New York City NYC
September 3, 2017

Henry Baldwin Hyde, the Elevator and the Skyscraper

Before a skyscraper became a building, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, it was a rider on a penny-farthing bicycle (that old fashioned kind with the enormous front wheel and the teeny-tiny back wheel).  It was also a “high-standing horse,” a tall man, and a raised bonnet.  In point of fact, the term was used to describe anything that stood out as unusually high.  Of course, our perception of height changed with the advent of the very tall building, and after these became known as “skyscrapers” in 1888, those other definitions became obsolete.  The sky had been raised irrevocably, and the tall horses and hats and bicycles could no longer scrape it.

Several inventions allowed for the rise of the skyscraper including iron-framed building, electric lighting, and, most importantly, the safety elevator. Success magazine wrote, “The Skyscraper is an outgrowth—or upgrowth of the elevator.”

 

Henry Baldwin Hyde, the founder and president of Equity Life Assurance Company was a visionary who recognized the potential of the safety elevator.  In 1868 he held a competition for the design of an Equitable Life Building.  The one stipulation was that the building would contain a passenger elevator.  In the past, elevators had been used primarily for transporting goods, so Hyde had a difficult time convincing the building committee to permit an elevator in an office building.  He persevered, and the young architect George Post teamed up with the architectural firm Gilman & Kendall to design the building—The result was an 8 story building in the French Second Empire style on the corner of Cedar and Broadway.

The Equitable Life Assurance building was the first office building in the world to house passenger elevators. Finished in 1870, it is considered by many to be the city’s first skyscraper.  It was granite-faced and elegant, and, as the New York Times reported, “built on a scale which for the extent, strength and security surpasses anything of a similar character in the world.”

To the surprise of the Building Committee and to the great satisfaction of Hyde, the passenger elevators attracted the great businessmen of the city. Hyde later wrote, “the most prominent lawyers and businessmen of the city” took offices on high floors.  Thus the high office as status symbol was born.  (Previously, low floors were far more expensive than high floors, but the elevator made all floors equally accessible, and the elevator would eventually come to be seen as the “great equalizer” among the businessmen of the city.)

Tourists flocked to the Equitable Life building to ride in the elevator and to admire the unparalleled views from the observation deck.  It was so much higher than the surrounding area that the Weather Bureau took an office on the roof of the building to report the weather.  But the race to the sky was underway, and the Equitable Life Building was soon in the shadow of larger buildings.  Its once innovative design became antiquated as building techniques improved.  Proposals were made to tear down the current building and replace it with an even taller structure.

On a frigid morning in January of 1912, fate intervened. A fire that began in the building’s café roared upward.   Alarms sounded, and horse-driven fire carriages galloped over the Brooklyn Bridge to fight conflagration.  Alas, the valiant efforts were in vain.  The interior of the first skyscaper was being reduced to a charred hulk.  And as the firemen continued to hose down the dying embers, the jets of water froze against the granite façade, transforming the building into the specter of a giant gingerbread house.

The New York Times reported that the ice “settled over the building in a gleaming sheath of white that made the fire a wonderful thing to see.  Ice converted the ruined building into a fantastic palace, with the rainbows arching at every turn as the sunlight filtered through the spray and smoke.”

That “wonderful” spectacle would be the last sight of the six men who lost their lives in the disaster.  One of them was William Camption, the building’s night-watchman, whose death was documented in the Times account:

“And of all the spectacles that kept crowds staring fascinated from opposite streets and windows, the strangest was that of two despairing hands—a dead man’s hands thrust through the bars from one of the basement vaults.  It was all of the man that could be seen, and as the afternoon drew to a close the ice mound on the pavement grew layer by layer till even the hands were hidden from view.”

In 1915 the building was replaced by a new Equitable Life Building, a neo-classical 40-story structure that still stands today.

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