A tribute to a forgotten pocket of campus.
By Sam Hosmer
Last semester I encountered a sealed, abandoned, turn-of-the-century Otis elevator hiding at the bottom of a disused shaft in the East Asian Library stacks.
Picture the following scene: a vaguely aquamarine, very sooty chain link cage with a single-bulb light fixture fastened to the ceiling; a brass scissor door, jammed open at right; and an inspection certificate on the far wall, good through 1980. On the right there is a panel of buttons set into a hefty brass faceplate; to the left, there is a yellowed, typewritten library directory. Graffiti above it reads, “Impeach Nixon.”
It is my curse as an explorer of campus’ hidden and obscure mundanities to perpetually discover that most of the hatches and doors I open reveal nothing but boring service panels and utility equipment. Yet, here was a perfectly preserved historical artifact, embalmed in dust and hiding in plain sight, replete with surviving ephemera and the ghosts of patrons past. Standing in front of the thing, with my neck wrenched through the hatch, I could almost hear the clamorous, resonant grinding of old elevator machinery.
The sages of campus history, intimately familiar with its preeminent architectural narratives, were stumped by my discovery. It became clear that, as a piece of utilitarian machinery, the elevator never had a place in that world: it was too quotidian, too mundane. Rather, the elevator and its intact artifacts are archaeological evidence of a different world, a banal one, a world populated by the rote, perfunctory, trivial routines of daily use. If I wanted to know more, I would have to dig for it.
I trawled the archives and chased dead leads until I found out that Marsha Wagner, recently retired from the Ombuds Office, worked in the library around the time the elevator was decommissioned. I emailed her. Within 30 minutes, I received an enthusiastic reply copying several former colleagues; 24 hours and two connections later, I was talking to Ken Harlin, who used to park his bike in the old elevator’s machine room.
Harlin, who for many decades has been the library’s Access Services Manager, told me that our mystery conveyance was still in use when he joined the staff in 1969. In 1980, when the library was renovated, the elevator was replaced; costs to remove it were prohibitive, so the shaft was sealed and used to run cabling.
To the best of his knowledge, there are no immediate plans to remove it. Thus, in the basement it will stay—along with his bike, which, as far as he knows, is still there.
Our elevator is a perfect example of the poetry of a quiet, forgotten place. When history’s main attractions are abstracted over time and delivered in the pages of a book or a lecture, intrigue comes from the imagination, which brings its own distinct joys. But the banal and ephemeral—the unremembered elevator, the fervid political graffiti etched on its walls—deliver history in the form of palpable, tactile, dust-embalmed reality.
As an architecture student, I am preoccupied with the ways that buildings age. To borrow a tired cliché, Columbia’s campus is best viewed as an evolving textile, in which the constraints of urban density and a perennial shortage of space require constant adaptation, reconfiguration, and replacement. The tantalizing products of that ongoing, overlapping process of fission and recombination are these mundane spaces, once used by so many without thought and now utterly, unceremoniously forgotten. They are still sitting among us, in the walls and under our feet, waiting for us to find them.
On its own, an elevator might have no historical resonance. But that is a false assumption made on the basis of its exclusion from campus’ more spellbinding architectural narratives, one enabled by our position as uninitiated onlookers, inhabitants of contemporary reality, with no direct connection to it beyond its unexpectedness and our curiosity. So, picture the ordinary spaces you use every day: the pathways you walk on to get to class, the doors you open when you enter a room, the room itself. These are the scenery for our experiences; they are, despite not having their own independent meaning, intractable from our lives, and therefore deeply personal. It’s no surprise, then, that if you ask the right person—if you find your Ken Harlin—their enthusiasm will betray that these bygone spaces aren’t actually mundane at all.
Try to remember your own mundane spaces. You never know when they might end up as someone else’s discovery. And, once Kent reopens with enhanced fire suppression and a new lease on life, go check out our elevator—but don’t tell anyone I told you.