Otis elevator call button
The unassuming and dimunitive little Otis elevator call button was a simple but artistic design used for many years by Otis elevator Co., with their laurel wreath encircling their name emblazoned over a globe logo, and surrounded by a classical egg & dart molding. This particular artifact has only one button- the “up” button as it was originally located in the basement, not only was it located in a lowly, damp basement, but that basement happened to be the one that was under the 1867 Broadway Central Hotel (BCH) once located on several lots fronting 150 feet of Broadway with the main entrance at 673 Broadway, NY City.
The site was originally a hotel and theatre known as; The Lafarge House. Edwin Booth appeared there as did other well known persons, this building was destroyed in an 1854 fire, it was rebuilt, and destroyed in yet another spectacular fire!
In March 1869 the property sold at public auction by the heirs of the Lafarge estate to E. S. Higgins, Esq., who was recorded fourth on the list of wealthy citizens for the sum of $1,000,000. This gentleman was determined to erecting the largest hotel in the country with 630 rooms.
The hotel had 350 workmen building it, 7 acres of carpeting, 4,000,000 bricks were used.
The hotel was the scene of Railroad magnate Jim Fisk’s shooting, and in the early 1970s when the hotel was a welfare hotel and deteriorated greatly, the rear of the hotel was converted into the Mercer Arts Center, a multi theatre and arts complex by Sy Kaback.
On a late summer day in August 1973, a section of the 8 story facade and the floors behind it all collapsed onto Broadway- killing several people, hundreds of patrons who were due to attend the theatres that very evening escaped the disaster!
The buck stopped with the city who was notified about a serious crack and “bulge” in the facade wall, and other violations, they sent an inspector out, and despite requiring corrective action within 10 days, nothing was done and the city didn’t bother following up! Of the 308 residents, 4 residents were killed, 2 dogs survived days trapped in the rubble, one was adopted by the fire department. Consider that just between Nov 1970 and March 1973 there were 450 building and health code violations recorded in the hotel. Violations included illegal alterations, leaks in the plumbing, fire alarm malfunctioning, and of course the crack and bulge in the facade wall to name but a few.
On Jan 26, 1973 the Buildings Dept was notified by an engineer doing structural renovations at the hotel that brickwork was bulging out of bond, the next day an inspector found a crack stretching from the 2nd to the 6th floor separating the bearing and facade walls. What was happing there was the facade was moving away from the bearing wall in the center where the 2 walls connected to one another which ran East to West from Broadway to Mercer St in the back.
The inspector decided to call in the chief inspector, but neither wrote an official report! They did not issue a summons or record an official violation either, they “informed” the hotel manager who promised to take immediate action.
It wasn’t until Feb 22nd- almost a month later that it was re-inspected after “officially hazardous” conditions were first discovered, a violation was recorded then. It wasn’t even re-inspected again until March 29, NO repair work had even been done despite the 10 day law.
Still nothing happened as April, May, June and July rolled on by while a major crack from the 2nd to the 6th floor went un-repaired, then Friday August 3rd came around and residents reported hearing strange noises coming out of the walls, the Buildings Dept emergency number was called by Mercer Arts owner Sy Kaback and his wife over the weekend and they told them to call on Monday! The noises became worse and plaster was falling from the ceilings in places, so at least one if not 2 callers called the fire department and they were told that “strange noises are coming out of the walls” the person at the fire dept asked the caller if they had been drinking… amazingly, in the middle of that call with the Kabacks the line went dead because that was when the collapse happened and a large section of the stone and brick facade wall fell out onto Broadway and the sidewalk.
I communicated around 1998 or so with the owner of the Mercer Arts Center: Sy Kaback, and his wife, who together operated several live performance theaters in the back of the hotel, Sy’s wife described the scene to me and her call to the fire dept.
On the day of the collapse, the Mercer Arts Center was expecting a crowd of patrons for some live performances, and the Kabacks were gravely concerned about the falling plaster and cracking and other noises in the walls, they tried calling city agencies to get a go or no go because if they cancelled the event they would have been sued for breach of contract, OTH if they had a few hundred patrons in their theaters and something happened- they would be liable.
As it happened, the collapsed cccurred just hours before the events were to begin!
After the collapse, an emergency demolition was begun to demolish the entire building, that was when this then 13 year old author discovered the site and I began exploring it top to bottom during the demolition, the little Otis elevator plate was discovered after crawling down thru a hole in the rubble to a debris filled hallway in front of the elevator. The button plate and a number of other artifacts came home with me over the many weeks of demolition, and some of these will be pictured here as well.
But let us go back before the collapse, way back, back before the hotel was built and to the LaFarge House, this illustration will perfectly show my theory, which to my knowlege no one else has hiterto come up with;
The drawing on the left in the split image would have been done before the fire on January 8, 1854, Metropolitan Hall and the adjoining La Farge House were destroyed by the fire; but the hall was rebuilt and opened in the following September, under the name of the New York Theatre and Metropolitan Opera House.
Towards the close of the same year the house was remodelled and called Laura Keene’s Varieties; and in the following year, it became Burton’s Theatre. In 1859 it became the Winter Garden and Conservatory of the Arts, the first part of the title being that by which it is best known and which it retained until its total destruction by fire, March 23, 1867.
On the left is the old LaFarge House, on the right is the Broadway Central Hotel built on the site after the LaFarge burned to the ground in a spectacular fire, those words “burned to the ground, spectacular fire” are key to my theory, because while the building burned down, the stone and brick facade REMAINED largely intact, notice the red circles showing the very same unique window surrrounds on the LaFarge facade, a classical tripointed alternating with dioclesan pedimented windows, as well as the center entrance treatment. In other words what I strongly believe they did, was they REUSED the LaFarge’s facade and where it’s 6th floor shorter windows and cornice were- they removed the cornice, added a larger more dramatic cornice plus three more floors on top and a large central tower with a mansard roof!
So when we consider this, remember- the LaFarge facade was built for a SIX story building, it was exposed to a massive fire in the rear, collapse of the floors behind it, no doubt millions of gallons of water soaked into it’s footings and surrounding earth. Add now almost 70 years of subway trains vibrating it underneath, and an illegal doorway was cut thru the East-West brick bearing wall behind it in the basement, factor in the additional weight of three more floors and it should be no surprise it finally gave out.
The failure can be traced right back to the big fire, water, and adding three more floors on top of it causing instability and settling.
Probably THE earliest photo of the hotel, on the original image it is clear that final finishing work was still being done in the rooms behind the windows whose upper half is pushed down fully open, that dates it to about 1869, the horse-drawn carriages were in use before the trolly tracks came in 1892. With a larger scan of one part of the above image reproduced below, let’s focus on the remains of a painted SIGN clearly visible on the wall that says; “–ARGE HOUSE”;
THIS is where the original LaFarge House side wall left off and the new brickwork added to the left and above it, that one arch top open window’s lower half is exactly where the short square windows of the LaFarge were located, and that elaborate cornice with it’s large scrolled brackets is where the plainer LaFarge cornice was.
Some other artifacts from the hotel include a Tycos mercury thermometer from a basement