said they’re sorry to see the elevators go, but eager for the change.

“It really is a shame,” said Shakkour, 47. “We hate to give it up, but we just felt compelled to, out of convenience. I think we’re all sort of looking forward to being able to call the elevator and have it come directly down.”

Zoe, however, is particularly resistant to the prospect of a modern elevator, her mother said.

“To her, the old one is just perfect,” Levanthal said. “She swears she won’t use the new one.”


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