The freight elevator was a common fixture in people’s homes back in the day. Almost everyone I knew had one, and no one I knew in SoHo had a “real” (a.k.a. passenger) elevator.
Freight elevators are usually enclosed only on two sides and have mesh gates that either slide up and down on pulleys or metal accordion gates on the other two sides so you can see out into the elevator shaft, and out the shaft windows if they are clean, as you go up and down. They are manually operated, the really old ones with a pulley that you “start” by yanking the cord thereby creating momentum. I’ve been in a few of these, but they were mostly “updated” by the time I was little to a manual lever that started and stopped the cables that raised and lowered the elevator platform. To stop on a floor, you had to eyeball it and hope that the elevator and the floor you wanted to visit would more or less line up. It’s difficult to describe, but if you’ve never seen one, The Housing Works Bookstore and Cafe still has one, if you’re curious.
In both of the lofts I grew up in (I lived on Crosby Street from when I was born until I was five and then moved to Mercer), we had freight elevators in our house. On Crosby Street, we had an elevator operator name Sally (a man), who, as far as my parents could tell, was being given life-time employment from our landlords in Little Italy. Extrapolate what you wish from that information. Anyway, Sally had a little room on the first floor under the staircase (what I picture Harry Potter’s cupboard under the stairs to look like at the Dursleys) where he had a small space heater and listened to the radio from nine to five and would come to pick us up on the fifth floor if we rang for him. This was a nice perk I suppose, but after five o’clock, if people wanted to use the elevator, they would have to ring for it and the people who had it on their floor would have to go pick up whoever rang and then be dropped off back on their floor. It was very a complicated hand-off system and required that you get along well with your neighbors. If you came home after hours, you would have to walk up the stairs unless you wanted to wake your neighbors up. And that was no small task—with fourteen-foot ceilings, if you lived on the fifth floor, that was a lot of stairs. I used to have nightmares about that elevator. I dreamed that it would descend uncontrollably deeper and deeper under our building and nothing I did could stop it. I always woke up before it hit bottom. My father says that I got a contact high in that elevator because of the dense marijuana fumes being sucked into the shaft all day long from the loft beneath ours, where a sweet drug dealer named Chris had set up shop until the FBI raided his operation. Sally passed away at some point while I was still living on Crosby Street, and then the elevator became a real free-for-all.
After we moved to Mercer Street, things got a little better because everyone in the building used the stairs and my parents, who owned a business on the first floor, had almost exclusive use of the elevator. But in the winter, the grease on the elevator doors would freeze and you would need to weight of two people to get it to close. If you were alone, well, too bad.
And then our building became a condo and we got an automatic elevator. Yahoo! It’s an odd setup because it opens up right onto the street. When it was used for freight, it was convenient to have an elevator open right onto the loading dock, but now, I feel a little unprotected from the elements (natural and human) as I wait for the elevator. But at least I don’t have to bring it down to the folks on 2 in the middle of dinner because they need to get their groceries home, or worse, I don’t have to put on my coat at 3 AM to pick up a neighbor because he’s too drunk to take the stairs!
P.S. I peeked into the old Crosby Street building the other day and saw that they STILL have the freight elevator, though Sally’s room is gone. And I think they’re asking close to $2 mil now for those lofts. You would think that with that kind of money moving in they could spring for an automatic…