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Sunday, Oct. 09, 2011

  • In "From Ascending Rooms to Express Elevators: A History of the Passenger Elevator in the 19th Century," author Lee Gray details the early beginnings of vertical transportation. The book, with more than 175 illustrations, is available at www.elevatorbooks.com for $80.

Lee Gray sat several inches taller than usual, boosted by a thick phonebook on a chair in a hotel suite, a skinny bookshelf behind him, a cameraman in front of him. A crewmember on top of the bed reflected the glare from a shiny spatula down toward him.

"It looked like I was sitting in an office with a bookcase behind me," said Gray, after watching his segment from an episode about elevators for The History Channel's "Modern Marvels" show.

For the last 29 years, elevators have taken Gray to places most of us don't get to go. As one of the country's leading experts on anything to do with vertical transportation, interviewers often track him down in his office at UNC Charlotte, where he's associate dean for the College of Arts and Architecture.

Besides The History Channel, Gray has appeared on shows on PBS and the National Geographic Channel.

They have good reasons for seeking him out. Gray has researched elevators for decades. In 2002 he wrote a book detailing their history. He just finished his 100th article for Elevator World, a trade magazine. He serves as curator for the Elevator Museum, a virtual exhibit online that chronicles the history of vertical transportation.

With all that experience, Gray can take you up and down the passenger elevator's timeline, from the first one, called "the flying chair," that is said to have existed in the palace of the 17th-century French king Louis XIV, to the fastest elevator today, which runs up Taipei 101 and travels 84 floors in 39 seconds.

He can rattle off dozens of songs that mention the word "elevator," from the risqué party records of the 1940s to the unabashed hits from modern times, such as Aerosmith's "Love in an Elevator."

He can even provide a list and synopsis of nearly every movie that uses an elevator as a primary place of action, including foreign films with no English subtitles. They're easy to follow, said Gray: "When you trap people in a small room, there's only so much you can do."

What Gray can't tell you is why he is so interested in elevators.

"I have no idea why they fascinate me the way they do," he said.

"All I know is that I am constantly learning something new about how they operated, how they influence people, how people reacted to them."

Elevators of the past were not what they are today. Back in the 1860s, the first mechanical passenger elevators made their debuts in high-end hotels and department stores, where patrons were treated to the latest luxuries, such as indoor plumbing and steam heat.

"And now you have this machine that takes you upstairs and you don't have to walk," said Gray.

Back then, the ride in an elevator was an experience, complete with upholstered benches, dark wood, mirrors, a gas chandelier and an elevator operator to slowly and gracefully take you to your floor.

"It's not about speed. It's all about comfort and luxury," said Gray.

When commercial buildings began seeing the benefits of elevators, the goals shifted.

"Even in the 1870s, American business was about speed," said Gray.

"It's not about slow. It's not about graceful. It's about 'I want to get there right now.' "

That hasn't changed. Today, after waiting more than half a minute, people often begin mashing the button impatiently if the elevator hasn't shown, he said.

"This does nothing, by the way," said Gray. "It doesn't do anything to speed things up."

Although restored elevators from the past still exist - such as those in the Biltmore Estate in Asheville - updated safety codes have left many completely overhauled, their original décor removed.

The way people feel about them hasn't changed, though, thanks in part to the movies, said Gray.

"Hollywood makes them look dangerous," he said.

"But if you look at how many miles people travel in an elevator, it is the safest mode of transportation you can get in."

Columnist Lisa Thornton writes about interests at UNC Charlotte. Email her at lisathornton@carolina.rr.com.

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