By Alex Gelfand (’04)
Eighty-five years ago, ground was broken on the construction of a building for City College’s new School of Business and Civic Administration. Two years later, when the 16-floor structure on Lexington Avenue and 23rd Street—today known as the Field Building at 17 Lexington Avenue and to generations of Baruchians as simply “17 Lex”—was completed, it was envisioned that up to 10,000 students would eventually stream through its halls. Six elevators were tasked with transporting this multitude around an urban, vertical campus.
All recognized that the elevators’ undertaking was Herculean: the six were rarely idle and, subsequently, often in need of repair (could anything else be expected?). By the late 1940s, according to the calculations of the then School of Business and Public Administration dean Thomas L. Norton, the building’s elevators traveled approximately 18,000 miles a year, a distance equal to almost three-quarters of the circumference of the Earth.
Student elevator travails were legendary, and elevator operators were an often-colorful feature of the College landscape. Elevator-related topics frequently found their way into the pages of The Ticker; some are recounted here.
Elevator congestion in 17 Lex was a problem from the first, with some students finding it impossible to get to their next class in the allotted 10-minute change period. But, as a whole, City College downtown/Baruch students reacted with good humor to these inconveniences, as funny student-newspaper vignettes attest:
The Oct. 13, 1936, edition of The Ticker printed this wry “interview” with an elevator operator:
Although the storms of violent change may soon sweep the world, and although our own School of Business may shortly witness desperate young men and women hurling themselves to certain suffocation in an effort to secure berths on the elevators, it is reassuring to know that one man, at least, will maintain his imperturbability in the face of these onslaughts.
When questioned by The Ticker concerning the solution to the problem which the editor last week termed “pressing,” our subject, an elevator driver, responded:
“What elevator problem? There is no elevator problem. All I know is that I keep calm, cool and collected at all times. I have never been hurt.” At that moment, almost seventy earnest students were forcing an egress from the elevator, while ninety others, equally determined, were endeavoring to enter the vehicle. With the near possibility of four prostrations and two broken ankles, there were no casualties. The operator escaped unscathed.
That same year, female students were readmitted to the day session of the College (women were briefly denied admission from 1933 to 1936) and were forced to partake in the general melee. The Ticker responded to their dilemmas. One student gave the following advice to her fellow coeds: “Never cease to be a lady, but push if you must, to get into the elevators” (Sept. 29, 1936). Some suggested female-only elevators, an idea that the Feb. 21, 1938, issue was very much against:
We of the editorial board think that such a drastic step is unnecessary. Modern maidens don’t demand special privileges, along with special rights and furthermore, as Shirley Krieger expressed it, ‘Suppose a girl is going someplace with a boy and they have to take separate elevators? How can they arrange to meet again?’
Humor aside, after extensive study, a revised elevator system, which called for ascending elevators to stop on the 8th and 15th floors and descending elevators to stop on the 14th, 7th, and 2nd floors, alleviated some of the problems. “Traffic guards,” posted on some floors, worked to ensure that students got on the elevators in an orderly manner. Over the next 50 years, revisions to the 17 Lex elevator system would be made constantly, with mixed results.
Stairways weren’t the best alternative either, since they were just as crowded as the elevators and traffic patterns had to be designed for them, too.
The building’s transportation problems continued to be a source of Ticker wit:
The elevator tie-up is so acute, and the shortage of elevators so pronounced, that students are being asked to bring their own elevators. . . . A proposal has been made to utilize the space in elevators directly over the heads of all passengers. It has been mathematically deduced that nine students can be packed horizontally overhead.
(The Ticker, Mar. 4, 1946)
An April Fools’ Day edition of The Ticker championed riding the elevators as a chance for weight loss:
Steve Bird, an upper freshman majoring in nothing in particular, was almost squashed to death in the elevator last week. However, Bird had no qualms about it since much of his potbelly was stretched upward and evened out.
During that one ride, from the first to the twelfth floor, his waist went from a huge forty-eight inches to a downright skinny twenty-nine.
(The Ticker, Mar. 30, 1962)
A second April Fools’ edition recounted how even Baruch’s amazing first computer, an IBM 1620, failed to solve the problem:
The computer which was installed in the tenth floor snack bar last December is no longer operating. It suffered a complete breakdown on Friday after tackling the problem of congestion on the Baruch School elevators.
After the machine was fed all relevant data, it hummed smoothly into operation, and several minutes later came up with a suggestion to stagger class hours. The plan would have different classes starting every ten minutes instead of all classes commencing on the hour. However the computer quickly rejected its own plan realizing that bells would be ringing all day.
After laboring with the figures for several more hours, the machine began to show disturbing signs. Coded tape began pouring out of the computer with whole unintelligible symbols typed on it. Soon the whole machine began shaking violently and before grinding to a dead halt it came up with a last-ditch message that read “Bring back Harry!”
(The Ticker, Apr. 1, 1963)
There seemed to be no end of humorous writings about the six-pack.
New elevators added to the frustration and comic fodder. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, students were forced to deal with elevators in other buildings as Baruch began to hold classes in rented space. Students were now confronted with the additional challenge of first going from building to building and then trying to navigate the elevators, some of which were compared to a crowded F train and the backup of the Long Island Expressway during rush hour.
While elevator problems in rental buildings have disappeared—because rental space has almost disappeared—elevator inconvenience remains a constant to this day in 17 Lex. The good news: The renovation of this iconic Baruch College hub, begun in 2012, is slated to tackle the elevator problem once and for all. But, lest fate seem too kind to current Baruch students, whose classes are primarily held in the Newman Vertical Campus, it is that building’s escalators that are their source of frustration.
Alumni: Please consider sending us your publications, ephemera, or any other materials of your time at Baruch. Contact the archivist at Sandra.Roff@baruch.cuny.edu.
- Elevator Operators, Baruch Celebrities
- Uplifting Memories: Alumni Share Their 17 Lex Elevator Memories
- Elevator Memories Part 2: More Memories and Memorabilia of That Quintessential Transport
- An Elevator Memory from Seymour “Sy” Passman (’55): My Close Encounter with Bernard Baruch