There are few spots in a hotel more coveted than the penthouse suite.
Elevated above everyone else in the hotel, guests in the penthouse are treated to the best views and the ultimate privacy. However, up until fairly recently, the penthouse floor lacked its exclusive sheen. In fact, it was just the opposite: a second-rate floor relegated to attic space or servants’ quarters.
Before the invention of the elevator, the topmost floor of a building required physical activity to reach. The wealthy would rather not spend their time or energy climbing flights of stairs.
But with the invention of the elevator, it no longer required effort to reach the commanding views of a building’s top floor.
One historian, in an interview with the Boston Globe, likened elevators to automobiles in terms of transforming the American landscape; where cars allowed people to travel horizontally, elevators could send them thousands of feet vertically.
The first commercial passenger elevator was installed in a New York City department store in 1857, according to “Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator,” by Andreas Bernard. Three years later, the department store removed the elevator because the public refused to step foot inside of it, for fears of safety.
However, in 1859, the “vertical railway,” an enclosed version of the elevator, opened in New York’s Fifth Avenue Hotel and the Continental Hotel in Philadelphia. It was a slow lift, but one that was safer than previous versions. The elevators remained in service well into the 1870s and transformed both hotels into tourist attractions.
Elevators began to appear in office buildings but without much fanfare until Henry Hyde, a New York City businessman, decided to build the city’s tallest building in 1870. The Equitable Life Building stood at a record 130 feet and is considered by many to be the world’s first skyscraper.
By 1913, hydraulic elevators were replaced with much faster electric versions and architects began building higher and higher. But it wasn’t until the mid-1920s, according to the New York Post, that real estate developers began to tempt the elite to upper floor apartments with terraces and suspended gardens.
Once the rich saw that they could throw parties on their balconies, the penthouse one of the most exclusive — and expensive — parts of a building.