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September262008

Forget Jet-Paks: We Demand More Skybridges for New York

Filed under: The Catbird Seat: Friends & Guests   Tagged: , ,

Jonathan Taylor writes:

A few weeks ago, a friend and I were admiring a skyscraper in lower Manhattan, the American International Building at 70 Pine Street. Its tower—well described as an Art Deco hypodermic needle—is so thin and set back that it’s hard to look at from street level, but the almost parodically Deco style of its lobby can be seen despite the security guards posted to ward off idle venturers. A few weeks later, after the rescue of American International Group, I confirmed my guess that the building is the company’s headquarters (the Federal Reserve Bank of New York is conveniently nearby) but learned that it hasn’t always been. It was completed in 1932 as Sixty Wall Tower, known also as the Cities Service building, because it was the headquarters of oil company Cities Service Co. until the company moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1974. (I remember from growing up in Tulsa the ubiquity of the name “Cities Service,” probably as where a lot of kids’ dads worked. A relatively literal-minded child, I was perplexed by the company name’s stubborn failure to make clear to me what kind of company it was. Cities Service later became Citgo, now owned by the government of Venezuela.)

Frequently noted about the Cities Service building is the fact that it originally had eight “double-decker” elevators that served the floors above 28, two floors at a time, saving on elevator shafts and maximizing rentable floor space. In the April 30, 1932, issue of The New Yorker, E.B. White wrote a Talk piece about these new Otis elevators. White’s description of the system’s logic made it crystal clear, only after making it painfully clear that I should have been more confused by it than I thought I was:

People seem to think that to get into a double-decker, you have to walk either up a flight of stairs or down a flight. This isn’t so. The Cities Service building has two street entrance levels (on account of the way the land slopes off), and no matter whether you enter downstairs or upstairs, there will be four elevators that will make the even stops and four that will make the odd stops. No walking. In other words, when the double-deckers are at the starting position, their upper decks are being loaded with people coming in from one street, their lower decks with people coming from another street; four will stop ODD/EVEN and four EVEN/ODD.

The double-decker system was phased out in the building in the 1960s, according to this 1998 Times article. Among the buildings that today use double-deckers is the Citigroup Center in Midtown, itself the subject of a gripping May 29, 1995, New Yorker article by Joe Morgenstern (department: “City Perils”) about the discovery of a structural defect that might have caused it to collapse in a major hurricane, and the secret, after-hours work undertaken to correct it.

White ended his Talk piece on the elevators by noting, a bit sourly, that Sixty Wall Tower “isn’t in Wall Street, and can’t even be seen from Wall Street,” which is one block away. But the name stems from another of the building’s gewgaws, even more interesting from the point of view of that wonderful topic, the futurism of the past. The tower was joined to another belonging to Cities Service, at 60 Wall Street, by a connecting bridge on the 16th floor, allowing it to lay claim to that address. The bridge is now gone, but in that age, when the city was rapidly levitating upward in a skyscraper-building race, such bridges might well have seemed to be the logical wave of the future. In light of what seems to be the omnipotence of real estate values in the city’s economy, it’s still hard to believe that someone hasn’t found a way to profit from turning more corridors of air space into rights of way. That dream—and a hint of the obstacles to it—can be found in another Talk piece, of October 21, 1933, about the city’s taxation and regulation of such bridges (then numbering about 100, according to the article). They required the approval of the Board of Estimate, the Borough President, the Fire Department, and the Municipal Art Commission.

Somewhere in there (the piece is not clear) was the crucial say-so of “Edward Libaire, Assistant Engineer of the Division of Franchises” and “the city’s bridge expert for twenty-eight years.” Libaire rejected a proposal for another skybridge between the Cities Service tower and 60 Wall Street, on the second-story level, arguing that it would “hide too much of the sky.” But despite his stern standards for bridges that “won’t shut off too much light and that people will admire,” Libaire “pictures New York in 1983 with block-square skyscrapers connected with bridges that form great aerial highways.”

Now that New York City’s revenue base is being threatened by the financial crisis, perhaps Mayor Bloomberg would like to take a new look at skybridges. The Talk piece says that at that time—during the original Great Depression—“Nearly $400,000 of the yearly income of the city is from its tax on bridges between buildings.” (That’s $6.7 million in today’s dollars, according the federal government’s own inflation calculator.)

By the way, the Sun in January carried this update on the state of skybridges in the city today.

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