Going Up: Uncovering the Art Deco Elevators of Landmarked Building Interiors

Posted On Thu, March 12, 2015 By

Posted On Thu, March 12, 2015 By In Architecture, Features, History

Chrysler Building elevators via Wally Gobetz on Flickr

Earlier this week, we visited the New York School of Interior Design‘s latest exhibit, Rescued, Restored, Reimagined: New York’s Landmark Interiors, which, on the 50th anniversary of New York’s landmark legislation, features photography and information about more than 20 public spaces, known and little-known, that have been designated as interior landmarks. Looking through images of restored Broadway theaters, perfectly preserved coffered rotundas and period furniture, we couldn’t help getting stuck on one often-overlooked element–the elevator.

For most of us who live in a high rise or work in a typical office building, the elevator doors are just another blank wall that we stare at, only paying attention when they open and usher us in. But when the city’s great Art Deco buildings were rising, the elevators were an extension of the lavish ornamentation and geometric details of the façade and interior lobby. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite Art Deco elevators in landmarked interiors, which means they’re all publicly accessible so you can check them all out first hand.

Film Center Building

Film Center Building, Ely Jacques Kahn, NYC Art Deco
The Film Center Building lobby, looking toward the elevator bay, via Wiki Commons

The Film Center Building has become the unofficial poster child for NYSID’s exhibit, and it’s for a good reason. Built in 1928, at the height of the Art Deco movement, the 13-story Hells Kitchen building boasts a “highly individualistic version of the Art Deco style,” thanks to architect Ely Jacques Kahn. Its interior lobby was designated a landmark in 1982, at which time the Landmarks Preservation Commission lauded the elevator bay and its modernist, striped design. This motif carries over to the elevator doors themselves, though some were painted prior to the designation. At the far wall of the elevator lobby is one of the interior’s most striking features, a polychromatic, geometric mosaic.

Chrysler Building

William Van Alen, Chrysler Building, NYC Art Deco
Chrysler Building elevator door, via 6sqft (L) and elevator interior, via Wiki Commons (R)

This one goes without saying. William Van Alen‘s design of the Chrysler Building is one of the most recognizable in the world. When it was completed in 1930, it briefly held the title of the tallest building in the world until the Empire State Building surpassed it 11 months later. Knowing it would grab this sky-high title, it’s no wonder Van Alen paid such close attention to the four banks of eight elevators. Their elegant Art Deco design features not only on the doors, but on the interior as well.

Radio City

Radio City Music Hall
Grand lobby at Radio City, via Wiki Commons (L); bronze elevator doors, via 6sqft (C); elevator interiors, via 6sqft (R)

Radio City was almost lost to the wrecking ball in the late ’70s, but thanks in part to a “Saturday Night Live” commentary by John Belushi it was preserved. The work of architect Edward Durell Stone and interior designer Donald Deskey, Radio City’s lobby is one of the most iconic in the performing arts world. Its elevator doors are nothing too fancy on the outside, but inside they feature gilded ancient Roman persons, an element of the Art Deco style. Further, the system of elevators servicing the Great Stage is so advanced that that the U.S. Navy used identical hydraulics for World War II aircraft carriers.

Fred French Building

H. Douglas Ives, Sloan & Robertson, Fred French Building, NYC Art Deco
Fred French Building lobby, via MacResource (L) and elevator doors, via Lynn Redmile for Flickr Commons (R)

The 38-story Fred French Building is a favorite for Art Deco lovers, thanks to its colorful terra cotta façade ornamentation. Built in 1927 to the designs of H. Douglas Ives and Sloan & Robertson, the building has a rather small lobby, but its Babylonian motifs are artfully painted in bright blue and gold, and it boasts Roman travertine floors, St. Genevieve marble walls and patterned glass chandeliers. It also features heavily detailed cast bronze elevator doors, which give the terra cotta a run for its money.

Empire State Building

empire state building elevators, NYC Art Deco
Elevators in the Empire State Building lobby, via Wiki Commons

While surprisingly the least decorated of all the elevators we’ve mentioned, those in the Empire State Building are still some of the most iconic for their geometric, Art Deco design that mimics the famous setbacks of the tower. The marble interiors of the elevators feature full stencils of the building. In 2011, the Empire State Building worked with Otis Elevator Co. to upgrade all 68 elevators, the largest elevator modernization of its kind in the world.

Know of any other Art Deco elevators? Let us know in the comments!

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