Posts Tagged ‘Elisha Graves Otis’

An Historic Elevator

On today’s lunchtime bike ride I stopped to pick up a submarine sandwich at a place called Potbelly Sandwich Works, which is a restaurant chain that began in 1977 in Illinois, but opened locations throughout the D.C. area only a few years ago.  The location I went to today is located in the Litwin Building at 637 Indiana Avenue (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Penn Quarter neighborhood.  However, the chain is now worldwide. In addition to the United States, they also operate restaurant locations in the United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, Canada and India.

As I waited for my sandwich to be made I took notice of a very old elevator.  It is not currently in use, but can be seen located behind a sheet of hazy plexiglass.  Later I checked into the old elevator, and I found out that at one time, locals claimed that it was installed by the Otis Elevator Company in 1853.  If true, that would have meant that the elevator not only pre-dated the Civil War, but would have made it one of the oldest elevators in the world.

The Litwin Building was so named after the family of Fred Litwin, who ran a furniture and antiques shop in the building for 52 years before retiring in 2003 due to health reasons.  In fact, I remember visiting his store a number of time earlier in my career and talking with him.  And because Mr. Litwin was enamored with the old elevator, and ran one of the most social business in the city where he would often talk with customers at length about a variety of topics, including about the elevator, information about it made its way into local newspapers.

The 19th-century elevator that was hand-operated with two heavy ropes. Its safety device, a carriage spring that latched into bars in the elevator shaft if either of the ropes gave way, made it unique. Elisha Graves Otis invented the device in the early 1850’s and patented it.   This is why locals thought the elevator was made by Otis.  But after extensive research by the an archivist for the Otis Elevator Company, it was determined that the elevator is actually a Bates elevator, most likely dating to the 1870’s or 1880’s.  So even though it’s not one of the oldest elevators in the world, it just might be the oldest operating elevator in this country.

Mr. Litwin tried to sell the elevator at the time he retired.  In an article in The Washington Post he is quoted as saying, “It’s awful when you have a love affair with a machine and find that nobody wants it … We’ve called a lot of people involved with elevators to try to make a home for this.”  But despite being unable to, the elevator has survived.  The building was awarded National Historic status, so when The Potbelly Corporation bought the property, the restaurant was told they could not remove the historic elevator.

As I often say, there’s always something to see in D.C.  And from just looking around while I was standing in line waiting for their signature sandwich named “The Wreck” (salami, Angus roast beef, oven roasted turkey, hickory smoked ham with melted Swiss cheese topped with fresh lettuce, tomato and mayo on a multigrain roll), I was able to see, and later learn about, a small but unique part of this city’s history.

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