Elisha Otis was a solver of problems—practical problems involving bread ovens, steam engines, bed frames, and the like. Faced with the problem of safely bringing debris down from the second floor of his workshop, in 1852 he repurposed a railroad brake into an emergency elevator brake that would stop the lift cold in its tracks should the supporting cables snap. This small innovation opened an entirely new kind of space; a space we might call the 'up'. ‘Up’ had of course always existed, but never before as a habitable territory. As a place for work, life, and leisure, ‘up’ would have to be imagined. While colonial powers in the early 20th century were busy stretching railroad lines across continents, urban engineers in cities like Chicago and New York were beginning to bend Otis' elevator tracks ever further upward into uncharted verticality.
For a short three to four year period in the late 1920s and early 1930s, New York City drove its skyline 70, 87, and then 102 stories into the air. The expedition marked a transformational moment in the city. During these few years city traffic was detoured skyward. The city’s profile was nearly flipped on its axis. The goal of city planners was to rationalize the city and the ‘up’ seemed like the most efficient direction to take a growing population. But rationalization and efficiency are never linear; the stories of buildings are marked by countless twists and turns.