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New Exhibit Tracks History of Elevators, Escalators, Moving Sidewalks - 2003-10-01

We ride them every day, to traverse a sprawling airport, or change floors in an office building or a shopping mall, and most of us hardly give a second thought to these hard working people movers. But they are now the subject of a new exhibition at the American Building Museum in Washington. "Up, Down, Across: Elevators, Escalators and Moving Sidewalks," which opened September 12, is billed as the first major exhibition to explore the architectural and cultural impact of modern conveyance devices.

Nearly 150 years ago at the 1854 Crystal Palace Exhibition in New York City, a young mechanic named Elisha Otis stood before an audience on an elevated platform hoisted by ropes. In a dramatic gesture, he took a knife off a pillow and slashed the ropes that were holding him in space. Audience members gasped as the platform started to fall, then just as quickly was locked into place. "All safe, gentlemen, all safe," assured Mr. Otis as he demonstrated the invention of his new safety brake... And the modern elevator was born.

"And it's quite interesting that in over 100 years, the elevator has gotten faster and more sophisticated but it really hasn't changed," remarks Abbot Miller, guest curator for the National Building Museum's new "Up, Down, Across" exhibition." Mr. Miller says the show deals not only with how elevators, escalators and moving sidewalks work, but also with how being transported can give riders an experience similar to that of watching a movie - a technology that evolved at about the same time. One film in the show examines both new inventions.

"So this footage that we're looking at here is from 1900. Thomas Edison filmed the moving sidewalk that was installed at the Paris [Universal] Exhibition," he explains. "And you get this awareness of how these devices that were new at the time, the elevator and the moving sidewalk, how they were both practically motivated, how to get people through a city, but also, they were amusements. And they were spectacular and people loved to ride on them."

It was thought at the time that moving sidewalks would be the answer to moving people efficiently through urban centers. But it didn't work out that way. Underground subway systems were a lot more comfortable and today, moving sidewalks are mostly found in airport concourses and other interior spaces.

As you enter the exhibition space at the National Building Museum, you walk first into an oversized elevator with large doors that slide open at the push of a button. Step outside the elevator and you encounter a chronology of conveyance inventions - including the first escalators created for department stores and subway platforms. Also featured is the advent of Muzak in 1922, which quickly became known as "elevator music," a kind of soothing background music that is still pumped into office buildings malls and elevators.

Curator Abbott Miller says one of his favorite parts of the exhibition is a short film called Elevator World which captures the peaceful ways that human beings cohabit a small space.

"They almost invariably stand facing the door. Elevator engineers design capacity for people to have about three feet of space around them and understand that that space can contract to about a foot and a half of space and beyond that people become very claustrophobic. It's too intimate," says Mr. Miller.

Elevator intimacy has been a subject raised in many Hollywood films...such as in The Apartment where Jack Lemmon becomes friendly with his company's elevator operator, played by Shirley McLaine.

Curator Abbot Miller says cinematic history is woven throughout the history of elevators and escalators, adding a dose of entertainment to the exhibition.

"Something we thought was inevitable for visitors was the famous scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where Gene Wilder gets into the 'Wonkavator' and explains that the Wonkavator goes anywhere in the factory diagonally, straight ways and long ways," he explains.

The exhibit celebrates an elevator design from the 1960s - a tall glass capsule beaded with lights - that first appeared in the atrium of the Hyatt Regency hotel in Atlanta. It gave riders sweeping views and brought some fun back to elevator riding. It was also a featured player in the 1974 action thriller, The Towering Inferno.

Lots of fun facts accompany the history of elevators and escalators at the National Building Museum. For example, elevator operators were a necessary presence until about 1950. That's when the automatic elevator was introduced, slowly making the human operator obsolete. But passengers were a little slower to catch on. It wasn't until the early 1960s that they warmed up to the idea of pushing the buttons themselves... And in 1993, the Yokohama Landmark Tower opened in Japan. The 70-story office/retail complex featured the world's fastest elevators, traveling at 750 meters per minute.

But perhaps the most poignant display at the National Building Museum's "Up Down Across" exhibition is a small button panel indicating the number of floors for the World Trade Center in New York City. After the terrorist bombing of the Trade Center in 1993, extra panels were made for the Trade Center in case the buildings ever suffered such serious damage again.