A Tin Hat at the Elevator Historical Society
In this Readers Platform, your author explores a unique, endangered NYC museum and talks about how a particular item in it speaks volumes about the industry’s significance.
There used to be others – in Budapest, outside Amsterdam – but today there is only one. Sometimes, I take the afternoon off from my job in New York City (NYC), and travel to Long Island City, Queens, to visit it. A few blocks from the E train is a big building painted like a taxicab, and if you climb the stairs to the second floor, you will find the Elevator Historical Society on your left, the only brick-and-mortar elevator museum in the world. There’s an elevator, too, but it’s not as convenient as the stairs. Surrounded by other transportation technologies (taxis, stairwells, car lifts in the service garage), the history of the elevator finds its home.
When I take an afternoon to visit with founder and director Patrick Carrajat and see what he has added to the collection of elevator parts, manuals, advertisements, toys and assorted memorabilia, I always spend a minute or two in front of my favorite piece. It is a photograph of a man standing in an elevator holding a rifle. A caption explains that it was taken during NYC’s apartment-house strike in 1936. It is not the most remarkable or striking object in the museum, and it is certainly not Pat’s most prized possession. If you ask, he will point with pride to a fully functional ash hoist in the corner, a triumph of gearing that dates to the 1860s and can lift 2000 lb. with the strength of one arm. Then, he will pull the 1870s Otis order book off the shelf and flip through it so you can see the orders listed in the elegant hand of Elisha Graves Otis’s son, Norbert. Maybe he will show you the American Elevators car-switch insert with the head of an American Indian on it. But, I like the man with the rifle photo best because of the story behind it, and the way that story demonstrates the importance of elevator history.
In the 1930s, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal tried to lift the nation out of the Great Depression, labor unions were growing in strength. One such union was 32B of the Building Service Employees International Union, the precursor to today’s 32BJ, Service Employees International Union. In 1934, it called a successful strike of elevator operators and other service workers in the Garment District of NYC, and in 1936, it called a bigger strike across the city in many kinds of buildings, especially residential.
It was very successful, in part because tenants often lined up on the side of the strikers. Pat thinks the photo is of London Terrace, a large complex on 23rd Street, a couple of blocks from the famous Chelsea Hotel. During the strike, a committee of tenants at London Terrace wrote to their landlord to support the strikers’ demands. They only narrowly defeated a motion to withhold rent and spent a quarter of an hour debating whether to describe the strikebreakers hired by management as thugs (they settled on the word “characters” instead).
In wealthier neighborhoods, however, tenants were less likely to sympathize with their elevator operators. The strikers’ actions didn’t help. One night, after a particularly raucous union meeting in East Harlem, they paraded down Park Avenue smashing lobby windows. There was violence and sabotage at London Terrace, too; a favorite trick was to ride to the top floor and beat the strikebreaking operator unconscious. Many of the tenants seem to have condoned union violence. At 925 Park Avenue, they did not. A retired assistant attorney general named Frederic Coudert Bellinger organized his neighbors into the Tenants’ Defense League and courted the press, telling reporters, “We intend to be a militant organization.” In response, the Young People’s Socialist League turned up to picket with signs like “A Barrel of Fun, Bellinger goes Up and Down,” and “Dillinger Gone, Bellinger Going, Going.”
I think the photo is of Bellinger striking a pose, guarding the elevator at 925 Park. He looks, perhaps, a little young to be a retiree, but I identify him by his hat. Frederick Coudert Bellington was a veteran of the Great War and, during the strike of 1936, he put on a Brodie helmet once more for patrol duty. It became his symbol, and supporters, detractors, and the press began to call him Tin Hat Bellinger.
Originally designed by John Leopold Brodie for the British army, the helmet’s broad brim was designed to protect soldiers’ necks and shoulders from the shrapnel of exploding ordnance overhead. It does not seem particularly suited to elevator combat, which ran more to fists, lead pipes, acid attacks on the façades of buildings and the occasional stench bomb, but it seems that Bellinger and his comrades in the Tenants’ Defense League never saw any action. The American military bought many Brodie helmets from Britain when it first entered the war, then manufactured a knockoff, the M1917. Bellinger may have actually worn the latter.
Most of all, I like this photo because it shows a man who understood the importance of elevators. When they work, the public doesn’t notice them, but in 1936, striking operators showed New Yorkers how much they rely on elevators. The strike lasted weeks, covered the front pages of the city’s papers, engulfed the attention of political officials from the mayor on down and challenged citizens’ ability to cope with the everyday necessities of life.
Just like trains, trucks, airplanes and mass-transit systems, elevators can stop traffic and snarl up the world. They’re worth protecting with a rifle. There aren’t too many elevator operators left, and, since automation, no one can stop a city’s elevator traffic on a dime, so we don’t get moments like the strike of 1936 anymore. We need other ways to remind each other how vital elevators are to cities’ most basic needs.
Elevator history is important, and that’s why Pat founded the Elevator Historical Society. He supports the museum almost exclusively with his own money. It costs US$4,000-5,000 a month to run the place. He recently considered closing it down, letting it go the way of those other elevator museums in Europe, but recommitted to running it at least through the fall.
Even if he were willing to keep plowing his personal savings into the museum, there is the longer term to consider; he is a spritely, energetic 71 years old but honest enough to know that someday, others will have to take over. I help out a little here and there, for which Pat has graciously given me the title of assistant director. But, in order to survive and grow from its small space in a big yellow building, the museum will need a lot more help from the industry.
Above all, Pat wants the museum to teach people in the elevator industry their own history. I think everyone should know the history of elevators – of their design, construction, installation and maintenance, in addition to their use, social functions and the culture that grows out of elevator life. We live in a world obsessed with cars, planes and trains, but the elevator has arguably transformed society as much as any of these other transportation technologies. The history of the elevator is the history of the city, of the modern world. People ought to know.